The Prospect of Social Norms as a Governing Mechanism of Virtual Worlds

Long Long


Millions of people are escaping from the real world to virtual worlds, where they interact with each other in respect of entertainment, business, education, and social networking. Under such a trend, there will be concerns over governing mechanisms of virtual worlds which have growing implications for participants’ lives. As some evolving elements of social norms have been observed in virtual worlds, it is worthwhile to discuss the prospect of social norms as a governing mechanism in virtual worlds.

In his famous book of “Order without Law,” Robert Ellickson predicted that effective norms are more likely to be established in a close-knit group, which does provide members with the power to control others and opportunities to exercise the power and also information about norms and violations. When applying Ellickson’s norm emergency theory in the context of virtual worlds, however, it could be argued that effective social norms are unlikely to be established in virtual worlds. This is because the unique context of virtual worlds contains two factors, namely, the software environment and the role-playing, which may erode necessary foundational conditions. Participants’ in-world interactions depend upon providers’ design arrangement in the software platform. In general, virtual world participants only have limited capabilities to administer sanctions in the software environment. In order to exert social control over others, participants can hardly do without the help of virtual world providers in terms of software design and technical support. Moreover, participants do not have enough sanction opportunities in virtual worlds because of role-playing. Participants tend to have different and multiple identities in virtual worlds. This separation between participants’ in-world identities and their real-world identities provides potential in-world deviants with a safe cushion. In this way, in-world deviants could get away with deserved sanctions by signing up to the world with another identity and are therefore able to commit deviant behaviours continually.

Given the advantages of social norms employed as a governing mechanism in virtual worlds, there will be a demand for solutions to social imperfections identified above. The most powerful solution is that virtual world providers deliberately design a software environment in which participants can exert effective social control over others to the highest degree. In addition, moderate legal intervention is also necessary to guarantee a suitable environment for the establishment of effective social norms in virtual worlds.   

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