VIRTUAL CULTURES IN PANDEMIC TIMES
A research project based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine
Researchers: Tom Boellstorff, Evan Conaway, Chandra Middleton, and Sandy Wenger
Filmmaker: Bernhard Drax aka Draxtor
About This Project
This research project is about how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction. As many have noted, what we call “social distancing” is really physical distancing. Due to the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people have been socializing online, in new ways. Better understanding these new digital cultures will have consequences for COVID prevention: successful physical distancing will rely on new forms of social closeness online. It will also have consequences for everything from work and education to climate change.
We are a research team using the methods of anthropology to study online social interaction. Anthropologists use in-depth qualitative methods, in particular participant observation, interviews, and focus groups, to understand culture—the meanings, practices, and relationships that make up the “common sense” of our everyday lives. People often think of anthropologists as people who travel to “exotic” or “remote” cultures, but the methods and theories of anthropology can be used to study culture anywhere in the world. That now includes online cultures.
Our research takes place entirely online, focusing on two virtual worlds: Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Second Life. We work as a team in these two virtual worlds to understand how people are using virtual worlds in the wake of the pandemic. Central to the project is that there is not just one way to be online. Virtual worlds are places where individuals interact with avatars in online environments. They have different characteristics than social network sites like Facebook, streaming websites like YouTube, or chat programs like Zoom, though they share some features with all of these. Better understanding how people are using virtual worlds in the wake of the pandemic might provide innovative strategies for preventing viral transmission, by forging new forms of social closeness in the context of physical distancing. It might also help us better respond to the transformed social lives we are all destined to encounter in the wake of COVID-19.
Preliminary Research Findings
We will add to this section as the research progresses. Here are some current research findings, emerging questions, and key insights emerging from the project:
At least some of the time, virtual worlds can be a way to be alone, not a way to socialize. Due to the pandemic, many people are living with family members and roommates, and have less privacy than before. Virtual worlds can be places to get away from this. In other worlds, the pandemic has led not just to social distancing, but what we might term being “socially packed.” Virtual worlds can provide a different kind of “social distancing” to counter this loss of privacy.
If you are spending time in Animal Crossing: New Horizons or Second Life, we would love to talk to you! We could interview you, go on an island tour, or visit a favorite place together. To contact us, just email Tom Boellstorff (email@example.com), Evan Conaway (firstname.lastname@example.org), Sandy Wenger (email@example.com), or Chandra L. Middleton (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Filming the Project
With additional generous support from the National Science Foundation, Bernard Drax (aka Draxtor) is making a film about this research project. Drax is a world-renowned documentary filmmaker, with a long history of filmmaking in virtual worlds. His many credits include, Our Digital Selves, a film about disability in virtual worlds that engages with Tom’s prior research on this topic.
Tom Boellstorff: I’m a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. My original research was about sexuality in Indonesia and includes the books The Gay Archipelago and A Coincidence of Desires. Since 2004 I have been studying the cultures of virtual worlds, and have written about this in my books Coming of Age in Second Life and Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. I have also studied disability in virtual worlds. Two articles about that research are “The Ability of Place” and “The Opportunity to Contribute.” I’m excited to be working with Chandra, Evan, and Sandy on this project!
Evan Conaway: I’m a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine! My focus is on video game preservation, and in my dissertation I explore the motivations, values, and strategies of people who are working to bring old online virtual worlds back to life, closely examining the challenges and meanings that emerge as a result of the centrality of servers to these endeavors. I have also worked on projects related to mental wellness among youth online, LGBTQ gaming communties, and data localization laws. I’ve been an avid gamer since I was a kid, and I’m thrilled to be bringing my passion for games, virtual worlds, and specifically Animal Crossing to this project! Here is my webpage.
Bernhard Drax: I’m an independent media maker, classically trained musician and former public radio news director. This past decade I have focused on documenting creative diversity in virtual worlds via my Drax Files World Makers series. In 2018 I completed the feature documentary “Our Digital Selves” which examines embodiment and place-making in social VR as it empowers people with various disabilities. I am currently a Linden Lab contractor, producing their video content for YouTube and Facebook, I am finishing up the soundtrack for the French/Ukranian documentary “Mamatchki” and as an avid reader of genre-unspecific contemporary fiction I am happy for the success of our weekly Second Life Book Club discussions. My website is draxtor.com.
Chandra Middleton: I’m a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. In my dissertation, I ask how a particular legal procedure helps career employees in the United States government to make sense of citizens’ voices, as articulated in written comments. I focus on environmental policy, asking how legal mechanisms interact with the geographic and cultural diversity of the US. I have also anthropologically researched the use, and ethical and legal concerns of using, artificial intelligence in financial processes. I haven’t played an online game—much less entered an online virtual world—since the late 1990s, so I’m excited to be working on this project with such a great team! Here is my webpage.
Sandy Wenger: I am a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. My research is about love and relationships among queer men in Malaysia. I examine how men navigate competing ideas about masculinity, sexuality, and male bodies in their relationships with one another. Before moving to the US, I spent several years working at a university college in Malaysia where I taught classes on food and culture, culture and media policies, and research methods in the social sciences. While I do play the occasional game (this may or may not primarily happen on my phone), participating in a project that focuses on virtual worlds is new and exciting for me. I look forward to learning with, and from, such a lovely team!
This project is supported by the National Science Foundation.
Official title: RAPID: The Role of Emerging Virtual Cultures in the Prevention of COVID-19 Transmission
Award Number (FAIN): 2028560
Principal Investigator: Tom Boellstorff, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine