The Future of Research in Computer Games and Virtual Worlds


In November of 2010, more than 30 scholars engaged in research on topics related to Computer Games and Virtual Worlds (CGVWs) participated in a workshop at UC Irvine to identify future research problems and opportunities in this arena. During the past year and a half the workshop continued online, culminating in the production of an extensive report characterizing this dynamic field of study. The report is now freely available!

What follows is the executive summary of this report.

More than 30 scholars engaged in research on topics related to Computer Games and Virtual Worlds (CGVWs) participated in a workshop to identify future research problems and opportunities in this arena. Six working group topics were identified based on the scholarship and interests of the invited participants. The groups were then tasked to meet, discuss, and debate their respective topics, the results of which appear as the first six chapters of this report. The six CGVW chapter topics are:

  • Computer Systems Technologies for CGVWs—multi-core and many core processors, computer graphics hardware and software, networking, databases, language design, sensors, etc.
  • Advanced GGVW Technologies—AI, behavioral scripting, narrative and emergent systems, procedural and non-procedural content generation, avatar generation and customization, world building kits, etc.
  • Media, Art, Culture and History of CGVWs—CGVWs as media, art, literature and expressive forms of social critique; new literacies, creativity with or through CGVW, etc.
  • Anthropological, Behavioral, Sociological Studies of CGVWs—ethnographic studies of CGVWs, work-versus-play or work-as-play or play-as-work, patterns of migration across CGVWs, CGVW in complex enterprise settings, research methods for studying CGVWs.
  • Education and Learning with CGVWs—how CGVW sfacilitate or inhibit learning in formal or informal education settings, play as learning, CGVWs for STEM and Humanities learning, etc.
  • CGVWs for Science, Health, Environment, Energy, Defense—CGVWs as research tools or infrastructure for R&D in other scientific, industrial, or government domains, etc.

Each chapter addresses a common set of concerns including current research findings, emerging research problems of high consequence, future research infrastructure needs, and broader impacts arising from research investments in each of the six topic areas. Contributors to these chapters represent a diverse set of scholars and disciplines that might not otherwise be drawn together. No effort was directed to integrating the results presented across the chapters, so each chapter can be read and reviewed standalone, though better if reviewed comparatively across chapters.

The report also identifies overall observations that advocate investment in future CGVW research. Their intent is to be bold and stimulating. These observations are summarized as follows.

CGVWs as new media and technologies of practice have the potential to pervade most, if not all, sectors of scientific research, technology development, educational and cultural practices in industry, academia, and government. CGVWs are not a “killer app,” but instead CGVWs are more likely the next Web: a new layer of systems and applications that can cross social, organizational, institutional and technological boundaries, just like the World-Wide Web has done over the past 15 or so years.

CGVWs are not about mere “gamification” by which we mean turning existing socio-technical  systems into those where users simply earn virtual badges, points, or prizes for accomplished  game play. Instead, CGVWs are rich socio-technical systems that can facilitate creativity, new  cultural practices, new educational opportunities, and new ways and means for stimulating research and higher education in the sciences, health, and related disciplines.

CGVWs are embracing the next-generation workforce of those who will seek to work in the  various MACH, SHEED, ABS, and advanced IT disciplines, industries or government agencies.  Market research figures suggest that at least one billion people world-wide are now playing and  interacting through CGVWs. Investments in STEM education do not yet address this, nor do  current R&D investments across government agencies identify this situation.

The U.S. currently leads the global development of new CGVW-centered products and services. Such socio-economic condition and market leadership can be accelerated through investment in a new CGVW research agenda, such as that identified in this report. New firms and highly skilled  jobs will emerge through such investments into CGVW research, as can new markets.

Future research in CGVWs can be targeted to different research agencies and research  programs that can maximize interests through targeted investments. Games for health care  represents one such application domain for focused CGVW research. Games for health may be  able to provide a new way and means for facilitating self-managed chronic care ailments that can  be personally rewarding as well as transformative—not in the sense of curing the ailment, but in the sense of making the ailment amenable to personal activity and self-care more manageable.
Research in CGVWs overlaps most areas of current interest that advance the overall science  research agenda for networked information technology (NITRD 2012). Massively multi-user CGVWs represent new venues for communication and social interaction that generate big data about social, behavioral, cultural, and technological practice, all data that characterize societal processes. New research challenge problems like reanimating the visible human can generate new scientific knowledge from domains that link or converge across nanotechnology, biology, information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC) disciplines.

The industries currently vested in CGVWs as entertainment media are not leading the way in pushing the R&D horizons identified in this report. Without coordination of research investment, CGVW technology will emerge as disjoint, islands of automation that will become evermore complex and costly to integrate for mutual benefit.

This report identified six related areas that would benefit from strategic or programmatic R&D investments. The national NITRD (2012) agenda and grand challenge problem domains are both amenable to be favorably advanced through investment in CGVW research. In particular, the NITRD Program and this report put forward recommendations for a planning and coordination support request whose structure provides a model for what, where, how, when, and why to invest in to strategically stimulate CGVW research (NITRD 2012, pp. 19-20): Co-funding testbeds, infrastructures, and advanced tools/instrumentation for experimentation with new CGVW technologies; Workshops that mobilize and bring together researchers, program managers, and socio-economic leaders; Collaborative deployment of new CGVW system infrastructures, tools, repositories/archives across R&D programs; Interagency cooperation to focus research investment that identify and provide solutions to challenges in mission-oriented SHEED programs; Technical standards for interoperable, scalable, secure, and scalable CGVW systems and infrastructures; Testbeds that enable the joint R&D experimentation, crowdsourcing, and decentralized study of CGVWs; and a Science and Technology Steering Council.

Overall, CGVWs are an engine of innovation: one that can stimulate the production of new knowledge and practice in multiple scientific, creative, cultural, educational and IT-centered disciplines, industries, and government agencies. CGVWs are emerging as socio-technical ecosystems for addressing problems in areas such as education, socio-economic development, health care, and scientific research. This statement is based not on speculation, but on diverse R&D results, projects, and expertise cited in this report and beyond (see Steinkuehler Squire 2011). CGVWs represent transformative technologies and socio-economic practices whose time is coming, and whose opportunity to strategically invest is near at hand. If the purpose of careful and cautious investment of limited public funds is to realize the greatest benefits to many diverse public and private interests, then CGVW merits serious attention, consideration, and commitment of resources that can fuel this engine of innovation. Such engines of growth and prosperity are uncommon and often elusive. Keep this new engine of innovation well fueled and fund its improvement.