Playing a Good Game: Ethical Issues in Researching MMOGs and Virtual Worlds 

by Heidi A. McKee & James E. Porter


An ethical piece at this point might seem a little strange, but I think it fits closely into the topic of OoSes particularly for Game Studies. My reasons for choosing this specific article are twofold. First, that I think ethics is incredibly important in terms of how a researcher approaches a virtual object of study in an ethical way. The article makes a very salient point: how the researcher views the OoS is very connected to if they view the virtual world as space or place. Second, the article begins to get at Juul’s question that I mentioned in my last paper: Do we study games or players?

At least for me, and my question of ‘How about both?,’ I think this article made me think of nuancing that question a little bit. This gets complicated, even when we talk about games because different games have different purposes and different levels of interaction of player to game and player to player and these are necessary to consider when deciding what to study and how to go about doing it. While I do think that the approach will depend on the type of game being studied and Juul likely wasn’t focused on MMOGs, it also depends on what we as researchers want to know. I do, however, feel that it would be hard to separate the game from the player in research.


McKee and Porter are primarily focused in the article on Virtual Worlds or MMOGs (massive multiplayer online games).  These games are social games in that many players take part in the game and interact with both the game and other people (or at least that’s the assumption). Their primary focus is on ethical issues in investigating these places (spaces could also be used here, but I’m particularly using places to situate myself based on the terminology in the piece).

McKee and Porter provide a theoretical framework for researchers as they work through ethical issues that deal with these virtual places using rhetoric and heuristics (visual) in order to avoid ethical relativism.  “What this mapping strategy visualizes is Sveningsson’s point that neither the public-private continuum nor the sensitive-nonsensitive continuum by itself is a sufficient basis for deciding wheter informed consent is necessary. A researcher must take both continua into account” (11).

McKee & Porter visual heuristic
Visual heuristic

McKee and Porter also interviewed researchers that were currently working on research in virtual worlds such as Second Life, City of Heroes, and Lineage I & II.

Figure 3 in McKee & Porter, 2009. Page 15.
Figure 3 in McKee & Porter, 2009. Page 15.

One of the specific areas that McKee and Porter focused on was how researchers viewed a virtual world in terms of place or space. If researchers viewed the internet as space, they likely saw the location as medium of text, and saw the things they were researching as published text in the public sphere that was open to use for research. Researchers that viewed the internet or virtual worlds as a place were more likely to see the location as a community or world, the object of study as players. Clearly it isn’t as cut and dry as one side or the other, but it does present a continuum of mapping views of research of virtual worlds like MMOGs.

McKee & Porter also looked at harm and risk to the larger community of players being studied and how researchers negotiated that in their work. They discussed that many researches did not evaluate the risks of their research the same way that an IRB did, for example.

They also discussed researcher credibility which boiled down to a researcher needing to spend a significant amount of time within the community of study in order to be credible and trustworthy to participants. This also included levels of transparency to members of the community as researchers.

Situating Myself

This particular article really made me begin thinking about my own research, which is primarily focused in MMOGs, though I like studying games outside of MMOGs too. Specifically, I’m currently interested in Mia Consalvo’s call to document toxic gamer culture that I wrote about in PAB 1.2.   I’ve found myself in the defining the virtual world as place, rather than space because as McKee and Porter argued, “The position that sees MMOGs and virtual worlds as places–particularly as real places rather than as simulated places–views ethical issues of harm and risk differently from a view that sees them as spaces” (17).  McKee and Porter say, “researchers taking this perspective see the game or simulated world as a real place, and, thus, treat avatars and players in such worlds as also real” (17). I’m not sure I could align myself differently even if I tried as I consider my (vast) time investment in virtual worlds.

There’s some dilemmas I’m encountering in my own head as I continue to try to work out how to approach this call for documentation. The researchers that McKee and Porter discussed said many things that resonated with me.

“I refuse to use any of the data that would show anyone in a poor light or raise any issues about their own integrity” (Steinkuehler interview, 25). All the researchers made some comment about not wanting to harm the community through their research.

In one sense, I’ve seen the struggle of the gaming community to be seen as legitimate, as well as scholars working to make video games a legitimate area of study. However, as a female gamer, and as a gamer that has seen some of the toxic culture in games harm other players in very real ways, I’m still working out how to negotiate this research. The water seems murky and I’m kind of afraid the Loch Ness monster lies below. I don’t want to represent the community in a negative way, but the truth is that this toxic gamer culture exists and that since it is harmful to many within the community, it seems absolutely necessary to document these issues. How to go about doing that ethically is still eluding me a bit, though I’m slowly starting to generate an idea of what that might look like.

P.S. For anyone that reads the article or this and is interested in playing the games mentioned by researchers as their places of study. Second Life and Lineage II are both free to play. City of Heroes (which I played for awhile) however, is no longer available to play anymore.

Second Life

Lineage II


Consalvo, Mia.  “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Games Studies Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1.1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 31 Aug. 2015.

McKee, Heidi A. and James E. Porter. “Playing a Good Game: Ethical Issues in Researching MMOGs and Virtual Worlds.” International Journal of Internet Research Ethics. 2.1 (Feb. 2009): 17. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.