Thursday, August 16, 2007

Real crisis in virtual worlds and the need for institutions

A bank in Second Life Ginko has been dissolved creating a loss of 750,000 actual US dollars of it's members. The unregulated world of second life leads to an interesting experiment of the evolution of institutions. At least it becomes clear that also in virtual world institutional arrangements need to be crafted to govern the virtual and real resources.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The cover article of Science of July 27 is about the research potential of virtual worlds. It is written by William Sims (!!) Bainbridge, who is a program officer at the National Science Foundation. The argument is that nowadays so many people make use of virtual worlds, especially for entertainment, that it might be a platform to study social, behavioral and economic processes and derive high quality data for large populations. Although this sounds appealing, I have reservations in using this for the study of institutions and many other social phenomena since the population of participants is not a random sample, but a self-selected group of people who like to entertain themselves. Hence the motivations might be quite different if one likes to study how people share common resources.
Nevertheless, we should look at these developments seriously as it might provide a unique opportunity for the longer term to derive high quality data for large groups. I think this will require somewhat different virtual communities, and goals of the games beyond killing other avatars. At CSID we develop and perform experiments in virtual 2D and 3D environments. Our participant group is a random sample of our data base of undergraduate students at ASU and participants derive monetary incentives (one typically earns about $15-$25 in one hour experiments). I expect we will see in the coming years developments that will combine experimental environments with virtual worlds, but it will take quite some exploration to find out what the best format will be to be useful for testing all kind of social science theories.

cooperation and big brother

for your eys only
Manfred Milinski and Bettina Rockenbach report in a recent perspective article in Science on the impact of feeling being watched on cooperation in social dilemmas. Even when images of eyes are used in the experimental environment, cooperation increases. This effect is used in various artifacts like he totem poles in North America (see picture left).
In field experiments CSID and colleagues are doing in Thailand and Colombia it seems from prelimenary data that Thai communities were more cooperative. Was this caused by the picture of the royal family that is present in each public space in Thailand, including the locations where the experiments were done?

Can we trust avatars?

Kristine Nowak and Christian Rauh of the University of Connecticut wrote an interesting paper where they describe an experiment to test how people perceive the trustworthiness of avatars. Volunteers where chatting and they were represented as avatars with different levels of gender specific representation. The androgynous-looking avatars were perceived as being less credible. The authors make a leap to trustworthiness and argue that human-like avatars are important for representing trustworthy avatars. Doing experiments with just text chat and observing an amazing level of cooperation, I wonder if the authors make too much of a leap. It might be different if people can represent themselves by choosing a certain type of avatar. But here the volunteers might understand that avatars were not necessarily relate to the participants own choices.

Not by genes alone

Has evolution led to humans with hard-wired decision algorithms, or is striking cooperative arrangements in human societies a consequence of cultural processes? This is the main struggle Richerson and Boyd (2005) deal with. Probably humans have derives hard-wired decision making processes when it lived like hunter-gatherers for many millenia. But the rapid changes in organization in the past 10,000 years can be better be explained by transmission of cultural mechanisms. Although Boyd and Richerson have performed a lot of formal modeling in the past, this book synthesize their work without any formal models. They provide a lot of interesting examples of how culture adapt and maladapt. They provide a convincing argument that to understand human societies we need to understand how culture and genes have co-evolved.

Welcome to CSID blog

We are still in the starting phase of building up the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity but now we have Ann Evans started as our coordinator and have Amber Wutich and Abby York starting in the Fall as new faculty, we are leaping forward. We are using this blog to update you on what is happening with research, news events and other activities relevant to our center.
A nice introduction to what we are investigating is given in a recent presentation of Elinor Ostrom, our Founding Director, during the opening of the Stockholm Resilience Center, May 29.