Virtual Worlds: A Social Experiment of Real Value

Ludlow's dual life
Ludlow's dual life

Yesterday, Peter Ludlow opened the second week of the 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference with a riveting presentation on virtual communities, cultures and governance. This year’s conference is titled ‘Breaking Down Barriers.’ Accordingly, Ludlow takes us into the virtual world of Second Life and provides a glimpse of how individuals, from a standpoint of anonymity, nonetheless construct communities, cultures, and even forms of governance that resolve inevitable conflicts.

Second Life is the height of embedded social networking. It is a platform where people can assume any identity they wish by constructing a highly customizable avatar. The content of the virtual world is also completely user designed. Players construct objects, buildings, business establishments, and much more. Each player travels through the virtual world as his avatar, and can engage with, modify, and construct, various objects, and most importantly can interact with the avatars of other players.

These interactions create various communities. Ludlow defines a virtual community as a group of individuals spatially separated but engaged in a broad range of shared social activities through non-face-to-face forms of communication. A community might form around a virtual night-club; regularly meeting at the same spot and intensively interacting. Or, a community might form around a business venture, for example, constructing a new virtual night-club. The opportunities for interaction within Second Life are plenty. And, as in the real world, these interactions provide the basis for enduring relationships, friendships, alliances, but also enmities.

Ludlow argues that in Second Life we find not only a variety of communities but also a variety of cultures. These are the result of the robust forms of interactions that Second Life affords. Different communities develop different norms of conduct. The Goreans for example, are a group of individuals that engage in BDSM role-playing in medieval settings. They have specific meeting places, and specific norms for engagement. But, further, they also have means to disseminate and preserve these norms, in the form of virtual newspapers, books, and more, as is essential to being a culture.

Philosophers and researchers of various domains are especially interested in Second Life because it provides an experimental setting for assessing the complex interactions between different (and at times, combating) cultures. An especially important culture that Ludlow discusses is the Griefers – the virtual world’s terrorists. Their aim is to harass, humiliate, and offend various other players, and even to embark on concerted assaults on various virtual institutions.

Clearly the presence of such a malevolent culture is a problem for others. It calls for the organization of defense mechanisms. As Ludlow says, the Greifers are like viruses within the community of Second Life, and the community’s response is to create antibodies. This is where governance begins – conflict resolution. The community develops robust institutions that target Greifers, such as virtual paramilitary organizations that enforce norms of conduct.

The norms governing these institutions might come from various domains: from other virtual platforms (e.g., Sims Online, WWII Online), from real world institutions (e.g., military, UN, etc.), or from the combined ingenuity of the diverse cultures pervading Second Life. Interestingly, this is the manifestation of bottom-up social evolution. Governing bodies are not mandated top-down by the developers of Second Life, but emerge as a response by the communities themselves to conflict.

From an academic standpoint, Second Life is an experiment in the evolution of governance, and provides novel opportunities to experiment with different modes of conflict resolution. Indeed, from Ludlow’s discussion it appears that force is not always the best means for resolution. Violence tends to breed more violence. Rather, the most effective means for resolving conflicts is, in many cases, simply to bring together the conflicting parties, perhaps in the presence of a third party, trusted by both, and discuss the dispute openly. This may be a precursor to the development of a virtual judicial system (alongside the enforcing institutions mentioned above).

In real life, we are born into an antecedently socially structured reality. We spend our lives navigating this social structure, and if we are lucky we also manage to influence it slightly. As social scientists, we can study the structures of society by appeal to case studies: the civil rights movement, the tribal wars of central Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and others. We are, by and large, limited to the role of observers or interpreters. However, in Second Life we have an opportunity to do true empirical science; to intervene and manipulate the mechanisms underlying social dynamics and evolution. This is an extraordinary opportunity, and one that social scientists from around the globe should pay attention to.

Related articles:

£1.99 - small The Philosophy of Social Science: Metaphysical and Empirical
By Francesco Guala , University of Exeter
(Vol. 2, September 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Avatars and Agents
Ning Wang and Skip Rizzo
The International Encyclopedia of Communication

Online Relationships
Malcolm R. Parks
The International Encyclopedia of Communication

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