studies of second life (part ı)

“what would happen if i studied second life as if it were an exotic culture?”

that’s the question tom bukowski, a social anthropologist in first life, asked when he entered second life on june 3, 2004.

“there were about 5,000 accounts then, and only 200 could be online at the same time. when i started, i spent about a week, maybe ten hours total flying over every corner of every sim. that would not be doable now,” bukowski laughs.

since those days, he’s befriended, talked to, and interviewed lots of his fellow sl residents. this will result in the book “coming of age in second life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human”, due for release in april 2008.

so how did he start? “i’ve loved video games ever since i was a kid. then i heard about things like the sims online and second life. so i explored a bit, and it soon became clear it would be very doable, very interesting, and very fun.” but no one wanted to fund his research.

“mainstream anthropology still is slow to understand how important virtual worlds are. i’ve joked with people that i’ve gotten more negative response for studying sl than gay indonesians, which really surprised me. but fortunately, i’m already a professor, and i was set for tenure, so i had the freedom to do it. and it doesn’t cost that much to study sl. you don’t need a plane ticket,” he laughs.

one of the tactics he’s used, is to take sl on its own terms, and not try to learn who people are in first life. “one of the main things i argue is that what makes virtual worlds ‘worlds’ is that they are places, distinct places. ideas, people, all sorts of things can go back and forth between the virtual and actual worlds. there’s a common misunderstanding in the research on virtual worlds that movement between the actual world and a virtual world ‘blurs’ them, when in fact the movement helps define the virtual world as such,” bukowski says.

asked about what he wanted to find out, he answers: “one of the great things about anthropology is that you can go in with an open slate as much as possible. i wanted the research questions to come out of my engagement with the fieldsite, rather than predetermining them beforehand. so most stuff emerged after spending time here.”

when pushed, bukowski reveals a little more: “at the beginning, i had some basic framing questions: what is identity like in virtual worlds? what’s community like? what’s the difference between culture in the virtual worlds compared to culture in the actual world? and, in some ways, the most interesting question: what is not different about culture in virtual worlds?”

bukowski also writes about avatars and embodiment, what it means when you can change gender, race and species any time. “and i look at economics, including what i call ‘creationist capitalism – the way that, in virtual worlds, being creative is seen as the key to making money. and i have stuff on the history of virtual worlds, on griefing, and on community. all sorts of stuff. it’s meant to be a broad overview.”

i will publish the rest of our talk in a second post tomorrow.

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~ by theresecarfagno on July 28, 2007.

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