Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds

I have just posted a (rough) draft of my latest paper, entitled Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds to SSRN.  Virtual worlds make such great research testbeds precisely because people act in a lot of ways (especially economic ways) as if the virtual world were real.  But that complicates ethical research design: you can’t engage in activities that threaten the subject’s digital property or community, for example.  This raises human subjects research issues that a lot of Institutional Review Boards may not immediately take into consideration.  Here’s the abstract — but the important part is that this is still a work-in-progress (it’s coming out in a symposium issue of the U.C. Irvine Law Review next year), and I would love comments or suggestions.

Abstract: Researchers love virtual worlds. They are drawn to virtual worlds because of the opportunity to study real populations and real behavior in shared simulated environments. The growing number of virtual worlds and population growth within such worlds has led to a sizeable increase in the number of human subjects experiments taking place in such worlds.

Virtual world users care deeply about their avatars, their virtual property, their privacy, their relationships, their community, and their accounts. People within virtual worlds act much as they would in the physical world, because the experience of the virtual world is “real” to them. The very characteristics that make virtual worlds attractive to researchers complicate ethical and lawful research design. The same principles govern research in virtual worlds as the physical world. However, the change in context can cause researchers to lose sight of the fact that virtual world research subjects may suffer very real harm to property, reputation, or community as the result of flawed experimental design. Virtual world research methodologies that fail to consider the validity of users’ experiences risk harm to research subjects. This article argues that researchers who put subjects’ interests in danger run the risk of violating basic human subjects research principles.

Although hundreds of articles and studies examine virtual worlds, none has addressed the interplay between the law and best practices of human subjects research in those worlds. This article fills that gap.

 Virtual worlds are valuable research environments precisely because the relationships and responses of users are measurably real. The article concludes that human subjects researchers must protect the very real interests of virtual worlds inhabitants in their property, community, privacy, and reputation.

The article proceeds in five parts. After Part I introduces the scope of the piece, Part II explains virtual worlds and discusses why the marriage of social networking with three-dimensional videogame graphics complicates experimental design. Part III explores current and developing practices in virtual worlds research, as well as the various areas of law that bear on such research. Part IV outlines solutions and best practices for human subjects research in virtual worlds, and Part V offers a conclusion.

X-posted: Terra Nova

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