Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fairfield - Avatar Experimentation

How can virtual world researchers minimize the effects of their research on study populations? Messages, apps, and notifications retrieved by hand-held devices have amalgamated the real world and virtual world. As the line distinguishing the worlds fades, Joshua Fairfield, in Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds, offers comprehensive guidelines for approaching research in virtual worlds. Fairfield advises researchers to recognize the risk of real harm to a human research subject’s real world identity, role in the virtual community, real and virtual economic investments, and virtual reputation. The article first recognizes the challenges of ethical experimental design in the virtual world and culminates by recommending helpful approaches to virtual world research.

Fairfield suggests researchers who gather data through add-ons (automated software enhancers), bots and scrapers (robotic virtual world recording software), or machinima (recordings of virtual worlds) should adjust their techniques to protect the subject’s privacy and to eliminate the subject’s liability. The End User License Agreement (EULA) governing a particular virtual world may restrict the use of these types of software or ban their use altogether. To supplement data gathering, a researcher's protocol may require research subjects to engage in data gathering using software governed by EULAs. Research subjects who use these data gathering techniques risk liability for potentially violating EULAs. To preclude this possibility, Fairfield advises that researchers avoid using problematic add-ons, or carefully tailor add-ons to protect privacy by, for example, automatically turning them off at the end of a research session. Additionally, researchers must confirm through EULAs and Terms of Service (TOS) that the virtual world allows their research method. Preventing copyright infringement may require game-god (virtual world developers) consent to the research method along with the researcher's attentiveness to potential mid-study EULA changes. Fairfield cautions researchers who use bots and scrapers to consider statutes including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits bots and scrapers from sidestepping clickthrough EULAs. As Fairfield indicates, the diminished availability of the fair use defense in virtual worlds emphasizes the importance of requesting game-god permission to use bots or scrapers. However, research in some virtual worlds may also require user consent when the user retains intellectual property rights. Adherence to the rules governing the research of human subjects is generally monitored by institutional review boards (IRBs). Researchers would benefit from keeping their IRBs informed by providing names of virtual world specialists to assist the IRB during study approval and monitoring.

Fairfield continues by proposing virtual research best practices consistent with the principles of autonomy, beneficence, and justice while mentioning specific protections for minors. To preserve a subject's autonomy, human research studies must include an informed consent process that both informs the subjects of the research protocol and provides an opportunity for the research subjects to decline participation. In contrast, EULAs imposed by game-gods generally do not allow users to opt-out without banishment from the virtual world. Fairfield goes on to warn against research methods that compromise a subject’s privacy or virtual community's stability. Reminding researchers that privacy in a virtual world is contextual, Fairfield recommends researchers develop familiarity with their subject’s virtual world prior to experiment implementation. Although a researcher may not regard an avatar name as private information, any links the avatar name may have to the real world identity of the user would ethically necessitate treating the avatar name as private information. The practicality of this treatment is underscored by the fact that many users retain the same name throughout many virtual worlds and develop reputations associated with those names. Fairfield encourages researchers to comply with rules governing minors by advocating methods of excluding minors in virtual world research.

Fairfield's insights will undoubtedly offer researchers a helpful framework for approaching future virtual world research protocols. The significance of continuing virtual world research cannot be overstated as evidenced by new research. A recent study demonstrated the importance of virtual worlds in addressing the psychological and physical gains of patients through the burgeoning field of telehealthcare. See J. Morie et al., Virtual Worlds and Avatars as the New Frontier of Telehealthcare, 181 Stud Health Technol Inform. 27 (2012). Another study illustrated that integration of virtual worlds with education at agricultural institutions offers a substantial opportunity for instructors to simulate lessons from the classroom online. See H. Leggette et al., Using Second Life to Educate in Agriculture: A Review of Literature, NACTA Journal, June 2012, at 29. Research approached without Fairfield's insights risks compromising a subject's rights and ultimately potential study shutdown. Fairfield's ethical and legal guidelines are essential for continuing valuable and far-reaching virtual research studies.

Drafted by Andria Minyard (aminyard@smu.edu), research assistant to Professor Sarah Tran, and a 2015 Juris Doctor candidate at SMU Dedman School of Law. She received her B.S. in Biology from the University of Texas, Austin. Prior to law school, Andria worked as a Clinical Research Technician at RCTS Labs, Inc.

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