I have to admit that after a very demanding week and a long flight, I almost bailed on the day-long Second Life workshop at AoIR, even though I had contributed a paper to the group. The sight of the tables covered with plastiline clay, star-shaped post-its in bright colors, and florescent highlighter pens just screamed interactive kindergarten-style game developer creativity of the type that usually makes me head toward the exit. But Facebook friend and Second Life advocate Mark Bell had already seen me by that point, and apparently I look enough like my social network profile that there would be no getting out without anyone noticing.
Actually, I turned out to be glad that I stayed, since it ended up being much less of a cheerleading event than I had feared. John Lester (a.k.a. Pathfinder Linden) explained his transition from directing neurology services at Massachusetts General Hospital to his current role heading up research and learning efforts in Second Life. He also described how he still worked with patients with Asperger's Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and Stroke Survivors in Second Life, and how a number of museum and higher education projects were taking shape in the virtual world. (And -- besides -- he was in the audience for my paper, and I believe in being polite to anyone who shows up for a Virtualpolitik live show.) After his remarks, he faced tough questions about the company's corporate interests and special relationships with those who were big-money, high-profile, or infrastructure essential clients, which Lester summarized as the question: "Do we do special things for special friends?" (Names like "Pontiac" and "The University of Surrey" came up in this context.) He also had to grapple with those who pointed out how Google could easily steal the market from them, given their expertise with mapping and their new forays into avatar-based experiences.
We then went into a long session about drafting possible guidelines for researchers doing human-subjects scholarship in Second Life. When groups reported back, it was clear that many saw their ethical obligations differently. To discourage covert research, some suggested that there should be an in-world directory of researchers and that those engaged in this work should have the word "researcher" above their heads. Others argued that avatars were works of art, creative expressions not indexes to identity, or -- as they put it -- "representations don't need IRB approvals." A delightfully subversive group was even brainstorming about the most unethical research experiment that you could conduct in Second Life, in the game developers' spirit of trying to break the system.
At the end of the day we were supposed to generate actual research projects to be done in Second Life that might have some experimental integrity. My favorite group entered an area for samurai sword-fighting in Second Life, where they tolerated looking strange -- as women in black tailored suits and high heels rather than traditional Japanese garb -- and planned surveys about the users' attitudes about violence, when they weren't engaged in hand-to-hand combat of course.
In my paper I argued that the use of Second Life in higher education actually re-introduces elements of medieval college life back into the academy. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I certainly was expecting not to be invited based on my paper.