Virtual Research Ethics
The flood of virtual world research has become a torrent with academic institutions finally turned on to some of the interesting social phenomena which occur as a result of real-live human beings interacting in online space (shock horror). To date, however, it’s been rather difficult to get professional and scholarly journals interested in publishing such work. Finally, there’s an indication that traditional science is taking this area seriously, with coverage of some of the more prominent studies in top flight magazine Nature.
But while this article discusses the opportunities virtual worlds offer social scientists for “manipulating society” for its own ends, /. points to another Nature article which highlights some of the ethical conundrums which emerge when bringing old school ideas (and experiments) to the digital realm.
/. reports that Stanley Milgram‘s classic compliance shock study – in which participants were asked to increase the power of electricity given to a “person” in another room for incorrect responses to the point of suspected serious harm – has been replicated in an immersive virtual environment. From the paper, on PLoS One:
Stanley Milgram’s 1960s experimental findings that people would administer apparently lethal electric shocks to a stranger at the behest of an authority figure remain critical for understanding obedience. Yet, due to the ethical controversy that his experiments ignited, it is nowadays impossible to carry out direct experimental studies in this area. In the study reported in this paper, we have used a similar paradigm to the one used by Milgram within an immersive virtual environment. Our objective has not been the study of obedience in itself, but of the extent to which participants would respond to such an extreme social situation as if it were real in spite of their knowledge that no real events were taking place.
The results, as reported in the paper above, indicate that respondents to the current test felt similar distress as those who took part in the initial (offline) experiments. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the environment is virtual or not; what happens online affects the offline person.
There are countless papers on this crossover; Julian Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace is the most readable. What this and other examples of human response to virtual action demonstrate is a need for ethical protection for participants who may be distressed by what happens to them in online research. To date there is no overarching ethics protocol for internet scholars (each study must go through the ethics processes required by the university or research institute which it is allied with, and each country has its own ethics philosophies), although the Association of Internet Researchers have developed a broad-scale guide which is quickly becoming standard.
Virtual worlds in particular pose interesting questions for researchers as they replicate (to an extent) the offline social space (economies, stratifications, hierarchies, community processes) and therefore users/players’ experiences online are often extrapolated to non-game social phenomena (for more on this, read up on the topic at Terra Nova). But rather than assuming that a population of an online game or an immersive virtual environment is made up of a bunch of isolated digital guinea pigs, researchers must remember that, as the Milgram replication reminds us, there are people behind the orcs. And they deserve our respect.
Note: I completely forgot to post this gamesblog article here, where it’s far more relevant to my own reserach. I published it there on 8 January 2006.
For the record, the above is a complete cut and paste. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend going to Guardian Unlimited to immerse yourself in the great discussion that resulted from the post. But feel free to comment here as well!