Dr. Tom Boellstorff’s Research on Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times: You Can Take Part in a Survey About Your Use of Animal Crossing and Second Life

How are you using virtual worlds during the coronavirus pandemic?
(today’s styling credits for Vanity Fair can be found at the end of this blogpost)

Wagner James Au, of the long-running virtual worlds blog New World Notes, reports on a timely research study being undertaken by Dr. Tom Boellstorff, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine:

The study is led by my pal Tom Boellstorff of UC Irvine, who’s easily among the most preeminent academics with a focus on virtual worlds. (He’s the author of Coming of Age in Second Life, among many other related works.)

“I’ve been conducting various research projects in Second Life for almost 17 years now,” Tom tells me, explaining the genesis of this study. “A couple years ago, I completed a study of disability in Second Life, and after that wonderful research experience moved on to some other projects (I’m actually finishing up a book on the Intellivision video game system from the early 1980s, which is great fun!) But then when COVID-19 hit, I decided to return to Second Life to see how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction. I was lucky enough to get support from the National Science Foundation that means I have three wonderful graduate research assistants. Until next April we are conducting research in both Second Life and Animal Crossing. It’s a wild ride, setting up research with very little warning, but it’s been a great experience for all of us.”

(I have written about Tom before here, here and here on my blog. You can watch Draxtor Despres’ full hour-long documentary about Dr. Tom Boellstorff’s earlier research on ability-diverse users of virtual worlds, Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me, on YouTube. I can recommend this film highly! Drax did a great job.)

According to the webpage describing the research project:

This research project is about how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction. As many have noted, what we call “social distancing” is really physical distancing. Due to the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people have been socializing online, in new ways. Better understanding these new digital cultures will have consequences for COVID prevention: successful physical distancing will rely on new forms of social closeness online. It will also have consequences for everything from work and education to climate change.

We are a research team using the methods of anthropology to study online social interaction. Anthropologists use in-depth qualitative methods, in particular participant observation, interviews, and focus groups, to understand culture—the meanings, practices, and relationships that make up the “common sense” of our everyday lives. People often think of anthropologists as people who travel to “exotic” or “remote” cultures, but the methods and theories of anthropology can be used to study culture anywhere in the world. That now includes online cultures.

Our research takes place entirely online, focusing on two virtual worlds: Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Second Life. We work as a team in these two virtual worlds to understand how people are using virtual worlds in the wake of the pandemic. Central to the project is that there is not just one way to be online. Virtual worlds are places where individuals interact with avatars in online environments. They have different characteristics than social network sites like Facebook, streaming websites like YouTube, or chat programs like Zoom, though they share some features with all of these. Better understanding how people are using virtual worlds in the wake of the pandemic might provide innovative strategies for preventing viral transmission, by forging new forms of social closeness in the context of physical distancing. It might also help us better respond to the transformed social lives we are all destined to encounter in the wake of COVID-19.

Among the preliminary research findings is the following:

At least some of the time, virtual worlds can be a way to be alone, not a way to socialize. Due to the pandemic, many people are living with family members and roommates, and have less privacy than before. Virtual worlds can be places to get away from this. In other worlds, the pandemic has led not just to social distancing, but what we might term being “socially packed.” Virtual worlds can provide a different kind of “social distancing” to counter this loss of privacy.

Here’s the Animal Crossing: New Horizons survey and the Second Life survey. Each survey should take 10–15 minutes to complete. If you play Animal Crossing or use Second Life, please take part in the surveys!


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Thank you to Wagner James Au for the heads-up!

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