Emory Report
February 25, 2008
Volume 60, Number 21

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February 25, 2008
Scholars, practitioners convene to discuss the reality of virtual worlds

By Alma Freeman

Right now, roughly 0.3 percent of the global population is involved in some sort of virtual world, said Indiana University’s Edward Castranova at the Feb. 11 conference “Virtual Worlds and New Realities in Commerce, Politics and Society.” If this rapidly growing percentage rate doesn’t seem overwhelming, he continued, consider that the gross sales transactions that take place in these virtual worlds already rival those of some small countries.

Virtual worlds allow a person to create a digital character, or avatar, representing him- or herself who interact with other computer-generated individuals, landscapes, virtually run global businesses, and in-world institutions in real-time. Through online communities such as Second Life, avatars interact with millions of residents from around the globe to buy, sell and trade property, furniture, equipment and more. Not to be left behind, political candidates are actively campaigning in the virtual world, while a number of sales of goods in the virtual world have resulted in demand in the real world for those equivalent items.

Co-sponsored by The Halle Institute, Goizueta Business School and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the Emory forum brought together academics, entrepreneurs, social scientists and experts on synthetic worlds as panelists to explore the potential influences and possibilities the virtual world phenomenon can — and already is — having on the real world. During a series of four panels, scholars had the opportunity to engage on the topic with nearly 20 panelists, including synthetic world practitioners such as Chris Klaus, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based virtual world Kaneva and John Zdanowski, CFO of Linden Lab, creator of Second Life.

While there have been many forums on the topic of virtual worlds, explained conference co-chair and George S. Craft Professor of Business Administration Benn Konsynski, most have been made up of either technical or current users who share their own, isolated experiences. Emory’s conference, however, offered the rare convergence of panelists and participants who offered a range of backgrounds and areas of study.

“Through this conference, Emory has been able to assemble a remarkable and unique mix of researchers from the United Kingdom and North America, including social scientists, information systems specialists, economists, bankers, lawyers, health care leaders, media and military representatives, and academic researchers from public and private institutions,” Konsynski said. “I told the audience in the beginning that this event could look like the bar scene from ‘Star Wars.’ It was just the right mix of backgrounds to generate many perspectives.”

The impetus for the conference grew from a paper published by Konsynski and Ph.D. candidate David Bray on the history and growth of virtual worlds. After generating significant interest online, the idea emerged to offer a course for both political science and business students on the topic. Taught by Konsynski and political science professor Holli A. Semetko, with assistance from Bray, the course was offered in fall 2007.