Metanomics: Learn how your avatar participates in a virtual world culture

Metanomics presentation screen
Metanomics presentation screen

Metanomics, a group that gathers in Second Life with a good “2D” Web showing as well, had a discussion March 2 on avatar culture.

The session preview stated that Anthropologists Tom Boellstorff and Celia Pearce are developing new methods and theories about human relationships in virtual worlds and would be discussing how traditional ethnography is being adapted to the study of online immersive environments and how virtual worlds shape identities, economies, communities and societies.

One of Metanomics’ many strengths is its ability to have a regular Web component at the same time that in-world meetings are held.

If you have a signon with Metanomics, you can participate in the chat even if you are not in-world, using ChatBridge.

The Metanomics group makes full use of its Web and its SL presences by delivering rich information in a variety of formats.

The first guest was Robin Gomboy of ReactionGrid, an alternative to Second Life which appeals more to some businesses and educational groups because it doesn’t have an in-world economy (although residents can buy and sell using shopping carts like people do on the “2D” Web) and the rules dictate PG content only.  A single sim costs a “hosting fee” of only $25 a month, and a 6-sim private grid is only $75 a month. You can host your own server as well. In the near future they will be adding hypergridding to it (allows avatars to move between privately owned areas without getting a new signon, avatar, etc.).

For immersive education, Gomboy noted that the prerequisite seemed to be that there is not an in-world economy already in place. Educators typically don’t want an in-world economy.

Metanomics’ Beyers Sellers said he didn’t tend to agree but then he comes from a college economics environment and that may be coloring his perception.

Metanomics host Beyers Sellers asks questions of his guests during a discussion on virtual world cultures.
Metanomics host Beyers Sellers asks questions of his guests during a discussion on virtual world cultures.

ReactionGrid’s terms of service stipulate that residents have PG-rated content only. There are some software tools which are being built just for ReactionGrid. Experience and leadership are playing an important role to help shape the culture and create trust among the other members, she added.

Advice for “Gridizens”? Remember how hard it was for you to learn the basics of getting around – help others out with teaching the technology, respect others’ meeting spaces, and respect others’ privacy.

ThinkBalm innovation community is a ReactionGrid participant. They decided to ask members to use their real names to increase the trust factor. Instead of using virtual chair and a copy of RL lecture setups, they experiment with 3D best practices in online learning.

First major cross-grid event last weekend. She is the speaker for the TechNet group in SL and in ReactionGrid. She was using HippoViewer and in both worlds at once. She used LiveMeeting to help in her presentations.

Next interview:

Tom Bellstorff, a professor of anthropology at the University of California Irvine, has done research on sexuality, globalization, etc., and cybersociality.

The session presentation screen shared these links:

CDS : Metanomics Messenger: Tom Boellstorff:

Celia Pearce (Artemesia Sandgrain in SL) –

American Anthropologist

CDS : Metanomics Messenger: Celia Pearce’s Web sites:
Georgia Tech:

Experimental Game Lab:

Emergent Game Group:

Mermaids Project:


Virtual Cultures:


Celia Pearce & Friends (Design & Consulting):

Metanomics Messenger: A Ludicrous Discipline? from: Ethnography and Game Studies

This work defines and discusses three phrases:

game cultures

the cultures of gaming

the gaming of cultures

Metanomics Messenger: The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (
), winner of the 2005 Ruth Benedict Award from the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists

Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human

Tom Boellstorff (Tom Bukowski in SL) – what would have to change in virtual worlds and what doesn’t have to change?

Boellstorff has been doing this research for a little over 5 years. He deliberately set it up to fail by using the classic methods he used in Indonesia and applying it to SL without consideration for the differences between the environments. Surprisingly he didn’t have to change a lot.

Would he use alts or not? He decided not to.

Questions about money and anonymity – have parallels in the real world.

He likes to refer to the non-cyber world as the physical world rather than as the Real World or RL, because he maintains that what you do in SL has real consequences and is real to its participants; just differently so.

IRB – institutional review board. When a researcher does research with people, they have to get approval from this board because you are working with human subjects. It’s about protecting people’s privacy and confidentiality.

He used a research design that was entirely inside of Second Life and didn’t try to get physical world information about the people. He only asked about the person’s SL life and used their SL names.

Pearce said in her research she kept encountering people who were in some way disabled and was surprised by the commonness of that scenario.

Demographics of Baby Boomer Computer Gamers – Players of the game Uru, which was closed in 2004. The majority of these players were baby boomers, she found.

Forums just for baby boomers – like Game Boomers. There is a myth that baby boomers want to play only casual games, but that turned out not to be true. Many of them were replacing their TV watching time with their gaming. They liked adventure games but don’t like to hang around with certain types of groups associated with online games. They want to play with people their own age for a more refined method of relating.

They all were really active in communities. Fav activity – exploring. 2nd fav – helping others learn the ropes.

Baby boomers with young people at home tended not to play with their kids. Most of the players used a PC rather than a console, which they tended to think were for the kids.

The Wii came out about the time her study was finishing up and they actually targeted the baby boomer generation.

Let’s talk about Uru – based on the game Myst – if anyone has a version of the Scarab of Ra on the PC, let him know (Beyers Sellers) because he misses it!

Crap Mariner noted that there was a hack of Myst called Pyst, in which you could see the ecological effects of 10 million users walking through the Myst landscapes. He called it crude, deranged and brilliant, which made everyone laugh.

Those who played in Uru became “Uru refugees” or “diaspora” when Uru shut down. They tried to recreate some of their favorite elements from the world later, which she calls a trans-culturization process.

Like refugees in the physical world, the Uru refugees were kind of moved around and given a hard time for the lag they caused everywhere they went.

Fleep Tuque said: “I’ve written about the total fail of trying to move the BBS community to here, I think you lose a lot when you try to switch platforms if new platforms don’t facilitate the kinds of ineraction that the community formed around in the first place.”

“We aren’t spending enough time in the question space. Sometimes it’s the question that matters more than the answers. There’s often a real interest in design or implementation research but we need to also stay in the question space so that we come up with some good questions to ask before we rush to those solutions.”

Tom Boellstorff

His book – “Coming of Age in Second Life” – he tries to write for multiple audiences, some of which know a lot more than others about the basics of virtual worlds/online games.

This wonderful new mode of interaction has its problems but shouldn’t be dismissed outright. In The Matrix, the virtual world is used to enslave the humans, so there is a fear factor here towards virtual worlds.

For Pearce as a game designer, when you design games you are also designing cultures, and you may not know what kind of culture will emerge with your game.

AbaBrukh Aabye
AbaBrukh Aabye

I asked one participant, whose background is in anthropology, to tell me what he got out of the discussions:

AbaBrukh Aabye: well, the concept of culture in virtual worlds has interested me since I first was an early beta tester on what became AOL

AbaBrukh Aabye: and it’s clearly becoming a larger part of human culture in general

AbaBrukh Aabye: I discovered SL from a feature on NPR

AbaBrukh Aabye: but when I’ve talked about it to some of my RL friends, they just laugh

The way people think about virtual worlds is varied depending upon their experience and what they want out of life. Having a little imagination is helpful for enjoying the concept of spending time in a virtual world. The fact that real life (RL) is called the physical life by one of the speakers is very telling: real things are said here in Second Life and in other virtual worlds, real relationships are forged (my own present relationship included), and real struggles are fought. Anytime you have a mix of people interacting, that is real.

But it will be some time before a significant part of the Internet-visiting population will feel that way, too.

Aerial view of a Metanomics sound stage
Aerial view of a Metanomics sound stage

4 responses to “Metanomics: Learn how your avatar participates in a virtual world culture”

  1. Tom Boellstorff Avatar

    Thanks so much for this!

  2. admin Avatar

    It was a pleasure to attend and I learned a lot!

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