Cultures of Virtual Worlds

Cultures of Virtual WorldsI’ve had the temporary pleasure of being back in the classroom to hear 30 ethnographic researchers gathered at UC Irvine present their studies of just what we avatars are doing inside virtual worlds.  The theme for the gathering was Cultures of Virtual Worlds, organized by the Center for Ethnography in the Department of Anthropology and sponsored by Intel’s People and Practices Research Group.

Ethnographic research is a first person study of the observed behaviors of others.  These were indeed the tales from the road, observations organized and structured into what we already understand about human behavior.  But, mostly the tales raised questions and many mysteries yet to be understood about virtuality.

Dr. Celia Pearce of Georgia Tech, traversed worlds for us as she reported on the forced migration of Uru (Myst Online) players, as they became refugees in the “new” worlds of There.com and Second Life due to the closing of their game.  She showed us how the artifacts from one world ported over to another through recreation of the old world in the new, transforming both the place and the narrative of the new, joined community.  Her experiences highlight how a true community, once created, does not die easily – indeed another world often becomes the beneficiary.

My thoughts:  This phenomenon is as true in the actual world as in the virtual.   I’ve been watching a similar migration in process at this very moment with the closing ofVirtual Magic Kingdom as that community is creating a new Virtual Family Kingdomand preparing its [heartbreaking] move from VMK.   Both these instances raise a fascinating question of just what is a community.  Do we use the word too loosely today in social networking since we move and migrate so easily among networks?  When does “affiliation” or “networked communication” become community – or does it?  Do commercial entities have responsibilities to the communities they create?

Graduate student Lilly Irani coined a phrase in the title of her presentation I suspect I will be using in the future, as it captures our modern communication habits so well:  Assemblages of Communication.  She documented her travels inside Second Life focusing on the fluid communications habits of activist avatars who seamlessly weave IRC, blogs, web forums, FacebookCafé Press, SLProfiles, and photo sharing to communicate.  Her conclusion: the immersive nature of communication inside virtual worlds is just one type of communication and that “collectives” keep in touch through assemblages of communications that are unique to them and that serve their individual community.

My thoughts: Lilly’s focused observations of a small group of activists operating inside a virtual world validate my own theories of the fluidity of what we still call “media.”  We tend to think of media as a “thing.” But media in practice is in fact very ephemeral.   We describe it as “distributed,” but it goes way fuzzier than that. Media  “in practice” isn’t a channel, but an activity.

Dr. Rebecca Black plunged us into the virtual literary world at FanFiction.net where she chronicled the shifting online identity of a young Chinese girl as she published her fiction while learning English.  Through her observations Dr. Black concludes that over time our identities shift and evolve – are never static – because we construct them in diverse ways, influenced by the media, pop culture, our ethnicity and our own “actual” identity.  In a focused study of the language used within the space, she also contrasted the support and encouragement given to her subject by this virtual community versus that she might receive within our traditional educational environment.

My thoughts:  Every virtual space has its own reason for being along with its own rules, norms, culture, and communication methods – often its own language.  The richness of the connections in virtual worlds does often trump the interactions we receive in the actual world.  There is a realness to them that transcends the physical.  Reciprocity is central to the growth of a true community.  What troubles me is that we have constructed our “real” institutions, organizations, and expectations in ways that often dehumanizes and that removes reciprocity – possibly encouraging (forcing?) us to escape into the virtual to find the real.

Deborah Fields’ projects lead us through a study of race and gender via Whyville, where 68% of the participants are girls. Deborah is studying how children develop connections and identities in social worlds and how it might inform “real life” learning. She shared a fascinating case study of “Zoë” who grapples with her ethnicity through an evolutionary process of trading “face parts.”  (In Whyville you have very limited abilities in avatar creation.)  Zoë in real life is black.  However while she could approximate a “black” face – it was difficult to find black “bodies” (“bodies” are actually part of Whyville clothing).  She began looking to trade for Latina representations and she even went through a period of scamming other Whyville avatars. Through this case study Deborah  illustrated that children (all of us, actually) go through phases of participation, developing multiple identities and that we continually evolve them.

My thoughts:  Wow, many thoughts hit me on this one:  children’s game designers have enormous responsibilities and need to consider children’s identity formation in their products- let’s start by making it possible to represent more than “white.” Teachers and parents need to keep tabs on the identity formation/experimentation that their children and students are doing – create safety, freedom and encouragement to do so, while gathering insight as children go about it. The shifting “demographic” implications of the transitory nature of online identity and how we will adapt to two very different “states” of identity – one where we are the “same” person all the time due to the melding of our work, social and personal lives online (you are your Google results); and two, the liquidness with which we morph and evolve our identities.

This is by no means even a close approximation of all the stimulating and insightful presentations – just a few of the many highlights.

Dr. Dean Terry of University of Texas, Dallas provided a fun and thought provoking talk on the work his Virtual Worlds Lab and Mobile Lab is doing.  He wrapped up with a demonstration of an augmented reality via a mobile phone project that his students will be unveiling soon.

Post-graduate students, Paolo Ruffino introduced some fascinating concepts of our collective evolving worldview (virtual and actual) through mapping; Bianca Ahmadi presented machinima as an art and education form; and Lindsay Todres explored “self spectatorship” online and how it relates to/changes our use of media, especially cinema.

All in all, there is much to be understood about we avatars.  But it is clear our ideas of reality, community, intimacy, identity and space must evolve in step with virtuality.  This research is just a beginning, and from all the encouragement and collaboration I saw going on we have some interesting research to look forward to.

Kudos to Tom Boellstorff and Maria Bezaitis of UCI’s Anthropology Department for organizing the event.  Tom’s book, Coming of Age in Second Life is due to be released in a couple of days.

Originally published at my blog, Business Communicators of Second Life, 2008

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