Virtual Worlds, Real Rules

I am off to Washington, DC to attend the 31st Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy known to all as TPRC, for Telecommunications Policy Research Council. Here’s the abstract of Virtual Worlds, Real Rules (.pdf), the paper I’ll be co-presenting with Caroline Bradley — who is more than just a co-author:

In Virtual Worlds such as Ultima Online and Everquest, the Internet may accidentally provide an environment that lends itself well to the testing of legal rules.

A growing literature suggests that there is a relationship between certain legal rules and economic well-being. Data about the economic consequences of rules would enormously enrich debates over economic regulation. Unfortunately, in the real world experimenting with legal rules can be costly and risky. Some scholars of comparative law attempt to draw lessons by comparing the diverse experiences of different countries, but these efforts too often fall prey to errors of cultural, not to mention legal, translation.

Virtual worlds could permit experiments without the real-world costs of bad rules or regulatory competition. Existing role playing games tend to include internal market regulations that resemble those seen in Western capitalist economies. These rules could be changed, or different versions of the game might use different variants. Online role playing games would provide better data than economic models because it should be possible to design the games to reduce the number of assumptions involved. Moreover, game participants are likely to care about outcomes more than participants in laboratory-based experiments, if only because resource constraints force these to be conducted for low stakes.

Despite the name, and the historic focus on straight telecoms, in the past four or five years TPRC emerged as the place to go for interesting work on Internet and e-commerce. Uniquely among the conferences I attend, the organizers were not only interdisciplinary, but managed a good mix of business school and law school types. Even more unusual was the positively military insistence that papers be in on time, well before the conference, or you lost your free admission. In my experience TPRC draws very good papers from very good people. In its former venue TPRC had great soft chairs in the common area, where you could sit for hours talking to colleagues while missing out on sitting on the hard chairs in the lecture rooms.

TPRC lost a lot of its funding, and isn’t providing subsidies for travel or hotels this year. It also has a new venue at the George Mason law school (this will be my first visit there). That resulted, I think, in a slightly less interesting set of papers than usual, at least outside the telecoms area, although there’s still some good stuff. More worrying, however, is the impact of Hurricane Isabel. This year’s conference is supposed to start today, and the web site says it’s going ahead as scheduled, but I’ve heard from a number of friends that they aren’t going, either because their flights were cancelled, or out of general caution. Indeed, DC airports are reported closed until noon today. As it happens, my flight isn’t until this afternoon, and so far it’s showing as on time, so I’m going, although it’s unclear how much of an audience there will be — and more importantly how much fun the hallways will be.

This paper is something special for me. It’s my third collaborative paper, but the first time I’ve ever collaborated with my U.Miami colleague Caroline Bradley, who is also my wife. Working with her turned out to be surprisingly easy and pleasant — we are used to one another and not only in the same time zone, but on the same home network. I think we’ve got a strong first draft of what will be a fun and interesting paper. The best part, though, is that Caroline did most of the thinking. We were driving south down Red Road one day, and I was describing what I’d learned about virtual worlds to Caroline. I was particularly struck by the way in which the mercantile rules adopted in some of the more popular games replicated or borrowed actual rules we use in real life.

“There’s got to be a paper in there somewhere,” I said.
“There is,” Caroline replied, and sketched out the main ideas you’ll find in our paper.

Virtual Worlds is a hot topic. There’s going to be a conference in New York soon, and there’s a neat new blog called Terra Nova devoted to discussing academic questions arising from MMORPGs generally (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, if you were wondering). They’re pretty sharp: Dan Hunter, one of the bloggers, already has an item up noting our paper. Blogs move fast.

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5 Responses to Virtual Worlds, Real Rules

  1. Scipio says:

    Have you examined A Tale in the Desert? It’s a very entertaining and self-governing MMOG that I played for about a month before my schedule became too busy. There’s a highly successful legal system in place, mostly a matter of plebiscites. I think it may suffer from the same sort of problems as “the Swedish solution” in that you have to be the sort of player who prefers a social and building experience to Everquest.

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  5. Excellent paper Michael – From Habermas to Virtual Worlds. What about the Virtual World of Hate Speech – From text to algorithms?
    I shall run a feature on my blog – when time permits.


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