The previous section addressed ethical dilemmas and their (individual, institutional and national) suggestions to solve them. As there are many ideas and recommendations to solve ethical dilemmas in ethnography generally (and even there exist only guidelines, but no true solutions), the researcher must act ethically wisely in all phases of his/her project. This section will ask about the ethical standards applied in MMORPG research.
As outlined, virtual ethnography is a widely used method to gather qualitative data from different online areas for different scientific purposes. Email, chat, discussion boards and websites are popular research areas (see Hine 2005:4), whereas MMORPGs are gaining popularity from the scientific community since mid 2003-4. This said, most of the scientific debate about methods in online research is still about the classic research fields. Additionally, there are no tailored ethical standards especially for MMORPGs.
As a consequence, the author was interested in the application of ethical standards in MMORPG research of practicing researchers and asked them about their use of virtual ethnography, their consideration of ethics in MMORPG research and about established guidelines.
Survey method and response
The base for the survey itself was a list of researchers compiled after reading through literature, websites, weblogs and discussion boards. The list of collected names was far from complete, but includes as much names and addresses as possible that are somehow connected to online research in general.
The autor’s email itself provided a short introduction of his person, his scientific interests, a description of the survey, his request to participate as well as the five survey questions (four of them were open-ended questions).
The survey emails were sent in three waves: a first set of six mails to check for potential questions, misleading sentences or missing information. The second set of 66 mails was sent with minor changes to the introduction. After two weeks and a low response rate, the author decided to address another 28 researchers. This time he included a full informed consent.
The email-based survey received a response rate of 16,0%. In absolute numbers, 16 researchers sent their answered questions back, another 15 (15,0%) denied participation for the following reasons:
- + “no time”
- + “no experience with virtual ethnography”
- + “on maternity leave”
Of the sixteen researchers, twelve are professors or lecturers at universities, four are PhD candidates. The geographical distribution is as follows: USA (6), UK (5), AUS (2), DK (1), CAN (1), SE (1).
Survey questions and results
- + Question: “Do you think ethics is an issue with virtual ethnography?”
- + Hypothesis: Online researchers are well aware of ethical issues and consider them as important.
- + Result: All of the 16 responses agreed that ethics is an issue with virtual ethnography.
- + Interpretation: Ethical behavior and comprehension are culture-dependent. Therefore, the result suggests that there is a common sense about the importance of ethics during virtual ethnography projects in North America, Northern Europe and Australia, at this time. With the installation of general ethical guidelines, IRBs and other institutions propagating the importance of ethical standards in these countries, the result is no surprise.
- + Question: “What kind of typical ethical dilemmas do you can imagine can occur during virtual ethnography?”
- + Hypothesis: Online researchers with a sense for ethical issues will be able to list many and unique ethical issues that can occur.
- + Results: In total, the author learned about twelve potential fields of ethical issues. Eight issues of total twelve were named by a maximum three of the sixteen respondents (uniqueness), and two issues by more than 50% (“confidentiality” and “identifying as a researcher”). Only two respondents (12,5%) named just one potential ethical issue, four respondents (25%) named two potential issues, and ten respondents (67,5%) named three or up to seven potential ethical issues within virtual ethnography. The total distribution of the answers can be seen in the diagram:
Table 1: results of question 2: “What kind of typical ethical dilemmas do you can imagine can occur during virtual ethnography?”
- + Interpretation: The results reflect the experience of the respondents in virtual ethnography (and other online research methods) as well as their “ethical conscience” (in the sense of “what can be considered to be an ethical issue?”). There is a variety of understanding what can constitute an ethical issue: named issues with a high percentage (like “to get informed consent”, “confidentiality” and “identifying as researcher”) can also be found in the professional guidelines of the AAA and ASA and are part of many ethical codes (university HS forms e.g.). Very unique responses like “funding dilemmas”, “deception in the name of research”, “in game cheating for research” are minor points in the above mentioned guidelines or even not mentioned. Some issues (with 20% response or 3 identical mentions) like “going native”, “author induced bias”, “research objects are humans, not objects” or “recorded data treatment” are indirectly a part of the mentioned ethical guidelines. As these issues can’t be checked off in a formal way (like “to provide an informed consent”, “to ensure confidentiality” and “to identify oneself as a researcher”), I would call them the “soft ethical issues of virtual ethnography”. “Soft” means here difficult to grasp and to deal with. In contrary, I would call “getting informed consent”, “confidentiality” and “identifying as researcher” “formal ethical issues”.
- + Question: “What kind of ethical dilemmas did you experience during one of your virtual ethnography projects?”
- + Hypothesis: In contrary to question 2, where the focus lies on the knowledge about potential ethical traps, question 3 addresses the actual ethical experience. The hypothesis here is that researchers are ethically aware even if they actually didn’t experience any ethical issues during their virtual ethnography studies.
- + Results: Four of the sixteen respondents didn’t have conducted any research using virtual ethnography, so they are taken out at this question. In total, eight different clusters of experienced ethical dilemmas have been named:
Table 2: results of question 3: “What kind of ethical dilemmas did you experience during one of your virtual ethnography projects?”
- + Interpretation: The remaining twelve respondents show an interesting pattern: respondents gave almost the same number of issues in question 2 (potential ethical issues) as in question 3 (experienced ethical issues). The only differences were one respondent (Q2: three issues; Q3: two issues) and the amount of issues in the group of three and more (Question 2). These respondents showed a broad understanding for potential ethical traps, but experienced only 50% of them in their own research.
Two-third of the respondents said to have had problems to get an informed consent. The high percentage is partly a consequence of the type of ethical issue here: as informed consent is a “formal ethical issue” (according to question 2), there is no way to neglect this. On the other hand, the online media makes it difficult to obtain such permission from everyone affected in the field. The same is true for the other two “formal ethical issues” like “to identify as a researcher” (and not to be deceptive) and “to assure confidentiality” (to avoid any link between real and virtual identities). They show a 33,3% and 58,3% respond rate, which is lower, but also constitutes some problems for researchers.
- + Question: “Do you research with the help / under the guidance of an ethical code / standard, and if yes, what kind of?”
- + Hypothesis: With the availability of ethical guides and institutionalized bodies, the author supposed that researchers generally follow them.
- + Results: All but two respondents follow one or several ethical codes proposed by some institution(s). 50% of the respondents follow university ethic standards (which involves also IRBs), slightly more (56%) professional standards (like the code from AoIR, AAA and similar institutions). A total of four respondents follow, additionally, their personal ethic code.
Table 3: results of question 4: “Do you research with the help / under the guidance of an ethical code / standard, and if yes, what kind of?”
- + Interpretation: Thirteen respondents follow national, university or professional ethic codes. All of these codes include formal ethical issues as described above. Interestingly, all sixteen respondents name at least on formal ethical issue in question 2. This suggests that ethical thinking and minimal ethical standards exist also where researchers conduct virtual ethnography without national, university or professional ethic codes.
The results not only show the actual distribution of ethical guidelines (in the field, not on paper), but also the high level of confidence in professional standards (which are voluntary, in contrary to mandatory national or academic ethic codes). The reason for this phenomenon is the fact that professional associations are better aware of the methodological complexity and needs than an national or university board of scientist that are not familiar enough with new methods like virtual ethnography.
- + Question: “How do you solve ethical issues during your online research?”
- + Hypothesis: With the rise of national and university ethic codes and committees, researchers tend to stick to them.
- + Results: 75% of the respondents will stick to their guidelines or contact their ethics board in case of an ethical issue. But 50% will reflect oneself to solve such a situation. 37,5% will also consult their colleagues for an alternative opinion. Singular strategies involve planning ahead to avoid any ethical conflicts (37,5%) as well as to involve the researched population into the plans and solutions (12,5%). Two respondents suggest following the rule “people first, research second”. Six respondents list at least three different ways how they solve ethical issues, in contrary to the other twelve with two or one path(s) to solve these issues.
Table 4: results of question 5: “How do you solve ethical issues during your online research?”
- + Interpretation: the result suggests that ethical guidelines are an important tool for ethically conducted research in general: over 60% use them in case of an ethical issue. This supports the hypothesis that ethical guidelines are not only “paperwork”, but actually used tools. In contrary, 31,25% decide on a case-by-case basis (including self-reflection).