With a population of Net-cafe refugees in Japan reported in August to be 5,400, and the recent demise of a 28-year-old South Korean, identified as Lee, who reportedly died after playing an online computer game for 50 hours straight, many are wondering what online virtual worlds are all about.

Terra Nova ( terranova.blogs.com ) is arguably the best virtual-world blog out there — whether those visiting the site are newbies just thinking about buying their first longsword, hardcore players who already command a galactic army, or any gamer in between. Well-known game designers and academic pundits dish out news and views on just about everything that has to do with the evolution of virtual societies online and offer insightful commentary on a wide array of social and economic factors that govern online virtual worlds.

For example, Greg Lastowka writes: “So I’ve been wondering a bit about how our mental construction of real cities might carry over to the structure of virtual worlds. As we’ve noted here before, there are important reasons why virtual architecture need not, and perhaps ought not, look like real architectures. But generally it does, making the similarities and dissimilarities worth thinking about for students of the virtual.”

While Terra Nova focuses on how the virtual world’s wheels turn, Virtual Cultures ( virtualcultures.typepad.com ), as its name suggests, emphasizes the cultural and creative aspects of virtual online worlds. Ron Meiners, one of the contributing editors, is “passionate about the potential for online communities to foster relationships between participants and to open the range of experiences to collaborative creativity, transformative experiences, and the evolution of social organization.” The list of contributors isn’t as large as Terra Nova’s, but Virtual Cultures offers plenty of intriguing analysis and valuable insights into the electronic frontier.

To get into the minds of virtual- world inhabitants, Nick Yee’s blog the daedalus project ( nickyee.com/daedalus ) is a great storehouse of information. Yee looks at things such as what drives people to play Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, what makes these games so addictive (“about 50 percent of MMORPG players would consider themselves addicted to the game”), why people develop different playing styles and new personas while playing them, and the way interpersonal and group relationships are built. “It may be hard to imagine that personal growth and acquisition for real-life skills can occur in video games, but MMORPGs are highly social and structured environments where important lessons are being learned every day,” he says.

It’s really quite fascinating reading, even if you’re not into virtual online worlds at all. The site can be hard to navigate at times, so you might want to follow the “Daedalus Portal” link from the main site to help you sort through the articles.

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