Jonathan Harth, research assistant at the Chair of Sociology, reports on research into computer games, virtual worlds and a connection to Buddhism.

Computer sociology

Which implication has digitalization on our social life? What is the difference in playing with a computer instead of with other people? Which criteria do we apply when getting into contact with virtual characters? Is there a difference between morally judging a human being and judging a non-player character (NPC)?

My doctoral thesis “Computergesteuerte Spielpartner. Formen der Medienpraxis zwischen Trivialität und Personalität“ (computer-controlled game partners; forms of media practice between triviality and personality) deals with exactly these kinds of questions. Although computer games have been popular for a long time now, only a few sociological research papers on the subject exist so far. As a technophile, this was a gap I wanted to fill. I soon realized that dealing with artificial social partners also means dealing with oneself as a human being.

Especially during a time when artificial entities are increasingly disseminated – and the development is far from being completed – the way human beings are seen also changes. How does social interaction with computers look like? Are there any differences between human-computer and human-human interaction at all?

Practical Research

Witten/Herdecke University offers the ideal framework for continuing my research. The “Studium fundamentale” curriculum now includes seminars in which we investigate new technologies together with the students. Practically experiencing the objects of research is indispensable for being able to witness the impact digital transformation has on human beings.

The participants of a seminar on “playing computer games” had therefore the opportunity to actively play during a session – in fact a new experience for some of them. My seminar on virtual reality (VR) was even more attractive. Completely new sociological questions arise in particular with regard to virtual spaces. I would like to answer these questions together with the students, and as a lecturer and researcher I benefit from the impetus given by the seminar participants. Witten/Herdecke University stands out due to this co-operation being beneficial to both sides.

To me it is very interesting to observe the reactions of the test persons handling VR glasses for the very first time. Within the context of the seminar, we therefore decided to do an experiment and invited different persons to experience two VR presentations. We jointly documented their behaviour, conducted interviews and evaluated the results for a short article.

Being present

Yet for all the enthusiasm for the potentials of technological progress, the critical analysis of one’s own media practice is increasingly important. This means, for example, deliberately putting the smart phone down once in a while to escape the flood of information and asking oneself: How are things right now? What is actually important in life? (without the media providing the answers for me.)

In the end it is one’s own presence in the world that counts. With this in mind, my current research activities regarding “Buddhism in the West” perfectly relate to the issue of digital transformation in society. Together with two colleagues we investigate how Buddhism influences people when being practised seriously.

Inherent in Buddhism is the promise that it is possible to attain a more modest attitude and develop a more humble self. By conducting qualitative interviews we examine whether this change of habits may actually work. The results will be available in three years’ time at the earliest. I wonder how artificial intelligence and virtual reality will have progressed by then and in which worlds we will feel being present.