In the 1960s, Stanley Milgrim, then a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a controversial experiment. In an obviously controlled setting for the study, Milgrim and his associates directed their subjects to give ever-increasing electrical shocks to strangers whenever they gave the wrong answer to questions in a test of memory. The strangers were really actors pretending to experience pain and did not actually receive any jolts of electricity. The study, intended to measure how compliant people would be to obey authority figures, even to the point of inflicting pain on otherwise innocent individuals, was disturbing, to say the least. The subjects, despite some discomfort at first, continued to “shock” the test-taking actors. The experiment raised ethical concerns about subject study methodologies, among other things.

However, recently, Mel Slater, a computer scientist at University College London in England (with a joint appointment to the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona), reproduced this experiment without running afoul of the ethical concerns that the original study raised. Mr. Slater conducted his experiment in a virtual world where test-taking “victims” were avatars whose expressions changed from happy to pained in response to the actions of participants in the study—much the same way the real-life actors did more than 40 years ago. Not only were the results astonishingly similar, but to the surprise of many, the real-life participants experienced increased heart rates and described feelings of regret or feeling badly about delivering electrical shocks—even though they knew the strangers on the other side of the screens were avatars and not real people!

From a legal viewpoint, virtual worlds raise a host of issues regarding the regulation and interpretation of conduct—people manipulating digital puppets. Unlike social networking, virtual worlds provide an opportunity for social interaction. There is advertising and marketing with corresponding questions about privacy, demographics and disclosures. There is creativity and innovation and corresponding intellectual property concerns. There are lands and homes and buildings and hotels and corresponding issues of property rights. There are goods and services, raising issues of e-commerce and currency trading and, of course, there are concerns over the benefits and risks arising from the use and the abuse that affect the real-life counterparts of these virtual world avatars.

The law struggles to interpret and figure out just what rights should or shouldn’t apply to the people behind the avatars. Many claim they are immune from legal and regulatory scrutiny—after all, it is just make believe. But just as Dorothy didn’t listen to the Wizard of Oz who shouted “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the law will press on because the social and ethical implications of virtual world role playing ultimately establish what is or is not permissible in society at large. Is it art imitating life or life imitating art? Is that an avatar in your virtual world or are you just glad to see me? While these may be tongue-in-cheek flippant questions, there are some very real implications to the growth of virtual worlds, the ability to study behavior, the ability to affect behavior and the ability to explore conduct without the normal physical and geographic boundaries we experience in the real world. This is indeed a fertile playground for study and an even more difficult one for the law to understand and regulate. I don’t know about you, but I’m sending my avatar to law school.