Saturday, 18 November 2006

Second Life and the Avatar Generation

From a personal point of view I find the topics of Second Life, virtual worlds and avatars one of the most fascinating that we have touched on so far in this course - yet I have remained completely tongue-tied until now. In all honesty, I've been feeling that it's an area so large in scope that I have really just not known where to start. There are many features that interest me about Second Life, which probably require an entire semester to cover (see next term) but hopefully I can at least lay down a few ideas about why I think SL is such a valuable, exciting and perhaps dangerous medium, not just for educators, but also for anyone who communicates with others online. [Please bear in mind this is after only actually being properly 'in-world' once - the rest of my understanding comes from the SL website and viewing video footage - somewhat frustratingly. A new computer has been ordered!]

My initial impression of in-world 'talk' is that there is undoubtedly a significant shift in dynamics when three dimensions are involved, as opposed to a simple SMS system. A 'person' can move around, approach people, fly, and visit things much like we do with our physical bodies. This is a quantum leap from a simple text discussion, like we experienced in the early weeks of this course, and adds a far more intuitive (tho by no means perfect) dimension to communication. Studies have shown that a significant amount of f2f communication is non-verbal, ie we are very sensitive to body language, and will form assumptions, both consciously and unconsciously, by interpreting how other people occupy physical space. While communication in SL is not nearly as complex as in 'first life' (FL), and text is still the norm, it does appear to be somewhat richer than say email, SMS or other text-based networking sites. Avatars can make fairly complex gestures and actions which add a physical context to any written words - like taking the 'smileys' a great leap forward. Avatars can also make basic sounds, and as audio capabilities increase to the point that people are able to chat via microphones, the depth of communication is likely to increase (though I am not entirely sure how managable it might be having a number of people speaking at the same time). However, as it stands now, having a 3D virtual space to occupy appears to make communication easier and more engaging than most other online means.
[I would be interested to know whether people find it more engaging using SL than live video link-up?]

My next impression is that SL and other virtual worlds invite a whole host of interesting questions in terms of psychology of users, the economics and sociology of the virtual society and the anthropology of virtual cultures. Do these worlds simply offer mindless escapism, or can it be a mentally and emotionally rewarding experience? How is identity constructed? Is there a point where becoming imersed in a virtual world becomes psychologically and socially unsettling for people? And can it lead to deeper self-knowledge and learning? These questions may take another semester to answer, but as a starting point, it might be worth considering why these virtual worlds can be so instinctively appealing to many users. Why is this so?

Taylor provides some interesting case studies on this subject, writing that 'some users have even come to identify their avatar as "more them" than their corporeal body'. This I find slightly unsettling, though as one avid SL fan blogged, 'our corporeal body is merely an avatar too. We are simply a vessel of meat and water that carries our tenuous consciousness from place to place'. It seems that existence as an avatar certainly enables people to express themselves, perhaps even in ways they cannot with their corporeal body. As Meg put it, one of Taylors subjects, "I usually change my av [avatar] to suit my moods, or to experiment with others' reactions to different appearances, or to see how different looks affect my own action s and comfort levels". Another subject wrote that her avatar 'absolves (herself) of some of the responsibilitiy of "acting human"'. Many users claim such similar experiences of liberation. One even goes so far as to say, ' "I see being an avatar as sort of a long-term self-exploration and even self-reconfiguration" '. It seems that in spite of limitations of movement, actions and auditory speech, people find that virtual world life offers significant freedom of expression.

Another interesting feature is that life as an avatar can be particularly helpful for people who can struggle to communicate and socialise effectively in f2f settings. There was an interesting study done in Nottingham with people with ASDs (Autism Spectrum Disorders), who found it easier to cope with communication in a virtual avatar-based world, for the following reasons:

*The user has active control over their participation in the VE
*Interaction can take place without face-to-face communication which many people with autism find particularly confusing
*The social complexity of the situation and the non-verbal and verbal features of communication can be directly controlled and manipulated
*Interaction takes place within an environment that is safe from potentially negative real world consequences 

The research showed that the VE significantly helped people with ASDs in learning social skills, and provides an interesting example of how the unique features of a VE can be exploited for learning. (See for more info)

While I've only touched on some of the reasons why SL might be engaging for users, when you couple this potential with an increased facilitation of communication, it is clear that SL and other virtual worlds will provide online educators with an extremely valuable medium for teaching. The challenge over the coming years is how to manage and design effective courses, while continuing to explorie the many avenues of teaching and learning that might arise. Watching the NMC's (New Media Consortium) vision of what a virtual campus might look like is like watching a science fiction film. Only this future is likely to be months, as opposed to years, from now.

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