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Can Web-based worlds teach us about the real one?

Researchers are eager to study millions of online gamers that live in 'virtual' communities such Second Life, hoping to gain insight into our 'real world' behaviors.

An avatar from Second Life.

Courtesy of Linden Research, Inc.

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With last week's stock market sputter and re­­newed warnings of a recession, policymakers and presidential candidates are hawking countless plans to jump-start the economy. These proposals are often complex, sometimes controversial, and almost always conjectural.

If only there were a way to take them for a test drive.

Robert Bloomfield is tinkering with such a plan. As an accounting professor at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., he researches virtual worlds – a nascent, but growing, field in the social sciences.

His studies in economic policy lead him into digital realms where the laws of gravity don't apply. But what about the laws of supply and demand?

Immersive online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft attract populations that outnumber Sweden's. And now, scientists are following players down the rabbit hole in hopes of learning more about the real world.

By tapping into the behavior of an estimated 73 million online gamers, Mr. Bloomfield and others hope to study the effects of public policy with an ease and specificity that only computers can deliver. The tools are not yet perfected. But the potential is too strong to ignore, says Bloomfield.

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