As more and more people are spending their time in virtual worlds, they gain weight as actual places. Eve Online’s economics are used in universities and now World Of Warcraft has been used to study epidemics. The Times has the story.
I expect scientists (and reporters) to find only more value in virtual worlds as time goes along. It looks like a given to me that as technology becomes ever more immersive, an increasing number of people will spend most of their free time in virtual worlds – not to mention those who will find a way to make their living from within the virtual world. I don’t actually see this as a good thing, but inevitable. Nevertheless, the way these worlds have socio-economical models which can be manipulated more or less directly is certainly a good thing for science. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the big players (SOE, Blizzard) started collaborating with scientists on a more involved level for the PR.