Virtual Nations

Virtual Nations

William Sims Bainbridge (National Science Foundation, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-254-1.ch014
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Abstract

Virtual worlds are computer environments in which large numbers of human beings may interact, do useful work for each others, and build enduring social connections. For example, in World of Warcraft an estimated nine million subscribers form short-term action-oriented groups and long-term guilds, employing a variety of software tools to manage division of labor, spatial distributions, activity planning, individual reputations, and channels of communication, to accomplish a variety of often complex goals. A broader system of essentially permanent allegiances, comparable to current national governments and major corporations, frames the volatile forming and dissolving of small and medium-sized cooperative groups. New social technologies have a clear potential to supplement and render more flexible the existing structures of government, but they may also represent a significantly new departure in human social organization. The chapter will describe the diversity of information technology tools used to support social cooperation in virtual worlds, and then explain how they could be adapted to mediate in new ways between government and its citizens.
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Two Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, offer models of future computer-organized virtual groups that could become extremely important for digital government. Virtual worlds are computer environments in which large numbers of human beings may interact, do useful work for each other, and build enduring social connections. For example, in World of Warcraft ten million subscribers form short-term action-oriented groups called parties and long-term groups called guilds, employing a variety of software tools to manage division of labor, spatial distributions, activity planning, individual reputations, and channels of communication, to accomplish a variety of often complex goals (Nardi & Harris, 2006; Williams et al., 2006; Ducheneaut, et al., 2006, 2007). A broader system of essentially permanent allegiances, comparable to current national governments and major corporations, frames the volatile forming and dissolving of small and medium-sized cooperative groups. Developed for online virtual worlds, these social technologies have a clear potential to supplement and render more flexible the existing structures of government, but they may also represent a significantly new departure in human social organization.

Before we can analyze these possibilities, we need a clear picture of what today’s virtual worlds actually are like. Both SL and WoW run on ordinary desktop or laptop computers, although fast processors and graphics cards enhance the experience. They use the conventional computer screen for display, and today’s virtual worlds are not to be confused with virtual reality (VR). For decades, engineers, scientists, and science fiction writers have imagined physically immersive VR environments, that surround the user with three-dimensional images mimicking a dynamic physical environment at high fidelity. Two distinct approaches are commonly used. First, a computer-generated scene may be projected on the walls, floor and ceiling of a room, often called a cave, perhaps adjusting to the actions of the user and simulating such visual phenomena as shadows and movement. Second, the user may wear a head-mounted display that presents different images to the two eyes, thus achieving stereoscopic illusion of depth. Today’s virtual worlds employ neither of these methods (Schroeder and Bailenson, 2008).

However, the experience of dwelling for long in a virtual world reveals that the conventional view of immersive environments may be wrong. Despite the lack of expensive VR equipment, these worlds can be extremely immersive in a psychological sense (Castronova, 2005; Taylor, 2006; Boellstorff, 2008). I find WoW especially so.

First of all, a number of features of human vision harmonize well with existing technology. My own computer setup places a wide computer monitor about 18 inches from my eyes, so it fills most of my vision. Humans can see details only near the center of their field of view, and peripheral vision detects nothing more than gross movements, neither detail nor even color. We use several methods to perceive in three dimensions, and binocular vision is only one of them. In WoW, distant mountains are hazy, just as in the real world, simulating the distance effect of the opacity of the atmosphere. Almost all virtual worlds display distant objects smaller than near objects, and show objects growing in angular size in a realistic manner as the viewer subjectively approaches them. A natural consequence of this is that straight lines provide the perspective depth cues that Renaissance painters labored so hard to master. Thus, rapid movement of the person through the scene, for example running through a forest in WoW, correctly shows objects flowing past in three dimensions.

A second insight concerning the immersive quality of virtual worlds is that action inside them can become so meaningful to participants, that emotions make the environment feel real. In World of Warcraft, one undertakes a number of quests and other goal-oriented activities that give the world purpose. Interacting with other players and the dangerous environment, one feels anger, fear, surprise, anticipation, pride, shame, and even sometimes gratitude. Thus, the world is psychologically impressive, therefore immersive.

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