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Virtual worlds, real opportunities

Updated Thursday, 31st May 2007

Businesses are using multiplayer online games to promote their products. Do these games have a useful potential for trialling new financial and social theories?

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I suspect there is now a new way to characterise the population. Before now, you were either left-handed or right-handed, you could either roll your tongue or you couldn’t or you loved marmite or you hated it….now it would seem you either love MMOGs and spend half your life playing them, or you can’t see the point in them. And if you need to ask what an MMOG is, then you are most definitely with me in the latter group.

Massive multiplayer online games or MMOGs (also sometimes called massively multiplayer online role playing games, MMORPGs) are a range of games played with many others – often thousands and even millions of others -  via the internet. They seem to come in two flavours – either based upon gnomes, trolls and slaying dragons and other beasties or a virtual form of real life, that seems to be nothing like real life as you get to decide for yourself just how beautiful and sociable you are.

As I say, they don’t work for me. In fact the only comment that seems to come to mind when I think about these games is…why? But this lack of understanding may not be my fault. The traditional users of MMOGs are between 18 and 35, and although they are allegedly popular with women, with approximately 30% of players being female, as an older woman (just slightly older), I am not the target demographic. When it comes to online games, older women, or so I have read, ‘enjoy playing short puzzles and logic games’.

'Calvin Klein has announced plans to launch a virtual fragrance'

Whilst these games may not appeal to my natural tastes, as a business and management academic, there may be more professional reasons to give them further thought. These games appear to be offering organisations a new channel to promote, and perhaps eventually distribute, their products and services. Adidas, Toyota and Dell have all created content in the MMOG Second Life. The clothing store, American Apparel, have opened a store in this virtual world, where players can buy items for their virtual alter ego, and Calvin Klein has announced plans to launch a virtual fragrance. 

These virtual worlds have also been identified as a potential laboratory for social scientists such as economists. Economics is an area where it is notoriously difficult to test theories and compare outcomes of different actions. Whilst simple experiments can be set up in classrooms and labs, unless you have a small country at your disposal, it is very hard to set up situations with stakes that the participants really care about or which involve large numbers of individuals over long periods of time. The virtual worlds created in MMOGs meet these criteria perfectly and could provide powerful test beds for new ideas on fiscal or monetary policy or areas of social policy. Indeed, the academic credibility of these games is already established, with one professor in the US securing funding to construct a virtual game world to try out such experiments and Brunel University appointing the UK’s first professor of digital games, whose area of study include MMOGs.

So, perhaps there is something in these games for all of us after all……or perhaps I should just stick to the short puzzles and logic games!

Further reading

  • Virtual world, real millions - the Money Programme investiagtes the millions of people opting out of real life and signing up to "live" in computer worlds
  • What makes an entrepreneur? - take a test to discover if you’ve got what it takes
  • Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games by Edward Castronova, published by University of Chicago Press
  • Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, published by IB Tauris
  • Understanding Digital Games by Jason Rutter and Jo Bryce, published by Sage Publications
 

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