Thursday, March 17, 2005

Wot I done did over my hols: PARC, GDC and methods

This post was originally published at Social Simulation on St. Paddy's Day 2005

Back again from time away, and while I had intended to do much much more reading when I was away, the trip to San Francisco did include some surprise work and new friends. Lots of new friends.

Still in occupational mode when I got on the plane, I attempted to get through some of Christine Hine's Virtual Ethnography, but chose instead to watch Jim Carrey films, arguing to myself that I needed some time away from the office to truly relax and to prepare myself for the week ahead. Although the conference was not specifically related to the topic of my PhD, I knew that I would be meeting folks who were conducting similar research to my own - although thankfully not exactly like it - and therefore the mental break provided by Mr. Carrey and his hilarious ways gave me that needed boost to go in and do some social networking, as it were.

Before the actual Game Developers Conference kicked off, I was on the phone to the Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) to see if I could get a chance meeting with one of the authors of the Star Wars Galaxies work presented, notably, at the Other Players conference last December. With more than a few quarters and a new knowledge of the wide range of pay telephone operators across central California - from San Fran to San Simian - I finally got in touch with Bob Moore. We had lunch at PARC, and over a delicious salad I asked about their past, current and future work, as well as pressing questions regarding data collection, recording, analysis programs and ethical concerns.

I've covered some of the details of their methods in an earlier post, but one of the big takeaways was that Nicolas Ducheneaut utilised social network analysis and actor-network theory in his designs. Groovy. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to meet him or see him at GDC due to constraints on both our schedules and a prevailing illness which decimated most of the conference population.

Bob mentioned that one of the restricting factors on their study was the lack of private communication in the collection method. The only way to get this is through "god access", as expected, but it's been argued in a private email from another party that the company would probably not grant it because the data I'd be collecting is outside of their interests, and I'd have to get permission from every person on the server to access personal chat. I do know, however, that Bob and Nic are in talks with someone about gaining just that for their social research, and it was granted to another researcher in Sweden, from Microsoft for Asheron's Call. Must track that down. Must call TL. Perhaps I'll see her again at Playful Subjects?

If "god access" isn't available, another thing that's lost in simple ethnographic collection in cyberspace is a lack of directionality in conversation. People don't start out every line of their communication with "to Bob". Capturing gestural data is one way of minimising this, but it's still an issue, especially as TSO doesn't feature as developed a system as SWG.

As for ethics, things remain vague. While the AoIR has posted ethical guidelines for such studies, various parties are suggesting that I lay low. Same goes for gaining permission from the publishers. I'd feel better if I made some attempts at the latter, and had a formal plan in relation to the former.

There are pitfalls when it comes to defining the researcher-participant relationship in these online worlds. In a case study cited by the AoIR's ethical guidelines, Hudson & Bruckman (2002) found real resistance to post-hoc/opt-out informed consent. They gained the consent fully from those participants whom they were actively involved with, but for others in a synchronous IRC whose communication could have been implicated (and recorded), they received hostility and the sense that attempts to gather data from non-participants was unacceptably intrusive. Their solution was to create their own channel specifically for the project with information at join/log-in which explained that participants' words may be recorded for research. While this was perfectly appropriate for their study, which was focussed on the measurable outcomes of a particular form of communication, for research questions such as my own, which rely upon exploring fully-fledged and realised communities of loads of people, such a prospect is a) daunting and b) impossible. Man, I'd love to get in on the ground floor of a new MMOG. Something like Dave Jones' APB, which is set in a real world, not a fantasy environment. Out 2007... Man, the questions I could ask! OK, Aleks. Put those dreams away until after the PhD...

Bob told me about his and Nic's new project, PlayOn, which is focussed on community, interaction and culture. The first two are aimed at applications solution for future game design, but the latter is what I'm really keen on - the observation of and extrapolation from online social interaction to the offline world. It's more closely aligned what some of the folks at TN discuss, and what papers from State of Play address - what can we learn about offline culture from observing online worlds? What can we discover about how people develop political systems and governance in virtuality? How do communities develop? How do community cultures develop across a population? While their work is very much focussed in the game-space, I'm sure the results have implications for reality.

I missed most of the Serious Games Summit due to other commitments and mis-communicated schedule changes, but there are excellent transcripts at Wonderland, particularly Koster's and Ondrejka's talks. She also notes other Serious Games sites out there. Indeed, the most valuable thing I did was head to the TN gathering on Tuesday night, at the suggestion of Raph Koster, where I saw old friends and met new ones. I commented to Raph on my interest in his 2003 GDC presentation on social networks in virtual worlds and he said he'd make an intro to a prof at Stanford who's doing similar work. Also, Cory and I chatted about various individuals who are using his Second Life with people with physical and mental disabilities, as socialisation and positive "therapy". He's already passed on a couple of blogs: Brigadoon and Live2Give.

So ultimately, there's lots of work going on and it's always good to make contacts with like-minded individuals. Thus far, I've found no one who's doing exactly what I'm doing, so that's good. I know I have a good group of people to lean on in the virtual worlds direction, and I can lean on the group at Surrey - most importantly, my supervisors! - for their thoughts on both social networks and social influence.


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