Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

April 12, 2009

MMOs for Economics research

Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. I can’t claim this idea for my own, but I was talking to some guy called Ian while at EnvEcon. Unfortunately I didn’t pick up his last name but he is currently a masters student on Imperial College’s Environmental Technology course and speciailising in Environmental Economics and Policy (yes, the same course and option that I did).

Anyway, he mentioned the idea of testing out economic theories in Second Life. Which, when I thought about it, sounded like an absolutely astonishing idea. Obviously there would be many caveats, a few of which I will discuss, but, unless someone can point out something I am missing, it seems like an stonking good idea. Data from everquest and WOW has already been pulled for study by social scientists ( ), so it is perhaps only another step to design economic experiments in Second Life.

The obvious caveat would be that second-life characters are virtual. Unless you are one of the truly obsessed, the welfare of your second-life character is not going to be as important as your own welfare. Furthermore, the wealth of your character doesn’t (and I am guessing here, I have never played second life or even read that much about it) affect the health of your character. You will also probably take higher risks with your character than you would in your real life. This all said, I know there are people out there who put a lot of time and energy into their online virtual characters, which may change reduce these issues somewhat if you could somehow cherrypick your players.

Then there are the moral implications – if you design an economic experiment in second life, do you have to tell the players? If not, are there moral implications in the fact that people are participating in an experiment without knowing it? If you do, will this change behaviour due to Observer Effect?

Then there are the socio-economic factors in play. Who are the people playing second life? My guess is that the majority of the population is made up of young/middle age (Late 20s to 40s) people, probably middle class, and probably at least slightly geeky. This will undoubtedly affect the decisions they make for their characters.

Links: Article talking about whether Second Life’s economy is in recession – Showing that yes, Second Life does have an analysable economy.
Google search for second life economics

Having said all this though, I think it is a very interesting concept and lots more thought should be given to it. Perhaps social scientists and computer scientists can get together to build a MMO specifically designed to carry out social experiments and selectively invite people to play with a bit of cheap talk*?

Comments, discussion?

(H/t Tom for first coming up with the articles on social scientists data mining MMORPGs).

* Cheap talk is used in suveys that ask participants how much they are willing to pay for a service or a good to get more realistic amounts. This is achieved by saying something along the lines of “In these kinds of surveys many people say they are willing to pay more than they actually are willing to pay. Please think carefully before stating your amount, evaluate your finances, and ask yourself whether you really are willing to pay the amount you state”. In this case, of course, it would be something along the lines of “Look, we know this is a game, but pretend the outcomes really affect you, and act accordingly”.


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