[First, a brief update on my SL partner Jakob’s condition, since some of you have kindly asked: He is out of the Intensive Care Unit and has written me two brief emails in the past couple days. He’s writing in German and calling me by my SL alt’s name… but I can read German, and that is legitimately one of “my” names. I don’t know what recovery will be like for him or what connections, memories, or skills might have been lost. Simply that he’s writing email on his phone a few days after having surgery to remove a brain tumor is impressive, and I’m very hopeful.]
Yesterday I attended a couple of presentations about virtual world research, hosted by researchers from the University of Sheffield and the University of Edinburgh. The first talked about social, ethical, and digital issues and the second was about conducting qualitative health research. The event had a remarkable lack of technical glitches, which was a pleasure. The presentations were conducted in voice with simultaneous text transcription.
At one point, we moved to a different platform so that the researchers could demonstrate a tool they’ve used with their in-world Journal Club. It’s a focus group tool that they called the Opinionator, and it’s really quite clever. The Opinionator has colored segmented cells and a disc in the middle.
Each cell is color-coded and has one of the possible answers to a focus group question. Each person can walk into the cell that best matches his answer, and the pie chart in the center updates in real time to reflect the distribution. Some attendees moved from cell to cell to watch the chart update.
I thought this was a terrific tool that could be useful for casual discussion groups as well as research. Not only does it provide immediate feedback and prompt discussion by making people’s choices visible, but there is also an element of fun (one participant suggested moving more people into the yellow cell to make a Pac-Man shape) and it utilizes the 3D, physical nature of existence in SL. You’ve got a body, use it! Even if this is just moving and standing, it is much more dynamic than clicking a choice or responding in text.
The presentations were well-done and reflected the experiences that many of us have had doing research in virtual worlds. The ethical issues can be tricky, especially for researchers who are unfamiliar with virtual life. Some researchers I know still think of data security as putting their field notebooks in a locked cabinet, but for many of us it means moving identifiable information to secure offline storage and making sure that files which can be accessed by others are protected and coded. One researcher talked about including a glossary of terms for her advisers to use when reading interview transcripts, because they were unfamiliar with the terminology that SL residents use in casual conversation. She also mentioned the difficulty of finding people who can do transcription of voice interviews that include a lot of online jargon. (If anyone is looking for a speedy, confidential transcriptionist with reasonable rates, I’m available. Contact me!) Other interesting topics addressed were the vast array of online tools that enable remote collaboration and the ethical requirement of protecting not just offline identity details but also personally identifiable items like avatar names.
All in all, it was an excellent event and now my mind is spinning with other dynamic, interactive tools like the Opinionator that could enrich in-world research. Hmmmm….