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  Researching the Researchers  
Posted 2004-10-27 by Tony Walsh
It's an interesting time. Virtual worlds are blossoming, and game research is finally being taken seriously--so much so, that academics are asking themselves such heady questions as "What constitutes 'ethical participant observation' in MMOG ethnography?"

"Campus Second Life" recently opened the doors of its pay-to-play virtual environment to accredited academics, and in doing so may have opened a can of worms as well. Here's some big news, Academia: avatars in a virtual world have real humans behind them.

Read on for the dirt.

A Second Life resident named Pandastrong recently discovered that s/he was the subject of research. A Universty of Pittsburgh student pasted pasted portions of a conversation with Pandastrong another SL resident into the prof's weblog. This might not be a big deal (although it is a violation of Second Life's Terms of Service), but the student allegedly neither asked permission to repost snippets, nor included the full text of the conversation. Pandastrong feels that the result was an edited "sound bite" that failed to paint a fair and accurate picture of the situation at hand. Seems some ethics issues are at play here.

There's now an interesting situation developing on the official Second Life forums. Second Life residents are aware they're being watched. They resent the scrutiny. They resent the uninformed opinions of their watchers. And now, the experiment is all about how researchers alienate a virtual community. That's some fine Digital Discourse, don't you think?
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Comment posted by Tony
October 30, 2004 @ 2:31 am
Well, gosh, look on the bright side. Now all the SL people know how every indigenous culture in the world feels about anthros.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
October 30, 2004 @ 8:11 am
Can't argue with that. Except maybe the generalizations, but hey I do that all the time. Have you considered that it might be socially and politically productive to have the largely white, middle-class user base of Second Life sympathize with the plight of indigenous people? Virtual worlds can be a good way to learn about the real world because VR can give us the opportunity to experience an approximation what it's like to be someone else. Even an approximation can be a powerful thing.

A tiny percentage of SL residents read this weblog, so if you're really interested in reaching them, hop on over to, or to get your message across to a wider audience of so-called game academics, you could post a comment to the popular Terra Nova site, in this discussion.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
November 4, 2004 @ 10:46 am
Here's an update on this topic:

On Oct. 30, 2004 there was a meeting co-hosted by SL residents Rex Mendicant and Pandastrong. Richard Pitt (the prof of the Digital Discourse course) was in attendance, as were 15-20 SL residents. People were generally pretty cool about the whole thing. Granted there were some diverging opinions, but everyone was civil. It was a very good discussion that lasted over an hour. Richard Pitt was emphasizing that he and his class are not in Second Life to research anyone. His class is there to write about their experiences.

Personally, I don't understand the difference between "research" and "observation." I joined Second Life to experience a VR world, to learn about the culture there, and to leverage my experiences so that I could write articles about digital culture, entertainment, social and technology issues. I am also a gamer, so I'm also there to have fun. I'm not sure if there is a different set of "rules" for academics and for journalists. I'm not sure there are actually any rules at all outside of the TOS. But this is the topic at hand-- what are the ethics of research and observation in Second Life?

A follow-up meeting was held on Nov. 3, 2004. This one had most of the Digital Discourse class members in attendance (and so many other SL residents that the simulator was full). This meeting had a higher noise-to-signal ratio, and wasn't particularly productive in my view, since it seemed to mostly reiterate what was discussed in the first meeting. But the important thing, I suppose, is that there is an ongoing discussion of ethical conduct. I wasn't able to stay past an hour in this meeting, so I'm not sure if there were any conclusions drawn or action-plans established.
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