Virtually Ethical

As a qualitative researcher, one of my primary areas of concern when conducting research in a RL or virtual environment setting is ethics – in other words, ensuring that participants are treated ethically and with the respect they deserve. Ethics has also been, interestingly, the primary barrier when conducting my research. As many of you in academia know, every study involving human subjects in the United States must be reviewed by an ethics committee, the Institutional Review Board (the IRB). Usually these committees are used to dealing with RL research situations, including face-to-face as well as telephone interviews. When I submitted my in-world only research study and data collection plan, I was met by two extreme positions – on one hand, some thought that avatars were not humans at all and therefore, the IRB (recall that they review study involving HUMAN subjects) need not be involved; on the other hand, some were extremely troubled that I would have to protect two different and separate identities.

Eventually, my study was reviewed as any traditional submission would, and the committee treated my avatarial participants just as they would any human subject. Looking back, it does bring up several important questions which, in my opinion, have not been adequately addressed by the literature on virtual worlds and virtual world research. It is obvious that an increasing number of studies will be conducted in-world in the near future, or at least, not in a physical environment with a flesh-and-blood entity. This brings the question of how avatars vs. typist should be treated in such situations. Do the avatar and typist hold the same human rights? Is it just me or does this whole spiel sound eerily familiar?

Ultimately, the issue is that most people believe that the typist and the avatar share the same identity. Obviously, we know that while this does sometimes occur, it is often not the case. One of the few academic articles on this increasingly problematic issue stressed, as in Boellstorff’s seminal work on SL, to respect an avatar’s SL identity at all cost. And this is where things get tricky – as a stand-alone entity, does the avatar even have a “self” in the Cartesian sense? It looks like we are back to playing Dennett’s favorite game – if my brain is in a vat and through this brain, I control a body (avatar), WHERE AM I?

For more information on conducting ethically sound research in virtual environments, check out:

Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of age in Second Life: An Anthropologist explores the virtually human.Princeton,NJ:PrincetonUniversity Press.

McKee, H. A., & Porter, J. E. (2009). Playing a good game: Ethical issues in researching MMOGs and virtual worlds. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics,  2(1), 5-  37.

 Minocha, S., Tran, M. Q., & Reeves, A. J. (2010). Conducting empirical research in virtual worlds: Experiences from two projects in Second Life. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 3(1). Retrieved from

Moschini, E. (2010). The Second Life researcher toolkit: An exploration of in-world tools, methods and approaches for researching educational projects in Second Life. In A. Peachey, J. Gillen, D. Livingstone, & S. Smith-Robins (Eds.),  Researching learning in virtual worlds (pp. 31-51).London: Springer.        

Stanton, J. M. (2010). Virtual worlds, the IRB and a user’s bill of rights. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 3(1), 3-15. Retrieved from

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Categories: Digital Ethnography


I am a graduate student studying how people experience informal education, particularly art, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My background is in both Art History and Computer Science. Please feel free to email me or IM me in SL (Kathleen Koolhoven) if you have any questions regarding my current research or want to participate in my study.

4 Comments on “Virtually Ethical”

  1. Tuesday, 17 July 2012 at 01:44 UTC #

    Interesting questions Kathleen. As you know, one axis that people think about avatar experiences on is Augmentation & Immersion.

    Augmentation can be when you’re a university professor doing a visible project in a virtual space, a designer making and selling products, and many other things. So you say here “I” am, and this is my “image” in this space. Some like the richness of the “whole person” in this modality.

    Immersionists are doing RP in a sense. So it’s not, yes, I’m Professor So and So and this is my avatar, rather, it’s

    I am Athena!

    Links to RL, like RL name, voice chat, etc, all ENHANCE an Augmentation experience, but they all DETRACT from an Immersion experience.

    I could spend a lot of time “looking” like Athena, but then if on voice chat you hear in the background, my emphysema-ridden, raspy voice, hiss out “aw shut up you little shit, and bring me my cigarettes and another beer”… well… I’m not really Athena anymore… now am I?

    It’s something like the way some people find a Book more immersive than a Film. The film is much visually richer… and those actors sure are sexy… but it’s all given to me… in the book it really is an interaction between the reader and the text. So by not giving you all those “RL Hooks,” Athena can be more “real.”

    Speaking of books… IDK how many times I’ve been to an author reading and the author says, Well, I planned for Character X to do Y on P100, but when I got there, the character simply refused to do it.

    Authors talk all the time about characters having a life of their own, different from the author. I think this is true of a deeply realized character.

    In a virtual world however, not only do you have an “author” embodying a different persona… but that identity goes out and interacts with, has experiences with, other “authors” or personas or different blobs of grey matter. So even if Author (typist) and Avatar ARE isomorphic at time 0, in a short while, the avatar, as “RP’d” will have their own unique experiences. Yes of course the typist knows about that…

    Because the RL self is often a mystery, we sometimes crave access to this secret knowledge. And while it’s true that it would offer some insight, I think we exaggerate it. It is also true that if I gain knowledge about your parents, I’ll know a little bit more about you, yet few people meet others at parties and ask a lot of questions about each other’s parents. And as my emphysema-voice example suggests, more can be less.

    I understand that some think an avatar being a unique, sentient entity is delusional… but you are a different person in the boardroom and the bedroom… with your child and with your parent… with your employee and your employer… etc… and really, nobody wants you to blur those roles. If you bring your bedroom behavior into the boardroom, I might well sue you for harassment… yet under very specific and different circumstances, I might like it. In RL we erect these kinds of walls all the time, and nobody wants them to come down, yet with avatars we assume they have no civil rights or privacy or individuality.

    • Wednesday, 18 July 2012 at 02:46 UTC #

      I like your first 3 paragraphs, great distinction between augmentation & immersion.

  2. Tuesday, 17 July 2012 at 03:30 UTC #

    Oh, PS: here’s a post Xue wrote about Liz Solo’s work and finding a resonance with James Luna:

  3. Tuesday, 17 July 2012 at 23:14 UTC #

    You take on huge topics, Kat!

    “Do the avatar and typist hold the same human rights? Is it just me or does this whole spiel sound eerily familiar?”

    “Ultimately, the issue is that most people believe that the typist and the avatar share the same identity.”

    I’m not sure this is the direction you want to head with this, but these are the ideas that started flowing…

    I struggle with these issues in my own identity. In a sense, Yordie’s “typist” (I call her my human) is different than Yordie. Because I believe the Internet can be a very dangerous place, my human feels that Yordie is a buffer against many abuses that can happen on the Internet and especially as an avatar. I want Yordie to have the same rights as her human, but I want her human to enjoy the safety of anonymnity.

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