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Ethical issues and best practices

for conducting qualitative research in virtual worlds

SL: Ambrosia108 Azalee VWBPE July 24th, 2013

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Context Key Concepts:


Virtual Worlds are persistent,


Avatars are textual or 3D graphical

synchronous and unstructured multi-user immersive web-based 3D graphical places in which networks of people are connected, supported by a technological framework (Bartle, 2007; Bell, 2008; Messinger, Stroulia & Lyons, 2008; Warburton, 2009).

representations of identity that the user controls through which the user has agency in a virtual world (Bartle, n.d.; Bell, 2008; Kromand, 2007).

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Context •

Personal experience in Second Life sparked my research interest in experiences of people with disabilities who use virtual worlds. I have since conducted 2 studies on the topic.

Virtual worlds research is new since the early 2000s - Methodologies are still being developed

Common methodologies seen in virtual worlds include: survey, correlational, experimental, ethnographic, and narrative.

I’ll focus on qualitative approaches involving interviewing

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Context Thesis Statement: Like all research there are ethical issues to consider. Renewed attention to ethical issues is required for conducting research in virtual worlds because of the particular psychosociological, environmental and technological contexts they create.

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Overview of Issues • • • • • • • • Thursday, 31 October, 13

Self-Representation - The Avatar Deception Informed Consent Age Verification Rewarding Participants Veracity of the Data Privacy and Confidentiality A word about Special Populations 5

Self-Representation • • •

Building Trust/Credibility Avoiding Deception Researcher Representation

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Avatar Name Avatar Appearance Profile 6

Deception •

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The anonymity given in virtual worlds can easily lead to deception:

• •

Multiple avatars - Alts


Multiple users on one avatar

Don’t judge a book by its cover or a user by their avatar(s). 7

Informed Consent •

Signatures as avatar names and a yes button to confirm that they have read and consent to the study

Notecard them a copy of the consent form before interviewing

Restate main points before commencing interviews:

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Confidentiality level Can quit anytime Data may be published 8

Age Verification •

Appearances of avatars can be deceiving: Adults using child avatars, children and teens using adult avatars.

Second Life has PG, Mature and Adult simulations

“age verification” with a driver’s license is required to access Mature Simulations.

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Rewarding Participants For L, I can use all my alts and make a bundle!

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Often researchers reward people for their participation with Linden dollars (L), a currency in Second Life.

In response people may: lie about their eligibility for the study, fabricate stories, participate more than once through alts. It may also affect the value they give to the study.

Instead: focus on intrinsic rewards for participation when recruiting, and recruit from groups already related to your population if possible. 10

Veracity of the Data •

Respecting anonymity is a tacit assumption in virtual worlds.

If you want to preserve the authenticity of the virtual world context, and the sense of anonymity the user feels (and for them to open up about their experiences without fear), don’t ask for their real world information.


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Build a rapport Triangulate the data over time Use your judgment 11


Privacy and Confidentiality

In a social virtual world it is not that simple - Local voice and text chat can be heard by anyone within range. Anyone can drop by at any time, almost anywhere.

• •

IMs are not allowed to be copied according to TOS. Ensure that where you conduct interviews is on a secure and private place on a mature sim.


Applies to both real life and avatar information - The avatar name is not enough as a pseudonym. Avatar images are also recognizable enough to identify a person.

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Privacy and Confidentiality


3040m up in the virtual sky on a private platform Thursday, 31 October, 13


People with (dis)abilities •

Know how they are interfacing with the computer and the virtual world

Accessibility of research information and consent form - taylor to your population (text, voice, accessible website, notecard)

Give them the choice to communicate in text or voice

Lack of body-language or verbal cues Be sensitive and think ahead to their needs

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How are you feeling? Would you like a break? 14

Summary of Best Practices • • Represent yourself as a researcher in your profile and appear as professional as possible in-world.

Be aware of the possibility of deception, but if you can avoid breaking the tacit understanding of anonymity in-world, do it. Instead arrange the design of your study and methodology so that it takes that into account.

Assuming participants remain anonymous, checking the veracity of the data can be difficult. Use triangulation methods (over time, between people) and use your judgement to ascertain if the data seems solid.

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Provide multiple ways the participant can access the informed consent form, and verify that they do consent before beginning the interviewing process. Be sensitive to cues that may point towards them not wanting to participate, or not understanding what they consented to.

Use Second Life’s age verification process to your advantage. Conduct your interviews on an age-verified (Mature) simulation to ensure they are over 18 years in age.

Do not reward participants in Linden Dollars or other in-world currencies.You’ll be likely to get false data from alts. Focus on intrinsic rewards for participation when recruiting, and recruit from groups already related to your population if possible.

Ensure privacy by conducting interviews in a private and secure place far from the eyes and ears of other people.

Keep avatar names and pictures private, unless your participant explicitly consented to it. Confidentiality issues apply to both worlds.

When working with special populations, be sensitive to how they are interfacing with the computer and virtual world. Provide them with multiple ways of communicating and be sensitive to cues that they might need a break. 15

References Bartle, R. (n.d.). Avatar, Character, Persona. Retrieved from: Bartle, R. A. (2007). “Making Places.” In Borries, Friedrich von, Walz, Steffen P. & Böttger, Matthias (eds.), Space Time Play. Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism: The Next Level. Basel: Birkhäuser Publishing. pp. 158-163. Bell, M. W. (2008). Toward a Definition of "Virtual Worlds". Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(1), 1-5. Retrieved from: Kromand, D. (2007). Avatar Categorization. Situated Play, Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference. Messinger, P., Stroulia, E. & Lyons, K. (2008). A Typology of Virtual Worlds: Historical Overview and Future Directions. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(1). Retrieved from Warburton, S. (2009). Second Life in higher education: Assessing the potential for and the barriers to deploying virtual worlds in learning and teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(3), 414-426. doi: 10.1111/j. 1467-8535.2009.00952.x

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Questions and Reflections?

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Contact me: In Second Life: Ambrosia108 Azalee

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