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!

You Can Take Part in a Research Survey on Your Use of Social VR During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Dr. Miguel Barreda-Ángeles, a Communication Science researcher the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, is conducting a survey on the use of social VR platforms during the coronavirus pandemic. He says:

The aim of this study is to understand how people are using Virtual Reality social networks (for instance, VRChat, AltSpaceVR, etc.) during the COVID-19 pandemic. The knowledge generated can be useful for understanding the role of new communication technologies in health crises. 

The survey is completely anonymous; we do not collect information that could be used to identify you. It takes about seven minutes to complete it. 

If you are interested in participating in this survey, here is the link to get started.

A Reminder to Complete the HEMOSY/Project Polis Survey

Not too long ago, I wrote about an interesting social VR project which is still in the very earliest design stages, called HEMOSY (a headset) and Project Polis (a platform).

As part of that blogpost, I shared a survey link and asked my readers to fill it out, as part of the project’s market research.

I have heard back that, so far, only five people have responded to the survey, so I am reposting the link here, and I ask that you please fill it out. It will only take five minutes of your time!

Here is a link to the survey. Thank you!

HEMOSY and Project Polis: A Brief Introduction—And a Reader Survey!

One of the things that I would not have predicted when I first embarked on this two-and-a-half-year blogging odyssey is that, instead of me having to go out and hunt for stories, the stories would start to come to me.

And so it happened that I got the following message via the Contact page of my blog, from a young Swiss man named Emmanuele Leggio:

My name is Emmanuele Leggio and I am the head of a startup project called Polis, the city with infinite space and zero distance. We aim to build a Virtual Co-working / event space. Yes another YARTVRA*, But I do have a peculiarity and that is the VR helmet I patented the Hemosy. This helmet captures the face of the user and projects it in a virtual reality environment. We can do the same [as] the other co-working [apps], but we make sure you can see the real face and emotion of the people around you.

The reason I contact you is because I would like to ask you if is possible to run a questionnaire or pool from your readers. I wish to test my theory that seeing the real person in front of them is worth buying a VR headset.

*Yes! I finally got someone else on the planet to actually use the acronym I had coined, YARTVRA!

So, I took a look at his website, which outlines a proposed project involving two components:

  • HEMOSY (HEas MOunted SYstem) is a VR headset which uses cameras to record and transmit the actual facial expressions of the user; and
  • Polis, a social VR platform where HEMOSY-recorded video is projected. Among the possible uses Emmauele suggests is a campus for online university courses.

And this ambitious, even audacious, plan is more than just an idea; Emmanuele has already filed for—and received—a patent for his helmet (text is in Italian).

So, suitably impressed by this young man and his bold plans, I agreed to help him by asking you, my blog readers, to fill out an online survey that he has created. (Think of it as market research. I am also quite curious to see what the results of his survey will be, and I will share them with you when it is complete.)

Emmanuele says:

Hello My name is Emmanuele and I’m the founder of Polis, a start up (www.startuppolis.com)  that wishes to bring face-to-face meetings to VR. We are in the early stages, and we would like to test same assumptions we have.  Here is a quick questionnaire:  


In case you have questions for us, or you wish to communicate with us, please use this link: https://startuppolis.com/contatti/

We thank you deeply for all your feedback. 

So please take a moment to complete Emmanuele’s survey. Thank you!