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Virtual anthropology

14 March, 2009

Recently, I read Tom Boellstroff’s book: Coming of age in second life. An anthropologist explores the virtually human”. The book is an account of two years field work and an anthropological ethnography of avatar life in Second Life. Avatars are virtual personages created and Tom’s avatar was the anthropologist in 2nd Life, interviewing, observing and, first and foremost, participating in social life.  This resulted in ‘thick description’, useful to understanding social life at Second Life. Tom explained that although it was difficult to tell whether the avatar you were talking to was a man or woman, different persons or human at all, social interaction between avatars in 2nd Life was ‘real’. Dmitri Williams of the Annenberg school for Communication studied all server logs of 3-D game EverQuest and concluded that gamers are behaving online. Players who live 10 kilometres of each other play five times more intensively than people who live at larger distances (van Ammelrooy, Volkskrant 28 februari 2009).

Increasingly, 3-dimensional virtual platforms are being used by public and private corporations. The VU University, the one I’m working with, has (actually it was dr. Frans Feldberg) build a virtual University in which students can visit different information settings and view teaching examples. Large companies such as the ABN Amro Bank have built digital offices to attract young customers and to try out virtual services. Virtual platforms such as 2nd Life are designed for social interaction and collaboration. Therefore, it was not strange that practitioners of private construction firms we worked with to reflect upon their practices of collaboration in with public partners suggested to use 2nd Life. Not knowing much of the platform I started reading about the platform and made myself an avatar. Soon I found myself (my avatar) flying around, talking (typing) with an Italian girl (or someone saying so) about getting around. I tried to drive (sit in it) a parked car, but someone (never seen the avatar) threw me out telling me that I was stealing his car!

In order to facilitate learning of public and private partners we built a simulation game on 2nd Life centred on a megaproject, the tunnelling of train, road and tram infrastructure in Amsterdam’s corporate suburb Zuid-As. One group played the public office, three others played private construction firms trying out a competitive alliancing tender model. In this model, partners have to collaborate in order to get the best solution for a complex problem, without knowing yet who will get the assignment. Employees (better: avatars) were first trained how to behave themselves at our research island. We had bought the island to have a selected group of people in the project. However, at one stage of the game we had thought of opening up the island for a broad audience to let them make a pubic choice of what the best design would be. This has not been applied yet.

We made a short documentary on the topic and I thought most of the young organisation anthropology students would love this stuff, but to my surprise the reactions were not very enthusiastic. They thought that studying people did not include studying avatars. There were not much anthropologists that would like to be virtual anthropologists, which is a pity. 2nd Life will maybe disappear but, seeing my daughter using the Nintendo DS to play with her friends, 3-virtual platforms will be helpful in the near future for training and education. And Sony, the ‘owner’ of the earlier mentioned EverQuest was very interested to work with researchers/consultants that could help them understanding their gamers’ behaviour (van Ammelrooy, Volkskrant 28 februari 2009). Is here a new field for applied anthropology?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 March, 2009 3:17 am

    >>>There were not much anthropologists that would like to be virtual anthropologists, which is a pity<<>>Sony, the ‘owner’ of the earlier mentioned EverQuest was very interested to work with researchers/consultants that could help them<<<

    Yes — I work with corporations and they’re very interested in what they can learn from the social sciences. Unfortunately as you point out, there’s often a dearth of anthropologists who are interested in doing that kind of work with companies.

    (I don’t mean to diminish the great work that some practicing anthropologists do in fact perform in the corporate zone — these people do exist and do great work – but there aren’t very many of them, IMO.)

    How this is playing out, is that other disciplines/people are stepping in to “own” these issues. For example, I’m currently at SxSW in Austin, and there are lots of panels and discussions here that are very anthropological. But it’s not anthropologists who are hosting these panels: it’s user experience people, UI people, social media people, etc. — the vast majority of them people who don’t have any background in or experience of anthropology.

    So the conversations will happen. The question is whether more anthropologists (individually or as a discipline) will get more involved in the discussions.

  2. 16 March, 2009 7:59 am

    As we know, the acquisition of knowledge and theory is only one part of anthropological work. Our engagement with the world outside books and computers, and being rooted in the “field” of 3-dimensional, tactile places and people, is what makes the discipline unique and attractive, at least for me. If others feel the same, perhaps that could be one reason why it was not so well received.

    That said, I think that the impact of the virtual life on cultures and societies around the world (and vice versa) makes for some rich territory, with some interesting possibilities for applied work, which I imagine can only grow as the virtual world grows and touches on more and more various aspects of “real life,” such as business, education, etc.

  3. 2 May, 2010 1:03 pm

    Hi,
    I am trying to start a virtual club of amateur anthropology on Facebook. I wonder if you can help? We are on: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=312078576185 or Facebook/Chains of Difference.
    Thank you, Pedro

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