Who's afraid of virtuality? On the moral status of social virtual worlds: The case of Second Life

Katleen Gabriels

Onderzoeksoutput: PhD Thesis


This doctoral study focuses on everyday virtual moral life by conjoining a strong grounding in moral philosophy with an empirical study on moral practices in the social virtual world Second Life. Since the 2000s, the rapid growth of 3D virtual worlds is one of the most remarkable tendencies in the new media landscape. Numerous people worldwide nowadays have avatars in virtual worlds. In traditional communities, moral frameworks and judgments structure the sociality of the cultures that one is part of; this raises the question of how social life is morally structured in shared virtual worlds. The anonymous character of virtual encounters raises compelling questions with regard to the meaning of moral obligations and accountability, since the virtual self meets the virtual stranger while always maintaining a distance. This dissertation's founding question subsequently is if - and to what extent - ethical relations are destabilized due to the virtualized moral encounter between the self and the other. In seeking to answer this question, a long-term hybrid ethnographic study was conducted, which involved meeting informants recurrently in both virtual (Second Life) and actual (face-to-face) settings. Instead of opposing virtuality to reality and rather than treating the virtual and the real as mutually exclusive, social virtual worlds must be considered as real social and moral settings because of the presence of avatars, which are controlled by actual embodied social and moral beings. Every place, be it actual or virtual, where embodied moral subjects gather, subsequently becomes a moral space where people are related to and responsible for others. This makes 'in-world' conduct (i.e. taking place within the virtual realm) subject to moral imperatives and evaluation. In addition, life in virtual worlds is in many respects continuous with actual settings; for instance, virtual world residents frequently invest actual personal resources such as time, energy, money, and so forth in the virtual world. This, however, does not mean that the virtual is a derivation of the actual. New meanings and creations can arise in virtual realms that did not pre-exist in the actual world and that can only be realized 'in-world'. The virtual self can realize what remains purely thinkable in the actual world, such as having multiple selves logged on at the same time. The empirical findings reveal that informants treated Second Life as a real and meaningful social space; to them, developing relations was an essential part of 'in-world' sense-making processes. Shared understandings of conventions, norms, and rules were important to sustain moral order. On the whole, research findings disclose three fundamental levels. First, actual moral frameworks had an important share in the regulation of everyday virtual morality. If someone crossed a moral boundary, this person was sanctioned, either by an individual or by the group. Also, deep-seated taboos, such as paedophilia (in terms of an adult avatar having sex with a child avatar), remained taboos that invoked moral condemnation. Second, technological possibilities co-shaped moral decision-making. For example, informants took an alt (alternative avatar) to spy on someone in order to attain more information about this person's trustworthiness. Third, because virtuality allows new creations (cf. supra), this could lead to specific norms that did not have a counterpart in the actual world. It was, for instance, accepted to have more than one avatar. Shared virtual spaces are thus both spaces with separate conventions and spaces into which actual lives and moral norms, principles, and values overfl
Originele taal-2English
Toekennende instantie
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Bauwens, Jo Renate, Co-Promotor
  • Verstrynge, Karl, Promotor
Plaats van publicatieBrussels
StatusPublished - 2014


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