Part 5: Conclusion and ethical approach for MMORPG research

Go back to part 4 here | for references - see here

In theory and in practice, ethical issues in virtual ethnography are real and widely considered (see previous section). They can be addressed in different ways as the study showed, and there is a common sense of formal ethical issues that must be met to comply with national and university standards.
Professional standards additionally name some of the more difficult and complex “soft ethical issues” that are hard to match and easy to circumnavigate during virtual ethnography (in the sense of neglecting them). Many of them have been named by the participants of the study as well as by Agar (1996) and Girtler (2001) in their books.
Ethical approach for MMORPG research
Based on the facts of the literature review, the ethical standards of universities, standards of associations (AAA, AoIR) and colleagues (see also the survey results), and as consequence of the non-existence of an ethical guideline for virtual ethnography of synthetic worlds, the author suggests an ethical approach specified for MMORPG research:

  1. Equality: I will treat all players as players. They are not data suppliers in a technical sense, but they are individuals passing time in their world based on individual motives.
  2. Immersion: I will act as a player first, and as a researcher second. There are two reasons to do so – one ethical, one methodological: first, this is the best way not to disturb the social life of a group or the individual perception of their world. Second, the researcher will learn the culture of a group / cultural scene deeper as she participates in their actions and become a member of the group. Participative observation and informant interviews are valid methods but have their limitations in MMORPGs.
  3. Transparency: I will disclose my role, my identity and my research to my key informants, but also to all other players who wish to know. This will be done “verbally” (in-game chat) or by linking to a research site. (Online) Informed consent will be sought with key informants, as these individuals will be interviewed at length (and collection of their individual data will arise considerably).
  4. Protection, confidentiality and anonymity: I will try to anticipate and avoid any harm to the involved players and store all recorded data (text, images, videos) in a secure digital place. The group names as well as the individual avatar names will be coded (replaced by fictive avatar names) in the original documents. The coding list will be stored offline in a locked folder. Key informants will have the right to choose their alias to be named in a future publication.
  5. Participation: I will let participate involved key informants in reviewing my findings and analysis. This is not indented to influence informants to change their behavior, norms, values or other cultural aspects, but to give them the possibility to express their view of the cultural scene they belong to.
  6. Responsibility: As a researcher, I will act in a professional manner to secure the image of my research colleagues, my university and my discipline. As a player, I will act according to the End User License Agreement (EULA) of the specific synthetic world.

These six points could serve as a fundament of MMORPG research. As different experts reported (see Hine, 2005), guidelines like these can never cover all potential ethical issues during a month or year long virtual ethnographic study. Therefore, every researcher has to adapt these rules on a single-case basis.

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