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Archive for January, 2008

Contrary to Guimaraes’ ideas about social environments, Ducheneaut, Moore & Nickell outline ethnographic research within the MMOG Star Wars Galaxy that is extremely locale specific. Their research focuses on social life within two defined cantina locations within this game.

newer MMOGs distinguish themselves by their rich 3D worlds. Most games have cities modeled after real-world cities and have large public spaces, as well as buildings with clearly identifiable functions (e.g. bars, banks, marketplaces). (p 131).

This provides an alternate model to Guimaraes’ ideas about social environments being not bounded by physical (or virtual) locale. The focus of this research is perhaps best understood in that the researchers were particularly interested in SWG’s “attempt to create a strong sense of social life embedded in specific game locations” (p135)

Some of the types of data collected here included number of gestures, number of utterances, number of unique utterances and the social network metrics of prestige and centrality.

Most interesting to me is the suggestion that better design of virtual space could enhance sociability of these sites. As Ducheneaut aptly notes,

urban planning, virtual or physical, is difficult to do right… . [D]espite the incredible flexibility offered by digital worlds, game designers have nevertheless reproduced features of the physical environment that have a direct, negative bearing on the quality of social life in their game (p 157, 163)

This begs the question — in a world where literally anything is possible, are we doomed to repeat real-world mistakes? Does this observation apply to SL citizen designers as well as the MMOG designers Ducheneaut mentions? Can libraries examine the ramifications of setting up SL library functions that mimic RL services and physical locations?

Some repercussions that decrease sociability include over-utilization of private chat and lack of awareness of what avatars are available for social activities. These insights are important to the information seeking behavior (ISB) focus of my research. Socialization and interpersonal communication are expected to be major points of ISB activity within SL. But what about the IM interactions that are hidden from my view as a researcher? How does the “frozen avatar” factor affect ISB?

By “frozen avatar,” I mean the experience of approaching someone in SL and receiving zero social response. I’m guessing common reasons include being AFK, engaged in IM or linguistic differences.

All of this adds up to my continued consideration of how to best select an informant population for virtual ethnography and some interesting communication factors to keep in mind when considering my ISB-related research questions.

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Meet testy

Researcher avatarSo, I’m circling back to my avatar identity crisis where I proclaimed “I can only be me”. I stand by my words about striving for an authentic sense of my online self. I believe this to be a methodological imperative for my research. Yet, I have discovered a discomfort with the avatar I’ve created just to conduct research. I’ve even quit SL so I can log back in as my previously created avatar, Testy Outlander. Frankly, the new me is just plain dull, and I don’t like to be in-world as her.

In a place where there is so much creativity in self-expression, my self-reflective avatar feels decidedly beige. I long for my alt, with her punkiness and swaggered walk. So what if she doesn’t look like me….she feels like me when I’m interacting in the context of SL. What I’ve come to realize is the true mark of authenticity in a virtual environment is full disclosure, not how my avatar looks.

Testy Outlander head shotSo, I’m proposing that I ditch the new researcher avatars and just use Testy for this project. My initial hesitation about “coming out” while in-world as Testy is completely overblown. I’m talking about telling people my first and last name and some other details about my life, all necessary disclosures during research. I’d had a lot of fear around using Testy because I had not shared this kind of personal info in SL while in-world as her. I feared “contaminating” Testy, making her an unusable online identity after the research was concluded. But hey, when I recently started practicing full disclosure as my researcher avatar, I realized my privacy paranoia was just that — paranoia.

The benefits of using Testy far outweigh any potential risks. Benefits include:

  • Identity issues. I just feel better, more me, as Testy Outlander in SL.
  • SL infrastructure. Testy’s account has all my landmarks, friends, etc. already stored. No starting from scratch needed.
  • Network sustainability. Connections made during this project can be kept as I continue to spend my time in-world as Testy.

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Second Life Librarians on Facebook
Library 2.0 FaceBook group
Virtual Worlds: Libraries, Education & Museums on FaceBook
Second Life Librarians on Ning
SL Residents on FaceBook

In my spare time (hah!), I’m going to try and become active in at least some of these groups. I hope to use them to market my final presentation as well. Look me up at my FaceBook profile, on LinkedIn, or at my Ning SL Librarians profile.

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Generations gaming

Jenny Levine points us toward a more complex understanding of who gamers are in her January 2007 “Getting Your Game On” article in American Libraries. She states, among other statistics:

  • The average age of game players is 33
  • In 2005, 25% of all gamers were over the age of 50

Interesting that I had this article fresh in my mind this week at work while on a call with some fellow corporate learning & development colleagues who are just beginning to experiment with SL. Millenials entering the work force is a primary reason that SL is being examined for potential corporate uses. I’m thrilled with the recognition that this generation has a unique learning styles highly tied to immersion in technology. At the same time, Levine’s article made me wonder who would really scramble to adopt this type of workplace initiative? Some boomers whom I work with are some of the most technologically savvy people I know and the most enthusiastic tech evangelists. And I have friends my age who travel through life sans cell phones and with little use for computers in their day-to-day. Gamers drawn to a virtual place like Second Life is more diverse than many of us first assume by associating SL and its compatriots only with Generation Y.

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Social environments

Guimaraes’ ideas about “social environments” will come in particularly handy in my thinking of how to define an informant population for the participant observation portion of this project – a type of virtual ethnographic fieldwork. As Guimaraes states:

Nevertheless, when the focus is the culture developed inside bounded social groups, it is more appropriate to look at their actual behaviour and how they employ different resources in order to perform their social life. … it was possible to trace the group’s boundaries through its network of social relationships and through the shared meaning that gave a sense of ‘group’ to its components. … it was very difficult to specify a single location in cyberspace where this group lived. The main platform employed was The Palace but the group used to travel around different Palace servers. Often instant messaging…was also used to counter temporary network ‘lags’…or to create another layer of interaction…web-based chat rooms or IRC were used. There was also an email list used to publicize events and web pages were maintained with news pictures and links.

Picking a place in SL such as a region or institution may unfairly circumscribe or unnaturally define a user group. Instead, broadly considering the full range of social relationships and ways that people construct community may be a better framework.

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A great essay “Doing Anthropology in Cyberspace: Fieldwork Boundaries and Social Environments” by Mario J.L. Guimaraes Jr has prompted questions about my two-avatar approach & the need to mask my identity as a researcher for the ethnographic portion of this project. I’ve begun to really evaluate what sorts of data will most directly answer my research question(s). And I’ve realized that my original approach adds up to two pots of data that would be like comparing apples and oranges — the apples being 1:1 interviews with SL super users and the oranges being ethnographic data from observing a different group of SL users.

Instead, why not use one avatar, disclose my identity as a researcher to all subjects involved, and do both observation and interviews with the same population? No decisions yet, just something to chew on…

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According to a FaceBook message sent by the Second Life Librarians Group…

Virtual Worlds: Libraries, Education and Museums
Call for Presentations & Papers

Saturday, March 8, 2008 in Second Life

Purpose of the Conference:
To provide a gathering place for librarians, information professionals, educators, museologists, and others to learn about and discuss the educational, informational, and cultural opportunities of virtual worlds.
(more…)

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