My colleagues and I have been doing research in virtual worlds for many years (particularly on games like Everquest), and I would agree with Dr. Bainbridge that doing research in online environments has lots of advantages over offline research at the very least in terms of cost-effectiveness.
What's more, online worlds have consistently been shown to have a disinhibiting effect in research participation. This can lead to increased levels of honesty and therefore higher validity in the case of self-report.
The nature of the medium means that a relatively high degree of anonymity can be maintained, and participants may feel more comfortable answering sensitive questions than in a face-to-face situation.
Such environments can also provide access to socially unskilled” individuals who may not have taken part in the research if it was offline.
Online communities also provide a potentially global pool of participants and may help in the conducting of large-scale studies not possible in the offline world. Furthermore, researchers can study extreme and uncommon behaviours as well as make cross-cultural comparisons. Concepts such as ‘self' and ‘identity' can be explored particularly when examining such online activities as gender swapping and the way people utilise their avatars.
Although researching in online environments is a relatively new area of activity, its success at engaging large groups of remotely located users has meant that early research projects have already begun to use multiplayer online role-play gaming approaches as a means for engaging and retaining large remotely located learner groups, and for supporting collaborative learning objectives and ‘communities of practice'.
Multiplayer online role-play games can be useful in studying group interactions, group dynamics and group processes. For instance, the military has used these games to research leadership and deception in collaborative group decision-making.
Online worlds can be used to explore the psychosocial benefits of using games to support collaborative learning and exploration, but can also be used to build up an evidence-base that can be used by researchers from a range of different disciplines.
I certainly think that online worlds and online games have the potential for providing insights into the offline world and that the medium merits further experimentation. Early indications suggest that this form of gaming could provide a rich vein of potential for training and learning in groups, particularly where they build upon the tried and tested methods associated with simulation-based learning approaches.
Furthermore, there is more than anecdotal evidence that gaming can support intrinsic motivation and so help to engage learners.