Researchers love virtual worlds. They are drawn to virtual worlds because of the opportunity to study real populations and real behavior in shared simulated environments. The growing number of virtual worlds and population growth within virtual worlds has led to a sizeable increase in the number of human subjects experiments taking place in such worlds.
Virtual world users care deeply about their avatars, their virtual property, their privacy, their relationships, their community, and their accounts. People within virtual worlds act much as they would in the physical world because the experience of the virtual world is “real” to them. The very characteristics that make virtual worlds attractive to researchers complicate ethical and lawful research design. The same principles govern research in virtual worlds and the physical world. However, the change in context can cause researchers to lose sight of the fact that virtual world research subjects may suffer very real harm to property, reputation, or community as the result of flawed experimental design. Virtual world research methodologies that fail to consider the validity of users’ experiences risk harm to research subjects. This Article argues that researchers who put subjects’ interests in danger run the risk of violating basic human subjects research principles.
Although hundreds of articles and studies examine virtual worlds, none have addressed the interplay between the law and best practices of human subjects research in those worlds. This Article fills that gap.
Virtual worlds are valuable research environments precisely because the relationships and responses of users are measurably real. This Article concludes that human subjects researchers must protect the very real interests of virtual worlds inhabitants in their property, community, privacy, and reputations.