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!

Anthropologist Dr. Tom Boellstorff Teaches His Course on Digital Cultures Within Second Life

“We need to get away from talking about the physical world as the real world,” says anthropology professor Tom Boellstorff, who built Anteater Island. “Online sociality is a set of cultures that can be just as real as what’s in the physical world.”
Photo source: Steve Zylius / UCI

Dr. Tom Boellstorff, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, has moved his course on digital cultures into Second Life due to the pandemic:

Before COVID-19 restrictions, Anthro 128C was set to be held in the Anteater Learning Pavilion, a campus facility that encourages collaboration. When Boellstorff learned that it would have to go online, he immediately logged into Second Life and began constructing Anteater Island, a digital culture of its own.

He finished it in about a week, ensuring that it reflected the structure of the class, which involves lectures on weekly readings and group research projects. The site includes an auditorium and meeting areas for each student team, as well as spaces where they can display their work to the public at the end of the quarter, as had been planned before the pandemic. Indeed, Anteater Island retains many of the features that the Anteater Learning Pavilion would have offered.

Although the shift was a challenge, Boellstorff was in a fortunate position. He had been conducting rigorous fieldwork on Second Life since 2004 and published Coming of Age in Second Life, a book-length ethnographic study of the virtual world, in 2008. In addition, the class, which he had taught several times before, was *about* cultures in the digital realm. Due to the sudden lockdowns, students were about to become more immersed in them than ever.

The description for this undergraduate anthropology course reads as follows:

Explores cultural and political implications of the infotech revolution and the ways new media are used around the world, new cultural practices and spaces (e.g., cybercafes), debates surrounding the meanings of these new technologies, and their implications for transforming society.

Second Life filmmaker Draxtor Despres profiled Tom and his work in a 2015 video, part of his World Makers series:

Drax also produced a full-length feature documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me, about Tom’s research on disability in virtual worlds:


Thanks to Luca for the heads up!