The Future of Research in Computer Games and Virtual Worlds at ISR

ISR faculty, research staff, and students are actively involved in advancing the science and technology embodied in computer games and virtual worlds (CGVW). CGVW generally rely on common core software technologies, though the context of their application in entertainment systems versus enterprise platforms for R&D often determines whether they are labeled as a “computer game” or a “virtual world.” Thus, we adopt the combined label to focus on what is common in the development, use, and evolution of CG and VW. OK, good.  But why do CGVW merit scientific study and technology development? Is such study just a clever way to disguise playful fun as serious work?  How is work different than play?  If CGVW are software-intensive systems, then what kinds of software engineering research problems are associated with the development of CGVW? What are the grand challenges of research into CGVW, and what kinds of research needs to be engaged over the next 5-10 years to overcome these challenges?  These are among the kinds of questions that researchers at ISR are investigating. Further, ISR has continued to be successful in earning external research funding from government research agencies, corporate R&D sponsors, and others to continue to conduct such studies.  We are also innovators in discovering and prototyping how CGVW research findings can be translated into new ways and means to design complex software-intensive systems. So what research activities at ISR are investigating CGVW?

Prof. Walt Scacchi

First, the largest NSF research project currently at ISR is focused on understanding decentralized virtual activity systems (DVAS) developed or deployed by the project’s external research partners.  The project examines networked-based multi-user CGVW as a kind of DVAS.  DVAS style game play can emerge within a persistent community of users that works hard at interactive, dynamic tasks.  Such work may coalesce into sustained patterns where teams, organizational forms, and group leaders emerge and form their own governance structures (e.g, social norms, lines of authority), much like those found in complex enterprise settings. Given such propensities, can CGVW  be designed to experimentally enable new kinds of work structures and practices that users find more engaging, which in turn are easier to learn, more satisfying, and potentially more productive and stimulative?  Such studies were started at ISR in 2008 with partners such as Northrop-Grumman, and later with the Naval Postgraduate School, San Francisco Symphony, and Discovery Science Center, among others.  Early research and prototyping results are beginning to appear as DVAS project research publications, which can be found on the project’s website at

Second, Profs. Walt Scacchi and Crista Lopes helped organize an NSF funded workshop on the future of research in CGVW in Fall 2010 here at UCI.  More than 40 academic and industrial researchers from across the U.S. participated in the two-day workshop, including ISR faculty Bonnie Nardi, Robert Nideffer, and Jim Whitehead.  All have contributed to the Workshop Report, now nearing completion, that identifies six grand challenge areas for future research, Look for the report as an ISR technical report, to be posted on the ISR publications site later this Summer.

Third, Prof. Jim Whitehead co-chaired the First International Workshop on Games and Software Engineering (GAS) at the recent 2011 International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE).  A lead paper by Whitehead and his Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz, Chris Lewis, and another by Scacchi, help to anchor some of the foundational relationships between computer games and software engineering. 

Last, as suggested earlier, a number of new CGVW research studies are underway at ISR.  Prof. Crista Lopes has become a lead developer of the OpenSim VW platform environment.  OpenSim is an open source software server that works like its very popular, proprietary, closed source software counterpoint, Second Life™.  But as open source software, functional software capabilities “under the hood” can be accessed, extended, refactored and redistributed to support experimental studies in ways not allowed with Second Life™.  Lopes now produces the current releases of the OpenSim software distributions, which are freely available for download, installation, and experimentation on Windows, Mac, or Linux-based systems at  

DECENT Prototype in OpenSim.

Scacchi, along with ISR research programmers Craig Brown and Kari Nies, have in turn taken OpenSim to prototype new kinds of application systems.  For instance, they have modeled and simulated a new kind of command and control (C2) system based on DVAS principles.  The resulting prototype system is called DECENT.  The DECENT study started with seed funding to Lopes, Prof. Gloria Mark, and Scacchi in 2009-2010 from a partnership with Northrop Grumman Intelligence Systems Division. Since 2010, Scacchi’s team has been supported by the leading C2 research center in the U.S., the Center for the Edge at the Naval Postgraduate School.  A screenshot from the DECENT VW is shown below (Figure 1). The design and modeling of the DECENT CGVW mirrors physical command and control centers, including large wall-sized data and video stream displays that can be seen by all DECENT users, while virtual desktop PCs provide (semi-)private views only to users whose in-world avatars are nearby.  However, studies at ISR focus on decentralized play of seven card poker games as a metaphor for team-based problem-solving activities that involve the initial/incremental allocation of resources at risk, situation assessment, and tactical resource allocation trade-offs, all of which are a serious part of mission planning and scheduling in a C2 environment, much like they are the fun and playful part of a poker game.

Overall, CGVW continues to emerge as a new part of the research focus and expertise at ISR, and we welcome the opportunity to conduct innovative studies with new research partners in industry, government, or academia.  Are you ready to play with us?


This article appeared in ISR Connector issue: