Katleen Gabriels

Katleen Gabriels

  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Participant in 2011

Phd Projects


Living Virtual Lives: From Moral Practices to a Theory of Ethics in Social Virtual Worlds

Nowadays, numerous people are investing considerable personal resources while engaging with mediated others in social virtual worlds (e.g. InWorldz, Second Life). A virtual world can be defined as a constant, multi-user, three-dimensional, computer-generated social, cultural and moral space, inhabited by humans and their representational avatars. Other important features are a first-person perspective, real-time interaction between actual people, a shared virtual reality, the lack of a game-oriented goal and an open-end purpose. Surprisingly, little research has been done regarding the question of morality in these worlds, which is in sharp contrast to the extensive studies on moral issues in virtual games. The most significant difference between worlds and games is that worlds lack a game-oriented goal, leaving residents free to choose how they assign meaning to their in-world activities. It is exactly this freedom to act which is the starting point of this PhD, which combines a media-sociological and philosophical study. In the theoretical part, the rise of virtual reality and the subsequent augmented virtualisation are problematised. The upsurge in virtual reality raises compelling questions about how to understand ethics and morality in virtual worlds. Many of the problems and anxieties related to virtuality are not new, but have taken on new meaning due to technological specificities. Many believe communication in virtual surroundings makes people less humane, as the physical face, a precondition for moral responsibility, is missing (among others Heim, 1993; Cranford, 1995; Lanier, 2011; Turkle, 2011). The fundamental question is how virtuality influences our dealings with the other. To this aim, two fields of tension are thoroughly elaborated on. First, the field of tension between virtuality and actuality: is there a rupture (discontinuity) between virtuality and actuality, or is there a prolongation (continuity)? Second, the field of tension between moral proximity and moral distance is analysed. Due to virtuality and computer-mediated communication, the physical face is missing; does this reduce moral responsibility towards distant mediated others? The most important authors are Lévy, Virilio, Baudrillard, McLuhan and Silverstone. In the methodological part, I will make use of ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967). The starting point is the in-world moral practice of avid users of social virtual worlds. Research questions include: within what moral framework are virtual practices enacted, and how different is ‘virtual’ morality from morality in offline social worlds? After finalising the empirical study, research results will be critically analysed and evaluated in light of existing ethical theories and concepts.

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