There are quirkier items on the agenda than stock market sturm und drang and terrorism at the 38th annual World Economic Forum in Davos. On Saturday, one of the presentations, ‘Virtual Worlds – Fiction or Reality’, muses on the impact of virtual worlds on different generations, and asks how this world of immediate access, limitless social skills and unrestrained behaviour influence our moral framework.

All this fretting over artificial environment mores is a sign that virtual worlds are gradually being accepted as extensions of the real world.  The social and economic evolution of these worlds raises challenging questions about their governance; in particular, how they can be developed in a sustainable and desirable fashion as both economies and communities.

Intellectual property minefield

The latest projections indicate that participation in virtual worlds will expand significantly in the years ahead.  By some estimates, up to 80% of active internet users will inhabit a virtual world by 2012. As they have attracted users, virtual worlds have become economies in their own right.  The incorporation of a formal currency into multi-functional environments such as Second Life helped power a wave of economic growth, enabling users to buy, sell and rent digital properties such as virtual islands or space stations.

This has attracted the attention of governments:  following South Korea’s lead, the United Kingdom and Australia have formulated plans to impose taxes on virtual profits.  But regulating these spaces by negotiating the multitude of large, diverse populations across various real and virtual jurisdictions is a legal Gordian knot.

The appropriation of intellectual property is illustrative.  Virtual worlds enable the sharing of digital information, which may be copyrighted, patented or trademarked in the real world.  In Second Life, cinemas exhibit Hollywood movies, bars and shops play the latest hit songs, while street traders sell ‘counterfeit’ goods such as clothing and fashion accessories.  However, the task of punishing IP infringements is complicated by the identification of users, who are veiled by their own digital avatar.

These worries may make big corporations think twice before diving into virtual worlds, despite the obvious commercial advantages of doing business without the costs and restrictions of physical trade. This pleases some; the encroachment of advertising billboards and global brands has created tensions with some users, who claim that the homogeneity of commercialisation will tarnish the mystical and unearthly quality of virtual worlds.

Communities, democratisation and moral values

The technology underpinning virtual worlds is likely to become more open and less proprietary.  Already, web-based tools such as Metaplace enable users to build micro-scale virtual worlds, which can then be used as a space to interact with friends and other users.  And so, as the technology improves, the creation of virtual worlds is likely to undergo a steady process of democratisation similar to other web-based tools, such as blogs, file sharing or social networks.

Virtual worlds also provide a space where individuals can interact, learn and work in novel ways.  For example, some of the world’s largest companies use virtual worlds to enhance collaboration between different teams, most notably in the process of research and development.  Meanwhile, academics have studied patterns of behaviour in virtual worlds to develop a range of theoretical models, including social responses to disasters or the diffusion of disease.  There is also scope to use virtual worlds as training grounds for the next generation of artificial intelligence software.

A key challenge will be creating worlds that embody a basic core of moral values.  There are concerns, for example, that the current generation of ‘digital natives’ — the youngsters who regularly use the internet — will be exposed to undesirable influences through their participation in virtual worlds.  Worlds such as Disney’s Club Penguin (with 3.9 million users) or WebKinz (with 7.3 million users) are relatively safe environments, but arguably infuse commercialism into every encounter.  On the other hand, worlds such as Second Life enable a relatively greater amount of creativity and freedom, but are thereby vulnerable to subversive behaviour, such as child pornography or violence.