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Friday, June 22, 2007

The New Laboratory?

posted by on June 22 at 12:57 PM

Posted by Sage Van Wing

The MacArthur Foundation is breaking new ground in philanthropy— they’ve given $550,000 to the Center on Public Diplomacy to stage events in Second Life, the online virtual world.

According to this morning’s New York Times article, the grant will sponsor events to stimulate discussions about how foundations can address real-world problems like immigration and poverty. It is also something of a testing ground for the foundation — they will offer grants and develop programs in the virtual world before rolling them out in the real one. Does this strike anyone else as somewhat creepy?

Granted, I’ve never visited Second Life and I don’t plan on having an avatar anytime soon. But couldn’t you find a better way to spend half a million, MacArthur Foundation? Is this virtual world really the new testing ground for sociologists and psychiatrists and advertising execs? Do people behave in a virtual world exactly as they do in the real one? And if so, what is the point?

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Personally, until they make it easier to work with Second Life on Linux or Mac machines, I'm not going to bother.

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 22, 2007 12:59 PM

SecondLife is a fucking joke. It always has been.

Every time someone mentions it, all I can think of are the countless times 'hackers' have tossed flying dicks on all of the characters.

Posted by Mr. Poe | June 22, 2007 1:00 PM

Is Sage Van Wing your real name?
I think it would be cool if you had an avatar.

I can picture it now- a plant, flying away, with Ford Econoline written on it.

Posted by brandon | June 22, 2007 1:05 PM

Speaking as a tester... the benefits of using a global virtual world that come to mind are:
*Easier to get participants without being dependent on location.
*Double-blind on participants; they can manipulate visual and even cultural cues of the participants in their avatars.
*Controlled environment; it's a lot easier to, say, create a virtual office than a physical one. Like they say in TFA:
You can start things very cheaply in Second Life, play with them and let them germinate, and then put more behind them if and when they take off.

Posted by K | June 22, 2007 1:35 PM

Presumably those last few questions would have been answered in the grant application.

Posted by Patrick | June 22, 2007 1:35 PM

I hope Pew doesnt go down this road

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 22, 2007 1:37 PM

I agree with K. I've done research in online games even though I have no interest in playing them for fun myself. It's just SO much easier to control variables online. I don't know if this applies directly to the MacArthur grant.

I saw a new virtual world the other day: Virtual Lower East Side: "a ridiculously-realistic virtual version of New York City’s Lower East Side, a.k.a. the place where every angst-ridden, music-loving teenager dreams of running away to."

Posted by jamier | June 22, 2007 1:59 PM

But who gives shit if you can "control variables"? What's the point of your philanthropy? Are you going to serve virtual clients? The need is in the real world. While these idiots are busy jerking off in Second Life, actual humans are in need. How's Second Life going to help them?

Are we going to give the homeless Second Life accounts? Here you go, bud, see, here's your little virtual sleeping bag!

Posted by Fnarf | June 22, 2007 2:36 PM

Isn't the whole idea of real life that you can't control anything? I can just imagine this project creating excellent models for dealing with serious problems in the world. Then, those models get applied to real life and every single one fails.

What a fucking waste of money.

Posted by keshmeshi | June 22, 2007 3:37 PM

That's not how experimental science works. I don't want to speak about this MacArthur Foundation grant in particular because I don't know exactly what they're going to do, but in general terms control is essential for science to work.

For example, you can make a male avatar and a female avatar and have them say the exact same thing in the exact same place, and measure how the participants react. The only variable that changes is male vs. female. In real life, there are all kinds of other variables, since the male and female experimenters would actually be different people and they react in often unmeasurable ways. Plus, the virtual experiment would be much less expensive and time consuming (very important in social science).

That's a very simple example, and you always have to consider how the results generalize to the real world, but there are situations where virtual experiments are very justified.

Plus, in a world where every teenager is growing up with video games and MySpace, studying virtual worlds for their own sake (ie, not generalizing to the real world) is becoming very relevant.

Posted by jamier | June 22, 2007 6:29 PM

From the NYT article it seems like the main purpose is fund raising and maybe education and involvement. Since one NGO raised $82,000 in a "virtual relay for life" I can see how this could pay off... literally, for non-profits. Similarly, a virtual world could be an avenue for health promotion/education. It doesn't seem like they are planning to serve "virtual clients" or offer homeless people "virtual homes" to live in (during library hours).

I personally think this is an example of the bloated NGO field that does not support long term structural change. And, I think virtual communities sound utterly boring. BUT, lets say a million teenagers use this and someone could come up with a good STD prevention ad, then, well, if it works it works.

Posted by Jude Fawley | June 22, 2007 9:23 PM

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