Anthropology: The Ethnographic Study of Virtual Worlds and Online Culture

Transition to a Digital Culture

Traditional anthropological research involved seeking out a culture other than one’s own, and becoming immersed in it. In recent decades, anthropology has undergone radical shifts which continue to this day. In the last three decades, significant strides in technology have shaped human behaviour in fascinating ways. As humans engage more and more with technology, it intertwines with many cultures. This relationship is reflexive, meaning that culture both shapes technology use, and vice versa. While not all cultures engage with modern technology in the sense that we may consider it, through globalization, likely all cultures are in some way impacted or tangentially aware of it.

view of a virtual futuristic city
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Anthropology and Virtual Cultures

With the move online for many facets of modern life, like education, socialization, and entertainment, unique subcultures form in virtual spaces. I argue that future anthropology will continue to incorporate more and more interaction in virtual spaces. Many individuals now spend more time in these spaces for socialization than they do in person. This warrants a much more significant than currently practiced exploration of virtual sociality and the formation of cultures through technological mediation.

women avatar in a video game
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The Virtual and the Real

Many individuals may dismiss the study of virtual worlds due to their disassociation with the real world. Their consequences may seem less legitimate or sincere. However, there is an undeniable attraction to virtual spaces. While they may not be equitable with the real world, they afford other features altogether. Expression in virtual spaces can make certain individuals feel accepted. Video games and pseudonymous social sites allow for individuals to gain contacts with a diverse array of individuals throughout various global cultures. They allow one to gain new perspectives, skills, and lasting friendships. I know people who have sustained virtual connections for well over a decade, and who would not have done so without virtual worlds. These long-lasting friendships use the technology and communicative medium as grounds for social interaction, just as traditionally individuals may socialize at bars, parties, or dances.

Virtual Identities and Research Methods

Due to the unique circumstances of virtual interaction, it also becomes not just a form of communication, but an identity of sorts. Various virtual worlds are host to thousands, if not more, of unique subcultures with diverse norms, terminology and practices. Anthropological methods like fieldwork and ethnography should be adapted to suit the study of these fascinating areas. In the last two decades with anthropologists and social scientists like T.L. Taylor, Bonnie Nardi and several others gaining popularity, the study of virtual worlds has increased. These writers have formed new methods of adapting anthropological techniques into studying these groups (Boellstorff et al). While the field of virtual world research is relatively new, it will continue to be important.

robot character in a virtual world
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Globalization and Virtual Worlds

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected socially and economically, in a process called globalization, virtual worlds serve a greater purpose. They often connect individuals across geographic distances that would otherwise be largely impassable. This feature allows for new forms of interconnectedness, and great changes to sociality. Modern social interaction can be held between various continents and countries, allowing for greater access to like-minded individuals. This allows for the formation of new and unique forms of subcultures and interaction. It also encourages processes in which foreign belief systems influence local ones.

Virtual Interaction and Monocultures

Some social scientists may argue that currently a monoculture is forming globally due to these factors. However, I think that while it may facilitate communication between cultures, it does not homogenize them. If anything, this sense of globalization will diversify culture through the formation of large and small in-groups with unique norms and interests. If a person was interested in a niche hobby, they were limited previously to the few individuals in their area who practiced it, and could maybe read magazines or newsletters about the topic. Now, subcultures around the world can communicate and grow through social media, forming new and complex types of interaction that are yet to be studied truly in depth.

a group of avatars socialize in a virtual world
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Truth and Dramaturgy

It is important to note that while online practice is not as verifiable as offline practice, that it is still genuine. While the individual may not portray their real name, their behaviours are still motivated in similar ways. There is still social expression, and genuine impacts, resulting from online interaction. Virtual experiences may seem less objective, but offline interaction can be equally performative. Individuals may lie all the time, and this is an issue that can be encountered in any anthropological research. Social scientists like Bourdieu call this the dramaturgical presentation of self. This explains a concept in which individuals show a tailored image to the world that may not be genuine.

Tall Tales as Cultural Expression

When an anthropologist hears a story, it may often be untrue, or biased due to individual perception. This does not differ between virtual and offline research. The things that an individual chooses to highlight may actually be more informative than their genuine nature. Through performance, we can see what traits are valued in a society or culture. If individuals in an online community express certain traits, these can become observable patterns of behavior across social actors. Therefore, stories are real in terms of their impact foremost.

a screenshot of an MMO video game shows people in a village interacting
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Games as Social Practice

Another form of virtual world is in online interactive video games, like MMOs and MMORPGs. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games are sites of mass congregation and social interaction between thousands of potential players. They develop unique subcultures, and are an interesting site for anthropological research. Some of the most popular online and virtual anthropology has taken place inside games like this due to their unique affordances. Traditional social media can be harder to study ethnographically as the social actors participate asynchronously. However, it is very much possible to study these spaces with patience and immersion.

Sports and Competition

As video games online are both increasingly competitive and cooperative, they function in many of the same ways as sports. Sports have traditionally fulfilled an important part of culture as sites of interaction and competition, with unique rules and associated subcultures. Video games have increasingly become more important in many homes, and are one of the largest media forms in the current technological landscape.

a battle with a red dragon character in World of Warcraft
Image Credit: PC Games N

Nardi and World of Warcraft

Bonnie Nardi is an anthropologist who focuses on the ethnographic study of virtual worlds. She initially did not begin her studies focusing on the worlds of video games. After becoming aware of the immense popularity of World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online game, she tentatively decided to check it out. Nardi’s exploration functions like a classic ethnographic analysis. She begins her exploration as a genuine outsider to the community. The world of MMO games is insular and complex, with many unspoken rules. Immersing herself through the use of forums and a clan, she began to appreciate the nuances of the game. The game’s community formed a culture of its own, with unique phrases, social practices and behaviours . It also like offline interaction involves negative interactions, such as harassment and sexualization (Nardi 2010).

Variation and Expression

As virtual worlds like World of Warcraft are inherently social, they should be noted as potential sites of social research. It may at first seem odd to study such cultures, however, the insights from in-game also speak to the real world. These individuals are drawn to virtual worlds through many precipitating factors. It may be used as a form of escapism, and a way to truly express oneself online. Individuals who are not confident in real life may dress or act extravagantly in the online space.

the character customization screen in Final Fantasy XIV Online shows a female character
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Final Fantasy XIV: Night Life and Boundaries

In a small ethnographic study of my own, I researched a segment of the population in FFXIV. Final Fantasy XIV Online is a MMO game based on the world of popular game franchise Final Fantasy. My ethnographic research consisted of dozens of hours spent in game, in which I slowly managed to join and understand niche subsets of the game. I did not find myself drawn to the competitive aspects of the game, but the deeply complex social world of roleplaying was more intriguing. In this facet of the game, players dress their characters in specific ways, playing characters with elaborate backstories and on-going tales of loss, love, and conflict.

A Night On The Virtual Town

These individuals, in a less romantic sense, also engage in standard “adult” practices. Individuals in the game space roleplayed sexualized behaviours and went to night clubs and other adult venues. These groups convened through online social sites like Discord and forums. Much of this behaviour mimicked real life practice, but with a sense of performativity and pseudonymity that afforded confidence and expression for those who may not engage in these practices publically. These areas of play also had complex rules and boundaries, with certain venues allowing much less than others.

an image shows silhouettes on phones with the Facebook logo on a blue background
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Online Subcultural Communities: United Niches

Other forms of online subcultures outside of games, like previously noted, help create bonds between individuals with niche interests. I have been undergoing for the last year the beginning of an ethnographic research project studying an online community that is known as being a foundational yet obscure source of internet memes and humour. This community takes place on one of the largest social media sites and has existed for around a decade. The individuals have sourced some famous memes, and have also courted controversy. Through studying this subcultural community, I have gained insights on the ethnographic study of virtual spaces. Online subcultures like offline ones need to be understood as important sites of interaction and identity formation.

Differences Between Virtual Spaces

Social media communities do not function like gaming ones, instead being asynchronous. They are also pseudonymous, but for privacy generally instead of roleplaying. It is also impossible to study them anthropologically without ingratiating yourself within their social circles. I have participated in this community for around seven years, using this knowledge to help form interviews and observations for ethnographic research. While I find myself unable to relate to certain behaviours and portions of the community, particularly certain political affiliations, it remains a fascinating example of human diversity.

Divisions Within Online Communities

The individuals in this community span across the world, and have very different belief systems, which actually has created rifts within it. There are now several offshoots and subdivisions of the group. Therefore, it is important to note that most internet subcultures branch out and divide, and it is impossible to record all social interaction within them. The various offshoots now make up thousands of social actors. Like in traditional ethnographic research at a field site, the anthropologist must narrow their interests down to a few topics or less, and focus on smaller groups within the culture generally.

cartoon name tags say 'Hello My Name Is' with various famous pen names and their original names
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Privacy and Ethnography

In virtual spaces, there are additional means of maintaining distance from offline lives. Pseudonymous and anonymous platforms allow for increased privacy. Due to these concerns, it is important when studying such communities to provide pseudonyms and to modify stories for additional protection. This practice has been practiced by many anthropologists who studied challenging topics like Philippe Bourgeois, who studied drug dealing in New York (Bourgois) and can be adapted here. While this form of study is not as common currently, it will likely become a common modality of research.

a group socializes in a living room in a virtual world
Image Credit: University of Oregon

Significance to Anthropology:

As more of our lives become mediated through technology and globally linked, the anthropological study of media grows in necessity. In our globalized world, we can now have contact across the real world through virtual worlds. As consciously constructed spaces, virtual spaces become sites for cultural and social expression. Social interaction will continue to be mediated through these spaces throughout the foreseeable future. Anthropologists should continue to explore these avenues of sociality. The unique nature of technological interaction during this relatively early period of adoption and rapid change should be noted. It is likely that with every few years, thousands of online practices and subcultures change or disappear.

The Impermanence of Cultural Practice

In a few decades, the virtual worlds of certain video games will no longer exist, and will be replaced by newer ones. Like with traditional ethnography, research documents lived experience in ways that may never exist again. The primary goal of anthropology should be to record these significant parts of human expression and interaction before they slip away. While technology and virtual mediation are unlikely to disappear soon, they may look completely differently. In a few decades, the ethnographies of our area will become historical documents of the time in which such interaction became predominant.


Boellstorff, Tom., Nardi, Bonnie., Pearce, Celia., and T.L. Taylor. 2012. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

Bourgois, Philippe. 2002. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Nardi, Bonnie. 2010. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Digital Culture Books, University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor.

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