Friday, October 17, 2014

Comment: Star Wars, X-Files, Zombies, and Mermaids

Star Wars? Zombies? Steampunk???? Common, you are gotta kidding, it can not be real research!

Well, while I please myself to think I am quite humorous (I know that it is the matter of heated debates in my laboratory), I am in fact not kidding. For those interested in studying virtual communities, virtual communities related to science fiction or fantasy universes are of the highest interest. Why so? There are quite a few reasons to that. I will not go over them here; if you are interested by that, I will gladly refer you to our papers.

Guitton MJ (2012) Living in the Hutt Space: Immersive Process in the Star Wars Role-Play community of Second Life. Computers in Human Behavior, 28:1681-1691.
Guitton MJ (2011) Immersive role of non-required social actions in virtual settings: the example of trade role-play in the Second Life Gorean community. Design Principles and Practices: an International Journal, 5:209-220.

But in fact, if we go back to the “good ol’ time” (and in the field of cyberpsychology, a few decades are already an eternity), it all began there. Let’s take one of the papers considered as seminal in the field of study of virtual communities, the famous paper of Kozinets 1997.

Kozinets RV (1997) I Want to Believe: a Netnography of the X-Philes’ Subculture of Consumption. In Brucks M, MacInnis DJ (eds.): NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24. Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, pp. 470-475.

Back then, Kozinets was interested in the structure of a virtual community in a eMarketing logic (or what would later on be referred to as eMarketing). For that, he by the way had to define a new methodological approach, which he named “netnography” (InterNET ethnography – a term which got quite a successful fate, although now the term virtual anthropology might be favored). And which community was he studied? The community of the fans of X-Files! Yes, Agent Mulder and Agent Scully…

Scully, do you believe?

No offence intended to X-Files fans… but it is not what we immediately associate with rocket science. Nonetheless, the work of Kozinets was instrumental in developing the field of eMarketing (and is rightly acknowledged as so).

Similarly (at our modest scale), researching the virtual communities of Star Wars and Gorean role-players in Second Life helped us to unveil some really fascinating mechanisms underlying the structuring of virtual communities at large. And studying the communities of players of Zombie apocalypse games provided very interesting insights in the way moral dilemmas are resolved in extreme survival situations.

Cristofari C, Guitton MJ (2014) Surviving at any cost: Guilt expression following extreme ethical conflicts in a virtual setting. PLoS ONE, 9:e101711

While the X-Files fan community, the Star Wars Role-Play community, or the Gorean communities refer to imaginary settings which follow a defined set of rules (a “canon”), some science fiction or fantasy communities are not united by a predetermined and restrictive corpus. That’s for instance the case of the Steampunk community, or of the Mermaids community in Second Life. However, these virtual communities are still potentially providing us a lot of information. For instance, studying the Second Life Steampunk community allowed us to develop a new tool to “map” the perceived distance between communities by quantifying their aesthetics (paper just accepted a few days ago, soon more on this blog!).

So, yes, even if it might look surprising, this is real research. With the fun as a bonus.

A mermaid in the seas of Second Life.