Via the comments section of this post, Dr. Delwiche made note that the course currently being offered does not utilize Everquest nor World of Warcraft as the medium for virtual world research. The course material this year revolves around Second Life, and the specifics can be found here.
I left out personal commentary in my last post on the subject, but I certainly have a few thoughts to share on the matter. This type of scholastic undertaking is critical in today's culture and educational environment. While it is true that the main stream media and corporate world has begun to give virtual worlds some attention, it is often from the prospective of tapping into or observing a niche market or freak counterculture. The millions of subscribers and active participants are statistics without recognizable features or social standing, thus they can be dismissed as an exclusionary minority rather than a common thread within our larger global world.
When I walk the lands of the existential worlds that I choose to inhabit, those that walk beside me represent a very fundamental cross section of our entire world community. The days of geek subculture or fringe dominance in the medium are long gone, with family oriented, professional players comprising a considerable cross section of the virtual populations. To ignore this trend and the underlying significance is shortsighted and ignorant, yet sadly indicative of the type of coverage we do receive when the glaring light of media scrutiny falls upon us.
I once read a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community written by Robert Putnam, that struck me as visionary. His basic theory states that our culture is growing more disconnected from one another with each passing year, and our societal structure has become isolationist. More Americans bowl now than ever before, but this is dominated by individual groups of a given social network acting autonomously, rather than forming an artificial community such as a bowling league. This is just one of many examples he provides to document the trends that can be observed in all aspects of our society.
At the time I read this, I pondered whether the Internet and our shift towards an electronic culture was a cause or effect. Has our dependence on this distant medium, weakened our bonds to one another and diluted our instinctual need for 'pack?' Or has this paradigm shift progressed our psychological need for social packs, and pushed traffic to virtual worlds to compensate for the lack of social capital in our communities?
The research and time frame of Putnam's works, suggest the latter is the case, as these trends have been observed for more than a quarter of a century. Long before Norrath, Azeroth or the Lindens began to attract visitors, humans were feeling a social void subconsciously, and have turned to new mediums to find their sense of belonging.