11 May 2012

Virtual Ethics, Pt. 2: Coming of Age in Second Life

My research into virtual ethics does not intend to be scoped down to any one virtual environment in particular, but is focused more broadly at human ethics in virtual environments in general. Some of the same issues that have been dealt with at a state or federal level in the U.S. and other countries, such as the right to free speech or assembly, will be assessed in terms of virtual worlds. For example, according to the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph, use of the application Foursquare, which allows users to check in to various locations, has been prohibited in China since 2010 (Beaumont 2010). While no credible explanation for the censorship has been issued, it could be related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s censorship laws differ greatly from those of other countries, such as Canada, Germany, and the U.S., and could influence the way Chinese and Chinese-American users interact in virtual worlds.

That said, it would be difficult to analyze and criticize virtual environments without experience in them. Commenting on specific communities without a real framework of how those communities operate further complicates research. To put it another way, to study a particular culture one must enter into that culture and engage in active participation. When dealing with virtual environments, it can be logistically simpler and more cost effective to perform such observations.

As with any ethnographic research, complete immersion in the environment under study is required to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subjects. This is no different than studying virtual communities. However, due to the length and scope of the project, little time has been and will be spent in a specific virtual environment. Instead, a deep and intensive review of Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (2008) has been essential in understanding this arena. While Boellstorff’s research was not focused on ethics or legal issues in Second Life, his book describes many of the common interactions between users, through their avatars, and the wide variety of experiences one can have in this particular virtual environment, including interacting with less-than-desirable individuals.

The virtual world Second Life should be of particular interest to anthropologists, policy makers, and law enforcement personnel because of the sharp divide between a solely virtual construct and reality. While some crossover does occur, such as through the virtual assembly of people with a particular actual world interest or virtual political endorsements for actual world candidates, many aspects of the virtual environments remain entirely within themselves. Most Second Life relationships do not have an actual world crossover. The relationships that develop between individuals and groups may never have an actual world component, despite the fact that any two people who interact in a virtual world could live within a relatively close proximity to one another - or as fans of the The Guild may recognize, despite one member's tenacity to show up in the hometown of another player.

Furthermore, virtual selves, represented by avatars, can be representative of a user’s actual world appearance, but do not have to be. Because avatars are not required to be a virtual doppelganger of the user, many users choose avatars of a different sex, ethnicity, body size and shape, or even species. In some instances, users may feel that the avatars are a better representative of their true self. In others, users may just create avatars different from themselves for the sake of being different. In either case, the use of virtual representations of themselves may give some users license to act in ways that are not typical of their actual world selves. They may speak more candidly, perhaps using more racist or otherwise vulgar speech, or behave in a way that is antagonistic. Boellstorff found this exact phenomenon in his research: “the actual world is more characterized by ‘role-playing’ than virtual worlds, where one’s self is open to greater self-fashioning and can be more assertive” (Boellstorff 121). In essence, the guise of anonymity may encourage some users to act unabashedly, boldly, or even unethically.

Part 3, which addresses crossover between virtual and actual world culture, is coming soon. --Randy

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