Multiplayer online computer games are expected to generate more than $1-billion in revenue for the first time in 2004, according to a new prediction.
But as well as providing financial riches, some researchers believe the virtual communities built within these complex artificial worlds may also provide academic riches by providing a unique new way to study social, economic and legal phenomena.
"What is unique is the ability of an outside observer to see, so clearly, how communities act," says Edward Castronova, an economist at California State University at Fullerton who has studied the economies built up in such games.
The bulk of the $1.3-billion earnings predicted by British analysts the Themis Group will come from player subscriptions to games such as Everquest, the Sims Online and Star Wars Galaxies. But around $200-million is also expected to be generated by in-game advertising and sales of player accounts and virtual possessions.
Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORGs) are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In games such as The Sims Online tens of thousands of users have created unique online personas that live complex virtual lives within a diverse community of other users.
The parallels between such virtual worlds and real life were highlighted last week when a report alleging organized crime and prostitution within a precinct of The Sims Online caused controversy.
Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, published an online newspaper for the virtual Sims community of Alphaville called the Alphaville Herald. Ludlow reported that some players routinely befriended new characters in order to trick them into handing over possessions.
He also described a virtual brothel in which characters offered sex chat for "simoleans," the game's currency. Ludlow's character has since been ejected from the game, allegedly because he linked to Web sites carrying code that can be used to cheat inside the game.
Castronova says the controversy "illustrates the irascible nature of human communities. It is a thoroughly designed environment, and yet it seems that the community does not act as the designers, or anyone else, intended."
He believes the case shows that such online games could tell us something about the evolution of social groups. "For example, if you ever wondered whether tension between leaders and the press is somehow generic to human society or rather a quirky artifact of our democracy, well, now you know, from Ludlow's case, that it is generic."
Richard Sherwin, at New York Law School, also sees the research potential of online games: "They are a sort of parallel universe for creating socio-legal systems from scratch. And so long as you have a porous border between games and the real world you're going to have a lot of crossover."
But online games are also resulting in new social phenomena, according to Jason Rutter, at the University of Manchester in England. He cites the case of a woman who used The Sims Online to get over the breakup of a relationship by creating a character based on her ex-boyfriend and keeping him locked in a dark room.