In this fascinating excerpt from Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method by Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce & T. L. Taylor from Princeton Press (a sponsoring partner to this blog) the authors explain the importance of virtual artifacts in the virtual worlds they study as academics -- among them, Uru Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft and Dreamscape.
When ethnographers conduct research in the physical world, artifacts play an important role in understanding culture (Appadurai 1988; Spyer 1997; Hoskins 1998; Miller 2005). The artifacts of a community—how they circulate, are incorporated into everyday life, and are given meaning—help illuminate culturally specific meanings and practices. When we speak of “virtual worlds,” the term “world” is not just a metaphor. One way in which virtual worlds resemble physical world fieldsites more than other online contexts (like blogs or social networking websites) is that they have place and space, embodiment, and objects.
Ethnographic data collection should thus take virtual artifacts into account. The range of these objects is near-limitless and includes clothing and armor, furniture, weapons, accessories, toys, functional objects, knickknacks, body parts, and architecture. Some of these objects will be manufactured by the company or organization that governs the virtual world; others may be user-generated or modified; some may even be self-replicating. Going back to the earliest days of virtual worlds, virtual objects (even those composed solely of text) were key to social life and profoundly shaped personal identity. For example, inhabitants of a space may use an avatar accessory to tie them to group membership. In Celia’s study of Uru refugees, virtual artifacts from clothing, to vehicles to buildings, to ornamentation and landscaping, including flags, were vital markers of group identity (2008c). Tom discovered that virtual objects were central to a common valuation of “crafting” in Second Life, which influenced beliefs regarding commodities and capitalism online. Bonnie found that World of Warcraft players were deeply engaged with the weapons and armor they accumulated, developing strong interests in the artifacts’ functional and aesthetic properties. T.L. found that in the Dreamscape the artifacts of the world (especially particular avatar heads) often signalled group affiliation. Virtual objects can shape senses of both community belonging and individual distinctiveness.
During fieldwork, ethnographers can often obtain examples of virtual objects for later analysis and study. In some cases (like Second Life), objects contain data revealing who made and owns them, as well as whether the object is free to give away or can be modified. Such information can reveal norms for commodification and sharing. We can also attend to how virtual objects are used. Do certain objects have a special status, or act as social capital inworld? Do communities use particular objects to signal membership? How are objects used to structure and perform personal identity? How do the affordances of virtual objects, such as interactions with virtual gravity or an ability to be scripted, affect their use and meaning? In some virtual worlds, ethnographers can learn about cultural norms by observing how participants creatively repurpose preexisting items. In Dreamscape, T.L. examined how players used various boxes and knick-knacks to create everything from living rooms to hot tubs. Celia’s informants in Uru and There.com reappropriated items to create their own sporting events, using traffic cones as bowling pins and tent tethers as tightropes.
Using objects to stimulate conversations with our informants can be a powerful tool for exploring aspects of a culture that might otherwise go unspoken. In Dreamscape, a group of participants created an inworld museum (complete with official visiting hours) to chronicle important virtual objects, many of which were rare and demonstrated changes to the world over time. When T.L. visited the museum, talking about the objects stimulated insightful conversations with the curators, who had extensive knowledge about the virtual world’s history.
Uru Live-inspired site in Second Life -- from this 2007 NWN post
Celia spent many hours with Uru refugees in Second Life and There.com discussing the various Uru-inspired artifacts they created, including their own virtual museum that charted the group’s history.
Virtual objects are not limited to things avatars can hold in their virtual hands: they also include less portable objects like buildings and trees, as well as landscape elements like rivers and mountains. Understanding this aspect of the world may even extend to exploring underlying code, as when T.L. analyzed the way player bodies were actually constructed, via the software, in early MUDs (Taylor 2004). Collecting data about such objects and code can be valuable in crafting ethnographic accounts. For instance, informants may express important things about themselves through the ways they construct and customize their virtual houses, stores, and landscapes. The creation of spaces and objects for others to use or duplicate was a prime social activity T.L. saw in early MUDs. Celia found that members of the Uru community in There.com frequently used player-created, Uru-themed dwellings as their homes, shaping a sense of group association. When Uru refugees opened the University of There campus, these structures became a prevalent feature, even though the campus was not Uru-themed. We can use participant observation to learn how informants move through virtual buildings, which can reveal norms for embodiment and group dynamics.
For example, Tom learned that a norm in Second Life was that a resident should stand up and actually walk out of a home before teleporting away. If a person teleported while sitting in a home without warning (termed “poofing”), other residents would often worry the person’s computer had crashed, or would conclude the person was impolite. Interactions with virtual artifacts and spaces are regularly an important aspect to be attending to within our ethnographic practice.
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