This paper breaks research into online worlds into three different categories:
- world-design view, where the virtual world is created or altered specifically for the study which is conducted from the outside.
- avatar/in-world immersion view - the researcher is immersed as a participant.
- database view/backend analysis - researchers access the data generated by player interactions.
That's quite useful. I think I'd be wanting to do some kind of mix of the first two.
They then go on to focus on the in-world version, or primarily ethnographic study, focussing on three intersecting forces:
- The EULA or TOS agreed to be the researcher when they sign up to the MMOG.
- Normative ethical considerations of community participation.
- Established research norms as interpreted by the relevant ethics committee or IRB (Institutional Research Board).
I hadn't really thought about ethics committee approval for my research, but I guess I'll need it!
Another interesting point to watch out for is an increased difficulty in getting participants if the researcher isn't properly 'embedded' in the game. Lack of levels etc. I hadn't considered that.
It is useful to consider whether research does break the EULA. It seems in grey areas it is advised to talk to the game producers. You only really get into muddy waters if you intend to act 'outside the custom and practice of the MMO' - or either be a cheater or spoilsport (cheat is where you're playing, but outside the rules, spoilsport where you're outside the rules and you don't mean to play).
Looks like all the papers I've read on methodology so far point to at least spending some time playing the game for itself, to understand what questions to ask or where the lines are. This would be within the EULA, as even if the researcher is being paid they are still really just playing. It becomes a bit less clear when the player stops playing and starts conducting research, although I think you might be able to argue that plenty of players stop questing after a while and mostly socialise, that's still using in-game activities.
Interesting angle, again, not one I'd thought of yet!