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

Author: Kathleen Cool
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.

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