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Real World Virtuality

Real World Virtuality

I started reading Spook Country last night before bed, the first chapter of which ends with a virtual world/real-world mashup that has the main character standing in front of the Viper Room in LA looking down at a dead River Phoenix on the sidewalk in front of her. Leaving aside a whole other post I could write about the significance of that particular moment to people born around when I was, it made me think about gaming and ubiquitous computing.

I suspect most of what I’m about to say is so passe to most people who think about gaming and the internet, but it was a fun revelation for me, at least.

When I first started talking outloud about ubiquitous computing in the library after the Copenhagen keynote about sentient cities, our chief librarian wilted a little. “We just built this place!” she said. But I think ubiquitous computing is not going to come from the walls at all; I think it’s just going to use the walls to interface with mobile computing.

Okay imagine it: you have VR goggles. You put on your goggles and you see the world around you, but also the game space. You have already entered in the usernames of your friends, who are also playing this game with you. You are synced up to GPS, so your goggles know where you are in relation to your environment. You have chosen a genre or theme, but the game is constructed on the fly by the system based on the environment you’ve chosen, the number of civilians in your view, weather information, and variables drawn from the user profiles of you and your friends.

So say you pick a large field by a river for your game space. Maybe you do a walkthrough it first with your goggles on so that the system can add more detail to the GPS and map data; that data would go into a central repository for geographical information. The system can then generate characters that wander past, hide behind bushes, sit in trees, etc. You and your friends can all see the generated characters because of the goggles, so you can all interact with them simulaneously. The characters might be generated by the game designers, or they might be created by users, like the Spore creature creator, with backstories and voices all supplied by fans, vetted by the designers. You and your friends can be costumed by the system; when you look down at your own (bare) hands, they might be wearing chain mail gloves and be carrying a sword.

Or say you pick a city block as your game space; the system connects to google map data, and then also takes in information about all the people around you, and uses them as part of the game. It could turn the city in a futuristic place, with flying cars and impossibly tall buildings. Running around the city, chasing aliens, avoiding civilians, being a big ole’ gaming geek in full view of the public. Awesome.

So now: the virtual library could come with a pair of goggles and a good series of fast databases.

That would be pretty cool. Just sayin’.

R.I.P., Lively

R.I.P., Lively

Dear Google,

I’m sorry to hear about Lively. I guess you didn’t get the response you expected. But you know, it was a good idea. I love the idea of the same avatar turning up on many different pages, a representation of me that moves with me from web location to web location. It’s like an ID, but with features and motion. You were on to something there. It’s not your fault that people can’t figure out how to use it. This is always the way with things. When cool new apps appear on the horizon, everyone says: “Well, what’s it for?” People as a rule aren’t terribly imaginative.

Anyway, I’m sorry it didn’t get the reception you expected. I hope you’re not giving up on virtual worlds entirely. So many people are right now. Every time I turn around someone tells me how the concept is dead and no one wants to go near it. Why is this? We haven’t even BEGUN to scratch the surface of what we could do with virtual worlds. Every once in a while you see something amazing blossom out and people are stunned. I guess we just need a few more blooms to get people’s imaginations stirred.

I mean really; how many times have blogs been dead? And how many blogs are there now? Sheesh.

I hope you have a little party/wake in honour of Lively’s passing. I would go.

Love always,


IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

Jeremy and I fundamentally disagree about this, but I think this isn’t an entirely bad idea. The gist: IBM and Linden labs have teamed up to create an entirely protected space within Second Life where IBM employees can talk without being interrupted or overheard by other Second Life users. There is an argument in the virtual worlds sphere that holds that Second Life, or virtual worlds in general, are only any good if they’re entirely public. Locking off pieces will reduce creativity and is counterproductive, goes the train of thought.

To me, as long as you can bring objects in and out of locked spaces, I think this is a fantastic development for education. If IBM can lock off a portion of the world, and create new land within in it for their own use, that means educational institutions can do the same thing. I bet IBM will have a public portion (for PR) and a private portion (for work); this would be an excellent example to institutions, who could collaborate on a joint public zone, where all participant institutions could have a storefront (so to speak) for recruitment and public event purposes, and then a private area where their classrooms and sandboxes live, protected for the moment while they’re still in flux. There could also be a space in the public, shared display area to showcase excellent builds and projects created within their private zones. Additionally, in an ideal world, each institutions libraries would take charge of archiving projects and builds that, with permission of course, could be “loaned out” to other students/institutions for academic purposes. So if someone creates an excellent historical build that sits in display for a while and then moves to archives, another instructor could borrow it for a class, and have students from another institution wander through it for a week or two as part of their preparatory reading. Students should absolutely get credit for it, too.

Having a public area and a private area for students allows instructors to keep students in a protected area when required, but would also allow them to use Second Life as a virtual universe to explore at the same time; while many people are concerned about the wild west mentality that pervades some elements of Second Life, a private launch pad would allow students to find their feet before moving into the more diverse parts of the space. It would also put land use in the hands of the institution, which I think is a key part of creating coursework builds.

I just don’t think this kind of structure is possible given the current land organization and administration.

I would never have imagined that IBM enclosing space in a virtual world would ever seem like such a positive step forward for the rest of us, but it seems that way to me!

Virtual Worlds, Ooh La La!

Virtual Worlds, Ooh La La!

Thanks to the lovely Tracy Kennedy for this one: What happens in the virtual world has real world impact.

People assume that, if anything, online activities emanate from offline lives. But Mr. Bailenson and his colleagues have shown the reverse. Their experiments demonstrate, for instance, that people who watch their avatars — cartoonlike versions of themselves — gain weight from overeating are more likely to adopt a weight-loss plan in real life.

As Jason noted, this isn’t actually a new finding, as amazed and awed as the academic world appears to be. I’m happy that people are finally paying attention to virtual worlds, because I find them rich and fascinating and full of potential. Reading this article reminds me of Richard Bartle‘s excellent reaction to virtual worlds media coverage from a few weeks ago:

Now I’m in a bit of a quandry here. On the one hand, I want more research on virtual worlds and don’t want to discourage people from doing it, but on the other hand, this is just slapdash and slipshod. The authors seem to believe they have stumbled across an unresearched area, ripe for consideration; actually, it’s a well-researched area, and their belief that it’s virgin territory merely exposes their ignorance.

Feels like we’re fighting a losing battle on that front; it looks like we’re just destined to reinvent the wheel on virtual worlds. Unless we want to get our act together and get a real book out there? I think we have an article in revision to get to work on, Jason!

Ritual and Virtual Worlds

Ritual and Virtual Worlds

I went to an interesting set of presentations this morning about ritual as performed in virtual worlds. The first thing that stuck out for me is that everyone has a different working definition of the word ‘ritual’. For some, everything is a ritual, everything we do, from sitting in a room listening to an instructor or presenter to accepting the eucharist. Because of that wide definition, all kinds of things got crammed into a session about “ritual” and I’m not sure I’m completely in favour of that. For instance, one of the “rituals” presented was online gaming activities, like trying to kill a dragon in online Dungeons and Dragons. Gathering together and attempting to complete a task communally is ritualistic (hiding behind a rock, everyone with their task to accomplish, the order in which people stand in the virtual world, etc.). I can understand how there are traditions and customary activities in that context, but I seriously hesitate to call them rituals. That’s like calling everything that has any impact an icon, which I’m also not delighted about.

But the key piece that I’m going to take away from the presentations and the discussion is the sense I got that in moving ritual and religious experience online, we’ve in a sense brought it back to an earlier form. Religious authorities are not the only ones with rituals to preside over and religious knowledge to impart, and much as christian leaders needed to fight with local ritual and knowledge to be heard in a medieval and early modern European context, so modern religious leaders need to cope with the influx of religious information and authority that’s available online. And one of the points of discussion was this: can you have a legitimate ritual without a body? Apparently there is some debate around this. Can you? My goodness, how can you not? If Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila were given the opportunity to worship God in a ritual that did not include their physical bodies in any way, they would have jumped at it, I’m sure. Christianity has traditionally had such disdain for the physical body, I don’t understand how anyone could suggest that there’s even a question about whether the virtual ritual is possible. The virtual ritual has been the most desireable kind since medieval christians climbed up on pillars and stood on one foot for 10 years. Remove the impact of the body, remove it from your consciousness, and then you are free to approach the divine with your lustful, sinful flesh tamed and left behind. In many ways, Second Life ritual could be seen as the consumate religious experience.

Can the same be said for jewish ritual, however? Jewish traditions isn’t nearly as flesh-hating, and jewish ritual respects the physicality of the performing the ritual itself, often above the intellectual understanding of it. Perhaps jewish ritual cannot move into a virtual context, but I’d suggest that christian ritual absolutely can.

An interesting morning! I never though my Master of Theological Studies degree would could in handy at an internet researchers’ conference, fancy that!

Hacking Say

Hacking Say

Jason already blogged it, so I suppose I should too. In order to qualify for the Second Life all-day workshop at AoIR‘s Internet Research Conference (“Let’s Play“), Jason Nolan (Assistant Professor at the school of Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University) and I wrote a paper called Hacking Say, Chat Fatigue, Generics and Davy Jones’ Locker: Is there a Second Life in MOO?” Essentially, it’s a retrospective of the work we did in MOO, primarily based around the problems we faced using a virtual environment in an educational context and the solutions we devised to account for them. The entire paper is written in light of work we’re presently doing in Second Life; a sort of compare and contrast of the two worlds and some musing on whether or not what we learned and what we created in MOO has application in Second Life.

Power, Control, and Instruction

Power, Control, and Instruction

I’ve been working on a paper for AoIR‘s Second Life Workshop in October, revisiting the issues and challenges we faced in a text-based virtual world and the solutions we developed to wrestle with them. One of the things that’s been so surprising abotu Second Life is how familiar it felt when I first walked in; no matter how shiny the technology seems to become, it remains fairly similiar to the old text-based worlds in terms of useability and structure. And we seem to still be addressing the exact same issues. But looking at our challenges and solutions (former and current) brings home to me one of the central elements of education: power and control.

Power is one of those perennial issues; you can try to weed it out of your classroom, but its shoots are hardy and wiggle their way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies. Power is written into the layout of the furniture, the structure of assessment and evaluation, the lecture style of instruction, and deep into the minds of students who have had a lifetime of being drilled in its norms and expectations. Even in a perfectly Marxist, radical classroom, where the instructor wears only jeans and a ratty t-shirt and regularly challenges his own authority, where every other privilege and dominant hierarchy has been unpacked and tossed out the window, the simple student/instructor power structure remains. Teachers have more power than they often seem to recognize. Maybe you get used to it after a while, and it becomes something you only notice in its absence.

There are two perspectives you can take on power and control in education, as far as I can tell; you can vow to dismantle it (which, it seems to me, primarily results in instructors dismantling the elements of power they don’t like/can recognize while retaining the parts that they do like/can’t recognize), or accept it and use it thoughtfully, purposefully, and as ethically as possible. The former seems like the right idea, but more and more I’m starting to wonder if the latter isn’t the more successful approach. More pragmatic and less idealized, I suppose, but if your end goal is create an ideal instructional environment where real learning can actually take place (far be it from me to suggest that a teacher can create learning in students, isn’t that yet another form of power and control that’s just assumed?), then maybe the ends justify the means.

In reviewing our old attempts to create classroom environments in a pure-text universe, it seems we spent a lot of time trying to control the speech and movement of students. (Unethical fascist! Micromanaging control freak! shouts the peanut gallery, yes, I can hear you from here, thanks for your input.) A lot of the overwhelm problems we had with students was based in the complete democracy of the space. The democracy of the space is what we love about it, honestly, but it has its upsides and its downsides. When a person speaks in a virtual world, they are no more or less important than any other person in the room; if the instructor gives a series of instructions, but fifteen students pipe up at the same time with playful exclamations, the instructor’s serious words are no more or less noticable, no more or less likely to be read by the rest of the class. When students come into a classroom, sit down and start chatting with each other, they hush when the instructor makes the typical motions that indicate that he is ready to speak. There is a culture of highlighting and adding weight to the words of some over others in a classroom. No matter how communal the instructor feels his classroom is, there is an element of power in his mere presence. There are no such traditions in virtual worlds. This is a good thing; this is also a painful roadblock.

Confronted with students who can’t make out what’s important and not when entering a virtual world (why, it’s all important, and up to you to determine which parts are important to you, says the peanut gallery, yes yes, I know, bear with me for a moment), we developed some tools to give us a hand. The web interface we were using gave all exits from a given room as links in a web window. Students would click on them, not knowing they were moving in and out of the classroom space, and missing half of the conversation. They didn’t mean to do it, they just didn’t know how to manoevre yet. They would get lost, or get confused, or get exasperated. So we built a very simple little tool.

Before we learn that classrooms are spaces with clear power distinctions and rules we have to follow, getting us in a group to do something together is like herding cats. So when we’re small, and out on a field trip to see the dinosaurs in the museum, they have us all hold on to a piece of rope. It shows us the relationships we have to the other students in a very concrete and physical way, and also makes very clear who’s got power and control over us in this situation. (Can we unpack the concept of “control” for a moment to see it’s upsides as well? The person leading us at the front end of the rope knows where she’s going, she’s serving a useful purpose. When we hold on to the rope, we’re doing it because we were told to, but also because we want to; we’re complicit in this power relationship. We want to go see the dinosaurs. We don’t want to get lost. The control is not in the person herself, but in what they have to offer right here and now.) With the rope, we can be safely brought to one place to experience something together; we can avoid the confusion of learning all the steps to a particular place in order to get there. That piece of rope is a particular bit of scaffolding to get us all literally and figuratively from one place to another. It’s a ramp to get us over the big procedural learning curve it would take to get there on our own.

We wrote virtual rope. (Well, by “we” I mean Catspaw.) We needed to get students over that hurdle so that they could see the point of learning how to do it on their own. We took control in order to help students come to grips with the meaning of a space, and then gave it back.

I’m still conflicted about power and control in an instruction/learning situation. I don’t want to restrict what students can and can’t do; I want them to explore and build their own knowledge. I’m conflicted by the fact that sometimes taking power and control by the horns and using it deliberately to show students where the tools are, how to use them, how to get comfortable with them and then dismantling it afterwards has good effects.

I just finished writing about a space within a virtual world where I hacked the script on a room that allows students to talk. I actually removed their ability to speak. I knew there were ethical issues with it when I did it, and remember how cautiously I trod with it, but strangely it was shockingly successful, and didn’t put people off at all. Can we be forgiven for these deliberate grabs for power in an instructional situation if it results in a more engaged and motivated student? (NO! shouts the peanut gallery. Okay, okay, mea culpa.)