The past decade has witnessed an explosion of “virtual worlds” on the internet and of interest in the notion of the “virtual.” This concept has touched nearly every aspect of our lives, from how we learn, entertain ourselves, and consume and even produce popular culture to core concepts like identity, personal relationships, and understanding our place in the world. Virtual worlds and participation within them are growing at an astounding rate. Just in 2009 we have seen the emergence of a number of new virtual spaces like FarmVille, a social-based persistent game linked to the social networking site Facebook, which has attracted more than 60 million users.

As information technologies become more sophisticated and as the number of users grows larger, understanding what is happening in virtual worlds takes on increasing importance. From fully immersive spaces such as Second Life or World of Warcraft to contexts more integrated with physical-world identity like Facebook, MySpace, and blogging, the virtual transforms and raises questions about the nature of self and community, online and offline. The DPDF research field on “Virtual Worlds” is an effort to better understand the intersection between how we are learning to engage in increasingly sophisticated and integrated forms of play and practice and what the impact such engagements have on notions of self, identity, and community. Within that context, the DPDF research field will help students identify and position their research within an emerging body of literature that is beginning to constitute a field of study, even while remaining highly interdisciplinary in method and theory across the social sciences and the humanities. This program is open to students seeking to conduct research in a single virtual world, students seeking to conduct research in multiple virtual worlds, and students seeking to conduct research in both virtual-world and actual-world contexts. All three of these approaches are valid and present specific theoretical and methodological challenges, linked to the key issue of crafting a feasible and compelling program for research.

Understanding virtual worlds is a multidisciplinary proposition, one which requires us to think through methodological issues at two distinct levels. First, understanding virtual spaces requires openness to diverse methodological approaches in order to understand the nature of the spaces and places in question themselves. At a minimum, approaching any virtual world requires us to understand both its demography and its culture. Second, virtual worlds compel researchers to rethink the value, uses, and applicability of many traditional methodological tools of research and analysis. Virtual worlds force us to better understand the assumptions we are making when we enter into the research process and to evaluate whether or not those assumptions still hold true within virtual domains. In many cases our tools need to be rethought to address the contexts, values, and mores of the selfhoods and communities we encounter online. In other cases, technological affordances or limitations provide unique research benefits or challenges: for instance, the ability to record text chat, sound, and images in real time, the ability for instant translation of typed text, the ability to alter one’s embodiment, and the ability to conduct research with persons in multiple worldwide locations that would be impractical to visit physically. We will discuss a range of methods, focusing on qualitative approaches including ethnographic methods, (participant observation, interviewing, focus groups, etc.), textual methods, and historical methods.

Our goal is to bring together a cohort of graduate students working on a diverse set of research questions about the nature of virtual worlds. Through the training workshops and summer research associated with this program, students will work to locate their research questions within a specific virtual space or spaces, and clarify the issues they hope to explore in their dissertations. Additionally, however, students will work to situate their projects within a broader dialogue about how we understand virtual worlds and their implications for academic inquiry.


  • Douglas W. Canfield

    University of Tennessee / Knoxville, Educational Psychology and Counseling

    Authentic Encounters in Synthetic Worlds: A Discursive Investigation of Communities of Language Practice in the Metaverse.
    Research into foreign language learners and virtual worlds has relied on cognitive assessments of and communicative performance of informal learning settings in those worlds. Similar research in formal face-to-face settings exists, as well as small studies linked to certain aspects of non-native speaker identity exist. Research using quantitative and survey-based designs privileges individual progress and subjective appraisals, discounting the socially-constructed context in which a target language and corresponding identity is acquired. The proposed dissertation examines these learning environments in more depth through analysis of instructional interactions in both face-to-face and virtual environments. I will investigate how individual and group identity construction is worked up in the context of language learning interactions. Interviews with language learners and instructors will provide additional data through which identity can be analyzed discursively. Findings will reveal affordances that virtual worlds may have for interactionally-based language learning , acquisition, and identity formation strategies, as well as reveal issues concerning the discursive construction of instructional and learning practices which problematize existing research and instructional methodologies.
  • Jonathan Corliss

    University of Pittsburgh, Anthropology

    The Localization of Videogames in Japan
    This project will analyze the “localization” of Japanese videogames, or the way developers and distributors prepare Japanese videogame software for international circulation. When videogames are localized, they are not only translated. Images, animations, and overall design aesthetics, game mechanics, interface and narrative may all be modified to accommodate the perceived differences between regional markets, and the software is adapted for national regulatory boards and regional technical requirements. I intend to study how, through the deliberate practices of videogame localization, localizers negotiate, produce, and apply 1) concepts of culture and cultural difference, and 2) understandings of the local, the global, and globalization. Allowing that the circulation of objects and images contributes to the formation of subjectivities (following Appadurai 1996), this project will also consider the way specific localization practices govern (channel, facilitate, and restrain) the transnational movement of videogames. While these questions are applicable to a broad range of internationally circulating goods, they have particular relevance to complex interactive media forms like videogames that incorporate textured cultural meanings and rely on intensive user-participation. In addition, the recent transnational appeal of made-in-Japan mass culture fantasy goods, and the remarkable success Japanese companies have had developing and marketing youth-oriented electronic play goods, including videogames, for global distribution, make the Japanese localization company a particularly rich field site for this research.
  • Adam Fish

    University of California / Los Angeles, Anthropology

    The Physical and Virtual Worlds of New Media Firms
    The subjects of this study are Western elite producers, designers, engineers, and marketers of content, technologies, and platforms for social media corporations. The project focuses on their organizational structures, technological practices, and accounting of success. I describe these subjects as social entrepreneurs who engineer and design technologies to create profit and more-than-profit values. This project will provide ethnographic case studies for the social entrepreneurial organizations of Current (a user-generated cable television network), and Causecast (a global philanthropy network). These case studies will contribute to anthropological understanding of how new media social entrepreneurs organize labor and public involvement as well as actualize their values in relationship to emergent socio-technical forms.
  • Jacob Gaboury

    New York University (NYU), Media, Culture and Communication

    The Politics of Griefing in Virtual Worlds
    My dissertation deals with the figure of the griefer or troll in virtual worlds. The griefer is a player who uses the game world to deliberately harass other players rather than completing the game objectives. I am interested in an analysis of the politics of griefing in virtual worlds as it relates to non-normative uses of network technology. I hope to figure the griefer as a highly ambivalent character who refuses the limitations and structures of the network by exploiting its flaws, but who does so for the purpose of terrorism and harassment. The griefer, unlike the hacker, would appear exclusively malicious. And yet, like the hacker, he resists the structures of control set in place by the protocols of the virtual world.
  • Antero D. Garcia

    University of California / Los Angeles, Education

    Bridging the Virtual World & Inner-City Experiences: Utilizing Mobile Media, Critical Media Literacy to develop Inner-City Agents of Social Change
    Bridging the virtual world and inner-city high school experiences, this participatory action research proposal looks at how digital media can guide and shape students into powerful agents of social change. Utilizing mobile media and social networks to develop critical media literacies and civic identity, this unit will engage high school English students in South Central Los Angeles in an innovative curriculum focused on community inquiry, virtual role-playing & exploration, and concepts of game design. Developing an appropriate methodology for qualitative research in both virtual and physical world experiential learning environments, this proposal attempts to push researchers towards more replicable models of survey in the digital jungle. Additionally, considering the role of “digital natives” in the newly emerging field of Digital Media and Learning, this proposal poses these young people as an indigenous body and looks toward ways to reduce problematic trends in research around these individuals. Ultimately, this research looks to the real world potential of virtual worlds to improve not only academic achievement in public schools but young peoples’ abilities to engage critically in public life and utilize critical literacies to be more discerning consumers and producers of media.
  • Calvin Thomas Johns

    University of Texas / Austin, Anthropology

    Tabletop Role-Playing Games as Models of Intersubjectivity and Virtuality in Everyday Social Life
    My dissertation project focuses on the bodily and linguistic practices used to play tabletop role-playing games and on how those practices make palpable the—often invisible—intersubjective work needed to create shared worlds of meaning in everyday life. I believe the language of role-playing games not only invokes a virtual world, but—like everyday language—continually and repeatedly negotiates between the virtual and the actual. The worlds of tabletop role-playing games come prepackaged in rulebooks and manuals, tomes that contain detailed descriptions of fantastical places and cultures alongside elaborate rules for settling the players’ interactions inside those worlds with dice. On one level players inhabit a world shared by thousands of other players, those who bought the same books and manuals; on another level, local groups of players each fashion a world in their own image. It is this interplay between an objective, pre-scripted fictional world and an organic, local virtual world I hope to illuminate. Through multi-sited ethnography of gamer cultures and careful linguistic analysis, I aim to shed light on how people work against and within objective parameters—rules, spaces, bodies, intensities, potentials—to create and navigate consensual worlds of meaning.
  • Kimi D. Johnson

    University of Minnesota / Twin Cities, Theater, Dance and Performance Studies

    Community Theatre: Contemporary Historiographic Performances in Online Role-Playing Games
    This project will analyze "real" and virtual performances of history and the process of community building within virtual play/ing spaces; it will specifically concentrate on the popular Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) "World of Warcraft" and "EVE Online". Both games focus on a historically based narrative of colonization, regime change, and racial division. Populations in these spaces coalesce, divide, and war with one another; such activities demand that players perform within the political and ideological strictures of the space, often adopting prejudices that align with the views of their fantasy-based factions. I will explore how player participation in the creation of the embedded histories within these online realms rallies gaming groups (factions, guilds, or realms) into community action and how these actions are publically performed in the virtual space. How does the performance of a common historic past reinscribe the same problematic binaries of its “real-life” counterparts? Does the structure of the playing space affect player/performer subjectivity and encourage the creation of political binaries? I will use my own auto-ethnographic accounts, semi-anonymous interviews, and a thorough analysis of the scripted game text to determine how players participate in virtual performances that allow them to access pre-virtual political structures online.
  • Taylor Nygaard

    University of Southern California, Critical Studies

    The Virtual Big Sister: The Branding of Female Identity in Media Surveillance Online and Beyond
    Contemporary teenagers are growing up in an environment of virtual worlds, where new and old media collide in what Henry Jenkins calls Convergence Culture. There, they work and play, consume and produce, and develop new understandings of self and other, identity and corporality, and especially public and private. Moreover, it’s hard to ignore how surveillance practices, traditionally used to discipline young adults, make up an integral component of these virtual worlds where teenagers increasingly reside—whether it’s in the form of data-mining, Facebook stalking, or their peers interacting with them in immersive environments. While surveillance and information collection are part of most virtual worlds, the role, effect and consequences of this surveillance is still unclear. As a result, my project examines the growing media convergences of the global conglomerate age in order to show how surveillance technologies and genres are the result of a increasingly intertwined political economy; but I also conceptualize gender as an important and volatile aspect of online identity construction within this web of surveillance. Specifically, my project investigates through a mixture of field research, textual analysis and industrial context how surveillance manages and negotiates—through a variety of representational practices—the state of gender for youths participating in mediated digital environments. Virtual worlds like Facebook and vMTV, which I examine in my project, include elements of surveillance and gender performance—notions that I believe are mutually dependent and ultimately impact the potential and/or impossibility of virtual worlds being a source of personal or collective empowerment for young women.
  • Richard John Page

    University of Hawaii, Anthropology

    The Art of Spacewar: Ethics in Virtual Conflict
    I propose to conduct ethnographic research among Chinese and Western players of the game Eve Online to determine if the discourses surrounding the ethics of espionage differ, and whether these differences can be tied in to cultural differences from outside the game. Research has routinely shown that though virtual worlds can develop cultures of their own, they are inevitably entangled with the real world. However, little research has been done investigating the culturally mediated assumptions that people bring with them in to the virtual world. Additionally, most research has focused on worlds that encourage creativity and cooperation among players, and little research has been done on worlds that encourage conflict between players. Contentious and 'deviant' behaviors, such as espionage, sabotage, and theft generate culturally-situated ethical judgments, but previous research has often glossed over these behaviors as mere 'antisociality'. Generally, my research question is, “How do people of different cultural backgrounds interpret and use the coded space of the game, and judge the uses of others?” More specifically, my question is, “what are the similarities and differences in discourses on espionage between Chinese and Western players of the massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) Eve Online?”
  • Reginold A. Royston

    University of California / Berkeley, African-American Studies

    Trending Diaspora: Ghana, Gamers and the Virtual World Cup
    Few games have a higher global profile and incite greater international passions than the FIFA World Cup. Ghana, increasingly a bright spot for development in West Africa, has contributed several star players to the premier European football leagues in recent years. With the 2010 FIFA tournament this summer, Ghana looks to raise its notoriety even higher, as one of the few teams from Africa to qualify. This research seeks to examine how diasporic citizenship and New Media co-articulate national identity amid key a moment in transnational discourse. Discussion of Ghana and its athletes is particularly high on diasporic Web site such and via Facebook and Twitter. In addition, the popular video console game "Pro Evolution Soccer" hosts spirited discussions on its message forums surrounding Ghanaian pro players and identity politics in game design, in addition to competition in a virtual world. These sites represent robust virtual environments for studying the construction of identity, reflecting discourse that is impacted by news developments, “real” and digital play, and other social interactions both on/offline. It is my hope that this research will ultimately contribute to a greater understanding of the ways New Media can shape transnational identity, and how global diasporas, in turn, create networks of meaning using information technology.
  • Yukari Takata

    University of Florida, Mass Communication

    Improving Subject Recruitment and Learning in Clinical Research Trials Through Virtual World Interactions
    Robert Bandura's seminal work on social learning has shown that social influences play crucial roles in promoting new behaviors; this suggests the importance of the social element of group interactions in promoting more involvement and understanding among research participants. Furthermore, the growing popularity of interactive virtual worlds may be indicative of social reward systems that are especially effective in influencing behavior when they are applied in online social environments. Recognizing the inherent difficulties in the present model of community engagement and subject recruitment in medical research, I plan to address this need through an online multimedia platform. Virtual Worlds and web conferencing technology’s ability to facilitate communication between organizations and mass audiences could revolutionize how subjects are recruited and educated for clinical research studies. Anonymous, interactive media will, for the first time, enable researchers to hold live discussions with multiple research study subjects, thereby improving the efficiency of subject outreach. While the ease of access and availability of information would help cast a larger net for subject recruitment, this format would also provide an effective substrate for group forums as well as one-on-one researcher-subject interactions. Based on communication technology’s increasing ability to engage multiple subjects in convenient, social, and dynamic environments, I am confident that a partnership between medical research institutions and mass communication researchers will be the ideal collaboration to realize the full potential of new media’s involvement in medical research. Toward this end I propose to research new media’s role in enhancing recruitment and education by organizing a series of interactive internet-based seminars and forums for potential and new study subjects. Furthermore, I intend to explore a number of supporting research areas including the perceptions of researchers and participants toward online interactions, current uses of web-based communication in medical research (especially those between researchers and subjects), and how medical investigators anticipate using new media in future medical studies.
  • Stephanie K. Takemoto

    Claremont Colleges / Claremont Graduate University, Education

    Video Games, learning, and motivation: What can we learn?
    What would school look like if educators could help enhance student motivation, persistence, and learning as efficiently as video game design? Recently the Pew Research Center (2008), a non-partisan think tank, announced that 97% of the youth population (ages 12-17) plays video games, and that girls (ages 2-14) are spending more time on video games than before. Learning about video games is important because students are motivated, learning, and developing new skills while in the gaming context and failing to do this in the school / classroom environment. Under the Strategic Education Research Plan (1999), one of the key questions determined was how to increase student motivation and achievement in school. Can we learn from the relationship between video game design and student learning?