The Social Scientist’s Dream—As Close as Your Keyboard
That problem has now been solved—not, perhaps, for price control, but for a considerable range of propositions in the social sciences. The solution is provided by a relatively new phenomenon in high tech entertainment—Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games.
Consider Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, the MMORG I know best. It has several million customers on several hundred servers. Each server (I simplify slightly) is an identical virtual world, with a population of perhaps ten thousand players, and, since each player may run multiple characters, several tens of thousands of virtual inhabitants. Behind each of those inhabitants—not counting the non-player characters provided by the game—is a human being.
On each of those worlds, characters are making (virtual) stuff, using stuff, buying and selling. Trade occurs at fixed prices between players and non-player characters, at market prices between players, either directly or though an auction house—on which prices and transactions can be freely observed.
The economic experiments you can arrange are by market participants, not legislators or regulators, unless you have an inside line to Blizzard. Working at the market level with quite a modest research budget, you could easily arrange to be a substantial fraction of the supply or demand for a single item out of the many being bought and sold. Ten graduate students running ten characters each on a single server would be sufficient to experiment on elasticity of supply and demand, workability or otherwise of strategies for manipulating the market, and the like. To test various forms of the efficient market hypothesis, try to develop simple rules for buying and selling on the auction house that yield a positive return. The same graduate students can be running other characters on other servers, doing statistical work involving multiple identical worlds.
I am an economist, so my brief examples are economic ones, but there should be opportunities in other fields as well. One respect in which the worlds represented by different servers are not quite identical is in their populations. Servers whose internal clocks are on Pacific Standard Time are populated mainly by people from the west cost of the U.S.—with an occasional Spaniard or Korean. A server on Korean time—I am told the game is very popular in Korea—will have a rather different population. That should make it possible to do extensive studies of differences and similarities in social norms across a wide range of societies—without spending a penny on airline tickets or hotels.
So far as the cost of the game is concerned, a little over a thousand dollars a year—a small fraction of any serious research budget—will buy you a hundred characters each on every server. Most of the cost of such a project would be the time of the researchers—and grad students are not very expensive. If you select them properly you may get a good deal of their time for free, since from their standpoint you are paying the cost of their recreation.
A whole new world of research.
[Any curious WoW players who read this blog can find me and my family on the Feathermoon server.]