Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

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Scholars serious about virtual worlds

Conference at UNLV will cover religion, law, ethics in digital communities

If You Go

  • What: “Virtual Worlds and Interpretive Communities: Opportunities for Global Dialogue,” an international conference.
  • When: Monday and Tuesday. Free and open to the public. Registration begins at 9 a.m. Monday. For more details and a complete schedule, visit
  • Where: Greenspun Hall auditorium at UNLV, on Maryland Parkway. Visitors may park anywhere on campus on Monday, but will have to pay for metered parking or a daily permit on Tuesday. For information on parking, call 895-1300.

Sun Archives

People unfamiliar with virtual worlds such as Second Life might be surprised by how developed virtual communities are.

Second Life, for instance, has its own economy and currency (the Linden dollar, which users can purchase with real-life dollars).

People who date on Second Life sometimes meet and marry their digital significant others in real life. Avatars used to be able to gamble in Linden dollars, too, until Linden Lab, Second Life’s developer, banned the practice in 2007.

With the virtual world increasingly intersecting with the real world, UNLV will host an international conference this week on digital communities.

A gift from the Greenspun family, which owns the Las Vegas Sun, is funding the event, titled “Virtual Worlds and Interpretive Communities: Opportunities for Global Dialogue.”

UNLV’s Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies and the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at The Interdisciplinary Center in Israel are sponsoring the two-day conference that begins Monday.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will consist of a series of panels, and speakers will address topics including religion, law and ethics.

“It’s cutting-edge, and as a new technology or new way of using technology, it’s something that more and more people are starting to study,” journalism and media studies faculty member Stephen Bates said of virtual worlds. “We’re all starting from scratch because it’s so new, so it’s exciting to be on the ground floor.”

Bates will moderate a panel titled “Law and Order in Cyberspace.”

Among legal issues that have arisen in Second Life, which Bates called “an interesting frontier for the law right now,” are those dealing with copyright.

People not only copy images from the real world to place in Second Life. They also copy other users’ digital creations, virtual items such as clothing that can be sold for Linden dollars.

Heidi Campbell, an assistant professor of communications at Texas A&M University, will deliver a keynote address Monday morning that deals with religion in digital communities.

One intriguing aspect of religious communities on the Internet is that they call public attention to conversations within religious communities that might otherwise remain private, Campbell said.

“The Internet provides a great way to look at what’s happening in society,” Campbell said. “It’s all about the private being made public. From conversations and debates on theology to rules of the community, to what the hot button issues are, those get highlighted much more easily on the Internet.”

For UNLV, the conference will serve a practical purpose. The second day will include a two-hour “research breakout” session during which attendees including UNLV faculty members will be able to share ideas about how they can collaborate on future research.

UNLV and researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel are working together on projects related to virtual worlds, and this week’s event is an opportunity to meet face-to-face to discuss their work.

Lawrence Mullen, a professor of journalism and media studies who has developed a class on Second Life at the university, is collaborating with Interdisciplinary Center scholars on creating a more efficient way of gathering research data on Second Life.

The Israeli researchers are developing an information-gathering Web robot — a “bot” — that wanders around Second Life on its own, introducing itself to Second Life avatars and asking them questions using a script.

Mullen, who studies, among other topics, how people develop a sense of community in Second Life, is working on the script, drafting questions he would like the “bot” to ask.

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