Earlier this year, Reynolds founded the Virtual Policy Network, a global think tank that helps governments, universities and businesses mediate their interests in online worlds. He explains his inspiration for the organization: "I saw so much misinformation in the popular media and so little of the learning from academia finding its way either into the government discourse or the way virtual world companies saw things. I thought there needed to be something to bring these groups together in a dialogue."
Getting a think tank off the ground is not a trivial project, but Reynolds saw an urgent need for something to fill the widening gaps between stakeholders in the virtual world/public policy space. "More than one person has said it's the right idea at the right time," he said. "Virtual worlds are starting to get onto the policy agenda, however there isn't a virtual world industry association, so at the moment it's very difficult for parties to engage in dialogue - other than on a one-to-one basis. To some degree tVPN is filling that gap."
Based in the U.K., the organization's advisory board reads like a who's who in virtual worlds and academia: Richard Bartle, Mia Consalvo, Randy Farmer, Thomas Malaby, Jessica Mulligan, David Pullinger. Bartle invented the first massively multiplayer game 30 years ago and has been studying them ever since; he should know a thing or two about them. And the others have resumes that are just as impressive. Getting them together in one think tank should be potent.
The primary purpose of tVPN is to explore the public policy implications of virtual worlds, bringing together policymakers, industry and academia. Reynolds also reminds me there is a fourth group with just as much of a stake in the debate that is harder to engage: the users themselves.
Many virtual worlds employ their own unique methods of user representation, from the basic, chaotic developers' message board to EVE Online's formal Council of Stellar Management. But these fractured groups are hard to bring together to talk about policy, and this puts them at a disadvantage. Reynolds elaborates: "Where we might start to see issues relating directly to users is when virtual world makers see these things as 'just games.' But we might see that users should have rights of free speech within the space because it is starting to grow into what we might argue is an extension of the public sphere.
"This is the type of issue where there should be representation of the rights of the player but no obvious champion. ... It's very difficult to discern how to engage users into the discourse, whereas industry, academics and governments are relatively easy to get into the same room at the same time - as we demonstrated at the recent conference in London called Virtual Policy '08."