The cover story of the July 27, 2007 Science magazine is "The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds" by William Sims Bainbridge. Bill is the Program Director for the Human-Centered Computing Cluster in the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation. His new book, Nanoconvergence: The Unity of Nanoscience, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science was described in an IS blog post of July 24, 2007. Here is the abstract of the Science article (with links added):
"Online virtual worlds, electronic environments where people can work and interact in a somewhat realistic manner, have great potential as sites for research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, as well as in human-centered computer science. This article uses Second Life and World of Warcraft as two very different examples of current virtual worlds that foreshadow future developments, introducing a number of research methodologies that scientists are now exploring, including formal experimentation, observational ethnography, and quantitative analysis of economic markets or social networks."