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!


Vanity Fair is wearing:


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

COVID Feel Good: A Free Self-Help Virtual Reality App to Treat the Psychological Stress Caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic

The homepage of the COVID Feel Good website

A new, free virtual reality app aims to help those struggling with pandemic-related stress to get their symptoms under control. VRScout reports:

There’s no question about it. The current COVID-19 pandemic has us going through a roller coaster of feelings right now. Not only have we been cut off from normal social gatherings such as family gatherings, concerts and after work hangouts, but it’s preventing us from traveling, putting a damper on many holiday travel plans. 

Thankfully, we have now have access to an extensive array of VR technology that allows us to escape our dreary reality. A recently published research paper shows that using VR to hang out with friends through socialVR platforms, go to concerts, play games, or “visit” other parts of the world actually has a positive impact on your level of happiness.

Italian researchers worked with 400 participants over a three month period as part of this in depth study. Users were encouraged to view 360 photos and videos of other countries, visit virtual gardens and beaches, spend time with other VR users in platforms such as VRChat or Mozilla Hubs, and isolate themselves in a virtual location referred to as the “Secret Garden” to reflect privately.  

Here’s a link to the research paper mentioned in the VRScout article, written by Dr. Giuseppe Riva, a professor of general psychology at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and titled How Cyberpsychology and Virtual Reality Can Help Us to Overcome the Psychological Burden of Coronavirus (which was published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, volume 23, issue 5, 2020).

The paper states:

To help our readers to discover the well-being potential of VR, we suggest the use of a freely available VR tool: ‘‘The Secret Garden.’’ It is a 10-minute 3D 360-degree video (4K resolution supported) that can be found here (https://www.covidfeelgood.com/), designed to combat stress and counter the disappearance of places and communities generated by the coronavirus.

Recently developed in Lombardy, the Italian region at the center of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak by a group of Italian psychologists (https://become-hub.com/en/), it has been designed keeping in mind that providing psychological relief to so many (Lombardy population is >8 million inhabitants) over such a large geographical area would be complex. In fact, to experience it, any smartphone or tablet/PC will work. However, to fully experience the psychological benefits of being in a digital place, a cardboard headset is also necessary, including those sold for 15–30 USD in different digital marketplaces.

Here’s a three-minute YouTube that outlines the process and the app:

The app comes with a detailed, 19-page protocol; instructions are available in a variety of languages, including English:


To start the self-help experience you need:

For more info about the rationale of using VR and the science behind the protocol, you can check the different links provided.


The app is unfortunately only available via cellphone-based VR, not the Oculus Quest or any other VR headsets. For further information, please refer to the COVID Feel Good website.

This project is yet another example of how virtual reality can be used as a way to treat people who are struggling with mental health issues. an area where more and more research is being conducted every day at universities around the world. If you are interested in Dr. Riva’s work, he has also written the following research article:

Riva, G., Mantovani, F., & Wiederhold, B. K. (2020). Positive technology and COVID-19. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(9), 581–587.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

iLRN Is Hosting the 19th IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2020) in VirBELA, November 9th to 13th, 2020

The IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR) is the premier conference for Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR). ISMAR explores the advances in commercial and research activities related to AR and MR and Virtual Reality (VR) by continuing the expansion of its scope over the past several years. The symposium is organized and supported by the IEEE Computer Society, IEEE VGTC and ACM SIGGRAPH.

Here are the virtual conference details from an email I received:


The Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN) is proud to be hosting the 19th IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2020) on our iLRN Virtual Campus, powered by VirBELA, and to be supporting the conference as a Gold Sponsor. ISMAR is the premier technical and scientific research conference on AR and MR technologies. There is still time to register for this exciting conference!

Come along to learn from and interact with researchers from all over the world, who will be sharing the latest advances in the field. In addition, through an immersive experience, you will have the opportunity to enjoy Brazilian cultural attractions in a unique and unforgettable way!

Note: The iLRN Virtual Campus is accessible either (a) in desktop mode on a PC or Mac; or (b) using a tethered PC VR headset (HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest with Link Cable). Sessions will also be streamed on YouTube Live.

Here’s a link to the official conference website with all the details.

The cost to attend this virtual conference is only US$50 for IEEE members, and US$60 for non-members. Here is registration information for the conference.

San José State University School of Information’s Virtual Center for Archives and Records Administration Is Holding a Research Symposium in Second Life on October 24th, 2020

While I have written in the past about the use of Second Life by librarians who have set up virtual public and academic libraries, it should be noted that SL has also been home to not just libraries, but also museums and archives of various kinds throughout its 17-year history.

The School of Information (iSchool) at San José State University (SJSU) in California, which offers a Master of Archives and Records Administration (MARA) degree program, runs the Virtual Center for Archives and Records Administration (VCARA) in Second Life, which describes itself as follows:

An iSchool student group, VCARA is a MARA-created space and community based in the virtual world Second Life (SL). We offer many resources both in SL and online including annual conferences, events, exhibits, trainings, and webcasts. VCARA is open to all students, alumni, educators, and other professionals interested in virtual worlds and any aspect of information science including archives, education, and libraries.

The SJSU School of Library and Information Sciences in Second Life

On October 24th, 2020, VCARA will be hosting an event titled XR: Bridging the Gap Research Symposium:

Plan now to attend the XR: Bridging the Gap Research Symposium on October 24, 2020, from 9 a.m. to noon SLT (Pacific Time).

Venue: VCARA’s XR Research Center in SL on the SJSU SLIS sim (SLURL)

The goal of this symposium is to provide a venue for members of Virtual Worlds, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality communities to share accomplishments and challenges and to learn from one another.

9 a.m. – 10 a.m. – Keynote Address

10 – 10:45 a.m. – Birds of a Feather 

– Accessibility
– Networking/Communities of Practice
– Content Creation/Building

11 a.m. – 12 p.m. – Lightning Poster Session followed by a trip to Mozilla Hubs (with our without your headsets)

I have accepted an invitation to be a co-host of one of the Birds of a Feather discussion sessions taking place, on the topic of Networking and Professional Development in Virtual Worlds and Virtual Reality (along with Bethany Winslow, an Instructional Designer at San José State University). The BoaF sessions will be approximately 45 minutes in a breakout room, after which we will join up again in the main room to give a 5 minute recap of the important aspects of each BoaF.

The event is free, and everyone who is interested in the topic of virtual worlds and virtual reality in archives, education, and libraries is welcome to attend! To find out how you can become involved, please contact Dr. Patricia Franks, at the SJSU iSchool.