Professor Joshua A. T. Fairfield, the Director of the Frances Lewis Law Center, recently presented his article, Avatar Experimentation: Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds, 1 U.C. Irv. L. Rev. ___ (2011), in the “Governing the Magic Circle: Regulation of Virtual Worlds” symposium at the School of Law at University of California Irvine. The article will also be published in the forthcoming edition of the school’s Law Review.
Professor Fairfield, widely considered an expert on virtual world law, addresses the principles and laws that govern researchers observing virtual worlds. Virtual world users care deeply about their avatars, their virtual property, their privacy, their relationships, their community, and their accounts. These very characteristics that make virtual worlds attractive to researchers complicate ethical and lawful research design. The same principles govern research in virtual worlds as the physical world. Prof. Fairfield argues that 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. Thus, the article argues that researchers who put subjects’ interests in danger run the risk of violating basic human subjects research principles.
Virtual worlds are valuable research environments precisely because the relationships and responses of users are measurably real. Professor Fairfield concludes that human subjects researchers must protect the very real interests of virtual worlds inhabitants in their property, community, privacy, and reputation. To that end, the article outlines solutions and best practices for human subjects research in virtual worlds.
Congratulations to Professor Fairfield on the presentation and publication of this article.