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Paul T. Scriven

This chapter discusses the application of a phenomenological framework to inform research in immersive virtual worlds such as MMORPG’s. Based on the phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schutz, the chapter examines some of the key problems facing researchers in online spaces. Some virtual worlds such as those found in MMORPG’s are immersive spaces that facilitate experiences dissimilar to the physical world; consequently the ideas and meanings generated by these experiences need to be treated as somewhat unique in their nature. From the viewpoint of researcher-as-observer in physical space, a subject’s body acts as a field of expression, with their actions as indications of their motivations. In most online spaces, the physical body is absent and no longer available as a field of expression, and action in its traditional sense becomes difficult to define. Consequently, the availability of knowledge of the physical participant, as well as access to the contexts in which action takes place is often limited. In discussing these issues using the vocabulary of Schutz’s phenomenology, this chapter attempts to clarify some of these concepts to build a useful framework for conducting social research in MMORPG’s. The key points to be discussed are the adequacy of player characters as a field of expression; player characters interacting with virtual environments as observable action; and determining to what extent knowledge of the player character, rather than player, can contribute to establishing contexts of action. Ensuring an understanding of the ways in which virtual social worlds can be constituted as sites of distinctive experiences is important for all research methods, but is of great importance for more qualitative research methods such as ethnography and discourse analysis.