Second Life is a place where strangers go to ___________.
Did you automatically fill in that blank? Specific preconceptions are not universal, but they shape the experience that a researcher might have when entering a virtual world. It’s a good idea to do an introspective audit of our biases before we begin, because they can dramatically skew the world we find. Just as we may find what we’re looking for (inadvertently), we could collect data that can’t be extrapolated to a larger population because the subject pool is not diverse. Signing onto one game or world doesn’t mean that you’re entering a single culture; there are overall shared cultural elements, but much behavior and worldview may be shaped by subcultures.
The shared cultural elements are things that many of us don’t think about if we’ve been gamers or residents for a while. Tom Boellstorf’s Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human has a lovely musing on the meaning of being “Away” in SL; where you are physical active in the offline world and yet visible but not present in the virtual world. It’s fun to consider how odd that is and the outsider perspective can be very useful. I adapted to online life decades ago and it’s much harder for me to see those elements now that they’re part of my daily existence. When newbies express surprise at these things, it’s like having a foreign visitor ask about a behavior we take for granted. “Why? Huh? Well, just because we always do.”
But once one starts to scratch below those elements, subcultures appear. Online subcultures effect the way we speak, look, and interact. The most obvious in SL are groups that choose non-human avatars (though there are still unique communities inside those groups). Some groups communicate in a form of descriptive roleplay that has lengthy conversational pauses while the participants compose paragraph-long replies rich with details of body language and facial expression as well as dialogue. Others converse in abbreviated text speak; others use voice chat. Some dance clubs have regular crowds who will trigger “gestures” (elements that include a sound file, physical movement, and usually several lines of public chat) to the amusement of all, yet the regulars at other clubs loathe gestures and shun people who use them. There are regions that welcome extended families of avatars, including babies and children, and others that ban child avatars even if there is no obscene or violent material there.
When I flip through Second Life blogs, I can’t say that anyone’s experience is the same as mine. There are elements I recognize, experiences I’ve had, places I’ve visited, yet our inworld lives are completely different. Jo Yardley proposed a number of new commercials for SL in her post More ideas about improving Second Life. I think they’re a huge improvement because they show not only a range of inworld behaviors but also the people behind the avatars. Her scenarios still rely on stereotypes, but at least they’re more positive than the usual ones we see. Still, none of her scenarios are my Second Life. That doesn’t mean that any of those scenarios are false, but neither is the much-reviled SL bikini ad. Someone could spend all his time in sexually explicit sims and never see art installations, steampunk cities, lush jungles, cleverly-scripted vehicles, supportive clans, or talented live performers, and I’ll defend that as a valid SL as much as any of the others.
We find subcultures in an MMORPG as well, though the world is more focused, with people following quest paths and working toward collective goals. Each faction/clan/guild develops an atmosphere from its most active members, and this tends to grow stronger due to the self-selection of members joining and leaving based on that atmosphere. I’ve been in a faction that was very competitive and arrogant and another that lived by the motto, “It’s only a game!” One of my alts was briefly in a faction that, quite literally, was more like a quilting bee than an MMORPG — faction chat was all about the leadership’s RL grandchildren and crafting. There are also individuals and groups that play by some variation on immersive rules under which their avatars speak and act like the live creatures they’re intended to be, paying attention to weather and bodily needs and forsaking roleplay-breaking shortcuts like teleportation.
As a researcher, this means that I need to really give some thought to what population I’m studying and be wary of extrapolating from a small sample. Some SL researchers make an initial introduction through the community forums on secondlife.com, but those only reach a tiny non-representative sliver of the population (and are often greeted with hostility). Recruiting through existing places and groups is useful if an overall random sample is not needed. I’ve had researchers strike up conversation in public areas and pass me a notecard giving more details about their surveys/tests/etc; if they canvassed a wide variety of areas, that might be a useful approach. I’m in the data collection phase of a new project and I want a large sample that I can consider representative of people who spend time in public spaces in SL. I’m sampling not only from a range of area types and maturity ratings but also every day of the week and around the clock (on a schedule; I’m not working 24/7). I’m going to regions I would never visit for personal reasons, either because they’re outside my comfort zone or simply don’t sound interesting. If I were to purposely avoid certain types of areas, I would disclose that clearly.
This is also something to consider for scenarios like the one that inspired this series, too: a professor with no experience of SL planning to turn his undergrads loose in the world as anthropology fieldwork experience. Each student could come back with a completely different experience and many of them could be negative, as the basic new user experience in SL is not easy. A professor with some experience could provide guidance and orientation, then select specific regions for his class to visit, places where he knows there are often people and where the theme is appropriate (the first part of that is important; I tried visiting a series of education/non-profit locations in SL last night and found no other people on ten consecutive stops, though there were more than 50,0000 people inworld). This might lead to more productive experiences and help avoid classroom discussions or computer/network use that could violate university policy. It could also reduce the chances of a student being offended or feeling harassed or intimidated by some of the content he could stumble across otherwise. While I’d love to have students explore whatever caught their interest and rely on reasonable, mature behavior by all, that isn’t the current state of higher education in the US. It’s wise to set some parameters and plan ahead to give students a rich experience even within those limits.
Other posts in this series:
- Flawed assumption #1: one avatar = one human
- Flawed assumption #2: alts are for __________
- Flawed assumption #4: age/level = experience