Researching the Metaverse

The Metaverse is coming, and it’s far more than a buzzword for kids and teens. If you’re not yet familiar with the term, metaverse refers to global, always-on virtual spaces that are “omni-experiential” (i.e., places to consume and create, with gaming, entertainment, learning, work, communication and socialising in a single, connected immersive environment.

At the start of 2021, Kidscreen predicted that companies would quickly begin making themselves “metaverse-ready”:

This year, brands will start to create metaverse studios — teams focused on integrating their IPs into multiple digital worlds, including implementing multi-game engagement strategies. Non-gaming companies will build experiences that can be played across platforms. Games will continue to serve as sandbox tools, which kids will use, repurpose and play with their own rules–not necessarily how they were originally designed. (Kidscreen)

Seeing this same trend, Dubit is pioneering the way in undertaking qualitative research on kids engagement with current proto-metaverses (e.g., Roblox, Core and Crayta) to supplement the wealth of quantitive data they already have. For example, Dubit Trends found that:

  • Over half of US 8–12 year olds said they had played Roblox in the last week;
  • In the UK, Roblox and Minecraft tied for the game that the most 8–12 year olds had played within the last week;
  • In the US, Roblox was the 4th most-played game among 8–12 year olds in the past week;
  • Around a third of US and UK kids said they had played Roblox in previous 24 hours, suggesting that Roblox is a daily habit for many young people.

Researching the Metaverse

The metaverse is unique in that it is co-created by its users, resulting in a mix of professional content and games, experiences, stories and more designed by children. This amount of content can appear overwhelming, and so raises the question of how best to understand children’s perspectives on the important elements to them as they interact with and in these spaces.

From the outset, it seemed obvious that taking children out of the metaverse to interview them would create a disconnect between the research focus and the platform, missing key aspects of their engagement. So, we set out to create research spaces within Roblox and meet children there. Here’s what I have learned about the methodology so far.

Too cold, too hot, just right: designing a metaverse research space

Experienced researchers who work with children under age 12 will tell you there’s a learning curve of realisation that good methodologies need to be fairly flexible in the moment.

When an adult meets a child for the first time (as is usually the case in research), the power structure usually places the adult is in control; however, if researchers were experts on children’s lives, we wouldn’t need to study them. Thus, we have to find ways to flip the power structure, in order to empower children as the experts on their own experiences.

Further, play is more than fun for children; it’s a key childhood communication practice, particularly with young children. Their learning and sharing ideas about the world is naturally playful. Thus, in a research setting, play actions may be embedded with more meaning than verbal answers to questions.

So, designing a space for conducting research inside one of their favourite ‘hangouts’ requires a balance between suitability for promoting conversation and allowing children to use the natural affordances that they have come to love about the game.

When I begin a study there is usually a little push and pull between myself and the child participants, as we balance how I’ve prepared to engage with them and the way they want to share details of their lives with me.

This study was no different. In the beginning, one of Dubit’s Roblox developers, Corey Ellis-Johnson created a simple mesh and a few chairs, a space for children to take a seat and answer my metaverse questions:

As we suspected, kids found the space boring (“too cold”), so I began my first Roblox Studio build to create a more playful, open-ended space — a pirate island with an ice cream stand, campfire, tree house and outdoor swimming pool.

The first research session on the island was chaotic. The participants raced all over the land, sank the pirate ship and found the captain’s cat under the sea! We had fun, but it was impossible to follow all the dispersed participants and observe their interactions. We could complete the field questions using the in-game chat facility, but I felt I was missing something. The research space was so fun it was interfering with the study (“too hot” to carry on the Goldilocks analogy).

To rebalance, I asked children to follow me to different parts of the island, where we stayed a while talking about a few points before moving together to a new space. I seemed to have found the “just right” space for this study:

In the meantime Corey has built a new space for the next round of research, a design that he describes was influenced by his desire to create:

“A calming space where users can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. Also, to give sense of “everyone’s here” in the game too. Bright colours signified to the users that it’s a safe and joyful space to hangout with their friends. Rather than a boring office table, we rather chose a campfire and logs to sit on. “

Researcher Identity

Researcher identity is long debated within the social sciences: to what extent should the researcher’s personality and beliefs be evident in the process and reporting of outcomes.

While children are very interested in digital games, they have little access to information on how the games industry works — where their games come from. Letting children know that I am part of this industry helps them to understand that I am seeking their knowledge to inform the making of games like the ones they play. This ties in with principles of good research ethics where we should respect participants time and only include them in research that we believe can be valuable (BERA, 2018).

When children meet me in person, they can usually see that I am quite playful and like games. Conducting research in Roblox, however, I would be largely hidden behind an avatar (after a quick face-to-face introduction on Zoom). I found myself with the quandary of needing to find a balance with my avatar, just as I did in designing the in-game research environment. Being new to Roblox, I set myself up with an avatar made of free stuff from the online shop. Having shaggy hair and wearing a beanie hat and pizza design sweatshirt, I did not feel my avatar represented me in any way — I was having a researcher identity crisis!

Silence in the Context of Child Voice

Ann Lewis (2010) writes that while researchers have a responsibility to respond to give children a voice in issues that affect them (Article 12 of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child), we also have an ethical responsibility to enable children to be silent should they not want to speak.

Lewis continues by noting that children’s silence can be invested with meaning, too. Playing and chatting in the metaverse with small groups of participants (as their gaming avatars) seemed to facilitate opportunities for children to not feel obliged to answer every question verbally. The gaming research space promoted a powerful form of non-verbal data to complement children’s voices.

Powerful Non-Verbal Data

As communication practices have changed from predominately written and verbal to visual and multimodal (Kress, 2010), there is a need to embrace other types of data and means of analysing it. In this first stage of the metaverse study, I noticed not only how children were designing avatars and worlds, but also how their movements represented knowledge of how the metaverse works. Certain types of movement (e.g., traveling fast or spinning) are paid-for additions to children’s game play. Thus, using these movements was significant in identifying their experience in Roblox, and also demonstrated children’s agency — they were showcasing gaming elements that were important to them, that otherwise would have been time-consuming to talk about in the chat (had I even have known to ask about them).

Van Mechelen (2016) provides a tool kit for analysing objects made by children that I will certainly apply to data collected on identity as expressed through avatar designs and gaming worlds built by children. Until then, you can find me as the updated version of myself, hanging out as a fox wearing a kitsune mask, on a sinking ship somewhere on a tropical island not far from here.

References

BERA (2018) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research.

Kress, G. (2010) Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.

Lewis, A. (2010) Silence in the Context of ‘Child Voice’. Children & Society, Vol. 24, p. 14–23.

UN (1989) Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Van Mechelen, M. (2016) Designing technologies for and with children, a tool kit to prepare and conduct co-design activities and analyse the outcomes. Published by Mint Lab.

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Dylan Yamada-Rice

Senior Tutor in Information Experience Design, Royal College of Art & Senior Research Manager, Dubit. www.dylanyamadarice.com