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Given the set of problems and puzzles we have been observing in virtual worlds, and the themes that weave them together, we have begun to sketch out a conceptual and theoretical framework to better understand virtual worlds and their evolution. The starting point, we argue, is to see the story of virtual worlds as one of field flux and evolution. This puts our efforts in line with institutional and organization theory, especially Davis and Marquis’ recent suggestion that problem-driven research should be like a natural history of the institutions of capitalism. We also are adopting their suggestion of using mechanisms as a way to evade some problems with black box theorizing about the ways in which actors and codes at different levels interact to account for particular organizational and field level outcomes. Hence, we are using familiar concepts about fields and the “pillars” of institutional theory- the rules, laws, and codes that enable and constrain actors. However, we are adding a newer (or at least more recently rediscovered) tool from the org theory tool kit: mechanisms. Finally, we are doing this for a domain that poses some idiosyncratic issues.
Virtual worlds are an emerging field within a wider field (cyberspace) that is already in flux; moreover, we are dealing with organizations that can only be understood as constellations of worlds-within-worlds due to their constituent complexity. The internal complexity of the VWs has made them quite literally worlds within worlds. Crucially, these are not hermetically sealed terrariums. The flow of people, information, money, and digital objects is an essential feature of the worlds within worlds quality of VWs.
In this paper, we will describe a set of concepts that together make a framework for adequately describing virtual worlds in terms of institutional theory and evolution. This framework leads to proposing two critical co-evolutionary dynamics that will drive the worlds and their field. We will discuss what adaptation and adaptive capability means in this situation with coevolutionary dynamics in an emerging and turbulent field. Using grounded theory and a variety of qualitative data sources has brought us to this point. We will discuss a few preliminary case studies and what they real about adaptation for virtual worlds.