Just a few days short of Valentine’s Day, Diane and I finally got Ryszard and Ailsa to meet. We teleported them from their respective locations, and they met on the ALA Arts InfoIsland. After engaging in some “meet cute” banter, they wandered around on some nearby islands with virtual spaces for libraries and library/information science schools. They then went to the Toyota Scion dealership, where avatars can purchase their very own Scion for 300 Linden (roughly $1, depending on the current Linden/Dollar exchange rate). Ryszard and Ailsa also visited a home dealership, with a variety of unfurnished houses ranging from approximately 500 to 7,000 Linden (roughly $2-$25). Neither avatar has the premium membership, but it never hurts to look.

I made a few more observations based on the wanderings of Ryszard and Ailsa yesterday. Ryszard had never interacted with another avatar before, so I had to do some Instant Messaging (something of which I’m not a big fan). Diane and I were sitting just a few feet away, so the experience of typing a message that would take one second to say felt a bit disorienting. Perhaps something like Skype would enhance the illusion of real interaction, especially if it had some kind of voice-changing capabilities. Diane and I also had to keep track of our avatars, who initially acted clingy. However, with the large and small maps at our disposal, we found each other rather easily when needed.

I feel more comfortable navigating Ryszard around Second Life. Besides teleporting to and from different locations, he has also learned how to move objects and open doors with ease. Despite a number of similarities to the real world, the economic, social, and political situation differs quite a bit. Unlike the real world, no one actually “needs” anything in Second Life. There’s no struggle for necessities, such as food, clothing, and shelter, or medical care. One can fall from great heights or splash into deep water, but no one has to worry about broken bones or drowning. Being a vagrant (like Ryszard and Ailsa) carries no stigma, and one can remain looking quite healthy and clean quite easily. In fact, it would take some effort to dirty oneself up.

Only aesthetes who worry about their online persona need think about money. Fortunately for them, they can act as benefactors who lavish their avatars with the finer things in life for very little real-world money. However, the cost of things is a bit off-balance. Houses and cars seem cheap, but clothing looks like it could add up. One can buy a Scion for 300 Linden, but I saw t-shirts at one store for 50 Linden (probably “designer,” but still…). If a new Scion costs $15,000, that means a designer t-shirt would cost around $2,500. Or, put another way, a designer t-shirt costs $50, and a new Scion would cost $300. I haven’t learned much about the details of the Second Life economy, but some people can make pretty good money.

Unless I have a really original idea that people might buy into, I plan to abstain from doing business in Second Life. However, at the very least, Ryszard should have a decent wardrobe. He might meet avatars of other professional librarians, and he will want to look presentable to them. Acquiring a house and car remains a low priority, but Diane and I might do something with those if time allows in our non-digital realms.

As you may recall, I recently admonished hardcore Second Lifers to Get a First Life, and I have questioned the intrinsic educational value of Second Life. I have received no irate commentary from such folks yet, but I suppose they would tell me to “get a Second Life.” That sounds fair, as they have had more experience with First Life than I have had in Second Life. In fact, a discussion at work on Friday prompted me to make a “preemptive strike” by creating a Second Life account of my own.

I am part of a web usability committee that meets roughly twice a month on Fridays. Our meetings last an hour, but the meeting on Friday lasted a half-hour. However, we ended up going to an hour when someone asked the head of our committee about the wallpaper on her desktop, which actually came from a Second Life snapshot. This prompted me to ask about the purpose of Second Life. I actually meant to ask about its educational value, but the head of our committee described how it actually has no purpose. Instead, users have to create their own meaning out of it. (Very existential, I kept thinking.) We ended up having a philosophical discussion of sorts, which helped pique my curiosity about the experience of using Second Life.

I began by selecting a name for my avatar. I believed that one could use their own name, but a dropdown menu limits the number of available family names. This forced me to come up with something different, and to use my imagination. The first name that came to mind was “Richard,” after two of my favorite composers (Wagner and Strauss). That seemed too obvious, so a derivative seemed more suitable. I ended up settling on Ryszard, a Polish variant on Richard.

Now I needed to find a suitable last name. Although I probably could have chosen anything for a virtual space, I felt compelled to select something that could reasonably work well with Ryszard. After looking for a few minutes, I determined that Etzel sounded appropriate. Although its warlike connotations might give people the wrong idea, it sounded like it would work.

After setting up Ryszard, he dropped into the Second Life orientation center in the form of a “sexy male.” (Any resemblance between Ryszard’s original appearance and my own is purely coincidental.) Other avatars landed in the same circle in various forms of undress, like The Terminator at the beginning of the original movie. In the orientation area, Ryszard learned how to walk, fly, move objects, sit, and stand. Upon reaching the graduation temple, Ryszard flew to a larger island to practice more Second Life skills.

As Ryszard wandered through the intermediate and secondary orientation areas, I kept thinking about how Second Life seemed like a utopian rehabilitation center, or a heady hybrid of a futuristic sci-fi utopia (or dystopia) and an afterlife. Fully fledged adults had to learn the skills that many in the non-digital world take for granted, and helpful avatars could guide them through the process. Ryszard included, many of them seemed preoccupied with learning their own skills, and little interaction seemed to occur. It made me start to wonder what an existential writer would make of the whole business.

I knew that Ryszard probably had much to learn, but it seemed time for him to move on to the “real (second) world.” However, before teleporting away from the orientation level, avatars receive a warning that they may never come back. Unintentionally, the statement carries a certain poignancy, reminiscent of a child leaving its parent(s) or guardian(s) for the adult world.

Since I signed up on the “First Basic” plan, Ryszard has no land to call his own. He currently wanders around as a vagrant in Second Life, with no circle of friends of whom I am aware. Ailsa McMillan, an avatar Diane created, has him listed as a friend. They currently occupy roughly the same space as Second Life vagrants, but they have not officially met each other since they have yet to be logged on simultaneously. (I assumed that we would at least see each other in a state of suspended imagination.) Ryszard does fly around and observe other avatars, but he has generally avoided interpersonal contact with them. Someone pushy tried accosting him yesterday. Our home computer’s processor had difficulty with the demands of Second Life, which made the encounter even more annoying. Ryszard’s actions must have looked funny to others’ avatars as a result of the processing problems.

Ryszard has also changed his appearance over the past few days, going from “sexy male” to a cross between Patrick Stewart and Sir Georg Solti (no slouchers in looks and charisma themselves). I have had problems with manipulating hair in Second Life, so bald seemed the way to go… at least for now. Clothing is even more difficult to handle, so I went with something simple. I do hope to acquire a nice gentleman’s wardrobe for him, but he still wears the dark tattered jeans that came with his avatar.

Despite a few difficulties, Ryszard’s experiences in Second Life do not make me run screaming from it. Diane and I hope to hook up Ryszard and Ailsa, and to possibly buy a little piece of land with a house for them. It might be useful for meeting other professionals (and perhaps students online), and it certainly sounds more visually appealing than simple instant messaging. Nevertheless, I still wonder about its intrinsic educational value. It has lots of neat features, but it still has an air of “gimmickiness.” More importantly, not everyone would have the capabilities to run Second Life properly. The computers my wife and I use have different processing capabilities, including a 2002 laptop that would not even download Second Life, a 2004 desktop that could not process Second Life very well, and two 2006 laptops from our places of employment that do a decent processing job. I suspect that we may need to upgrade the processor and/or video card for at least the desktop, while the 2002 laptop might remain a hopeless case. (Since Diane is the IT person, I’ll leave that decision to her.) As an additional problem, Diane started to feel nauseous while testing Second Life; in fact, a friend of hers mentioned a similar problem when she tried it. I can see how that would happen, with the poor resolution of all monitors (at least compared to what one sees in the non-digital world), as well as the illusion of constant movement in three dimensions on a two-dimensional monitor just a foot or two away.

So, now I have a Second Life. Even if I have a number of reservations about it, I at least have a foundation to take on the challenges (and to take advantage of the potential opportunities) that it offers. Ryszard also hopes to see some of you (or your avatars) soon. However, I would advise you to have some Dramamine handy, just in case…

Get a (First) Life!

February 5, 2007

Via Mark Linder’s blog, I found links to a satirical website called Get a First Life, as well as a London Review Bookshop article by Jenny Diski that details her adventures in Second Life. Those of you who have read my blog know that I have quite a bit of skepticism about Second Life, so it should come as little surprise that I appreciated Linder’s posting with the two links.

Get a First Life provides needed relief from all the hype surrounding its digital counterpart. It obviously targets Second Life, but the satirical aspect of this site could easily encompass other digital environments… or, perhaps more accurately, the obsession that some people have with such environments, which may cause them to lose out on the vitality of inhabiting the non-digital realm.

Diski’s article looks more deeply at her own experience with Second Life, which makes one question the point of Second Life even further. Granted, users can create an idealized version of themselves with no limits, but that sounds like the only main virtue. Speaking for myself, my own Second Life avatar would look very similar to my real world manifestation. It would just have no receding hairline, a voice with no nasal twang, and a slightly slimmer waist. Of course, improving on these aspects in real life would feel more rewarding to me than tinkering with some Second Life cartoon counterpart.

I suppose most of us would like to make idealized versions of ourselves if given the chance. However, one aspect gave me pause. Diski noticed the absence of avatars that looked older, so she created one that looked like an older woman… with whom very few people engaged in conversation. Taken together, the lack of older-looking avatars and the “invisibility” of Diski’s avatar (though an anecdotal case) makes one wonder about the kind of “ideal” world that Second Life might subtly promote. (Anyone ever hear of Logan’s Run?)

Besides the lack of older people, Diski comments on how easily one could imagine their avatars to be great “whatevers.” As she points out, Diski could fancy herself or her avatar a great painter, even if she is not. At least in the real world, one actually has to put forth some effort to be a decent amateurish artist or pseudointellectual (and I know whereof I speak). As for battles between political factions, they end up descending into almost Marxist silliness:

    Political rage, Second Life style, is expressed by chucking exploding pink pigs at your opponents, strafing them with virtual machine guns, pelting them with holograms of marijuana leaves or anything else you fancy making with your little bits of processing power.

(As you might have figured out, Marxist refers to the “Brothers,” not Karl.)

You can even indulge in sensual pleasures in Second Life, but don’t let the virtual versions of “Amsterdam” or a library fool you. Diski even finds those rather disappointing.

I suppose that Second Life sounds like fun for those who like inhabiting online environments, or who would like to unleash a more attractive or scary version of themselves on the (virtual) world. Unfortunately for Diski, she just ended up feeling bemused disappointment about the many ways in which Second Life already resembles real life… never minding the lack of actually “experiencing” what your avatar might experience.

For anyone who thinks about the potential of virtual reality, Second Life has to feel like a relatively crude and unfulfilling version of the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I would be willing to “get on board” with something like that, but Second Life sounds like a sorry placeholder in comparison. In the meantime, as I keep hearing about the supposed wonders of Second Life, I almost feel like repeating what William Shatner infamously shouted to hardcore Trekkers in the infamous Saturday Night Live sketch. I would probably also add the word “First” in the appropriate place.

As a librarian for Electrical Engineering (EE) and four other disciplines in engineering/science, I have subscriptions to several “What’s New in…” monthly e-mail alerts from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). They focus on various areas of interest related to EE, including signal processing, wireless technologies, and so on. If you’re interested, you may subscribe to one or several of them.

Although I generally glance through those, I pay particular attention to the one for libraries. This month’s “What’s New in Libraries” links to a story about the advantages of using video games to prepare young people for future careers. This idea comes from University of Wisconsin – Madison education science professor David Williamson Shaffer, who has recently written a book called How Computer Games Help Children Learn. Shaffer is especially concerned about the overemphasis on standardized testing, as well as the continuing use of an educational model originally intended to prepare students for factory work over a century ago. Along with others, Shaffer believes that video games offer students opportunities to learn in a manner that they find “relevant to their lives,” and that matches their ability to multitask. The story also provides a link to a list of games developed by a team led by Shaffer.

Of course, anyone who remembers older videogames will know that this is not a new idea. I remember having some educational games myself, which I played on my Atari 2600. I especially remember Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space, which I always failed (even in the basic mode). Furthermore, the graphics hardly matched the excitement of a real flight into space or the inspiring image on the box. A quarter century later, technology for such games has improved substantially, making educational simulators more closely resemble real life.

I do like the idea of using videogames as educational tools, and I believe that libraries should make them available. It seems appropriate that academic, public, and K-12 libraries offer good quality simulators that match the needs of those trying to develop a variety of skills. Naturally, librarians would need to sort through a number of issues, including licensing for commercial games and determining how patrons could access the games. At a university, individual departments might have educational games on their own individual servers, and the library should consider how it wants to provide access to them.

Libraries should also consider the possibility of providing access to commercial games that do not have an explicit educational purpose. The various incarnations of SimCity come to mind immediately; not designed as an “educational game,” players subtly pick up on the implications of long-term thinking and planning. (You can also try to “play God,” but things might not work out so well… another educational tool in itself.) Such non-educational educational games allow players to learn from them, and not even think that they’re playing something with educational value. Furthermore, as I mention in my posting on Wii and Interactivity, educational videogames with haptic technology might be useful in such fields as medicine.

Just so librarians do not go barking mad, we should not feel compelled to consider providing access to every videogame available. We should develop some flexible standards to determine which ones might fulfill the needs of our respective communities. (Anyone who has suggestions for such standards, please feel free to comment.) Of course, this applies to videogames that one would have to buy, not to freely available games online.

All that said, I hope that we will avoid relying on videogames in education. They may be good tools for a number of disciplines, but interaction among teachers, professors, and students will aid in contextualizing what one learns from the games. Furthermore, everyone involved should remember that videogames do not replicate exactly what someone will experience in the “real world.” Developers of videogames may be able to create simulators with interactions based on past behaviors, but no training (online or in real life) can take into account what might actually happen in future workplace situations. When they enter the workforce, students will deal with real humans who have complex motivations. Skeptical as I am about Second Life, perhaps its principles could work to simulate real-life interactions in some of these games. Since humans control avatars in real-time, its denizens are not preprogrammed. The possibilities for scenarios are practically endless…

If the potential for videogames seems murky for more “scientific” disciplines that deal with human behavior, it seems even more difficult to figure out how a simulator might work in “softer” disciplines. They might work at a broad level in history, such as using graphics to represent movements of individuals or groups; a big plus for those into military history. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem quite as useful for those investigating the motives of historical figures. There might be potential for re-enactments, but those have been around since the beginning of historical documentaries. As for literature, I’m at a loss in figuring out how a simulator would work in those disciplines. They might somehow work for contextualizing a novel, but that’s pretty much it. Filmmakers have difficulty translating a novel for the movie theater, so how well could a videogame simulate the writing of Vladimir Nabokov or Salman Rushdie?

I have no problem with the use of videogames in various disciplines, and they have the potential to give students a flavor of what they will face in the “real world.” On the other hand, they should complement other forms of learning, and those who teach classes in various disciplines have an obligation to contextualize what students learn from those games.

I’m sure that many of us remember teachers who showed videos of something tangentially related to the topic, just so they could avoid teaching for a day or two. When I was a student teacher supervised by a history teacher, I remember another history teacher in a nearby classroom who always seemed to show moldy old movies in his class. (Not classics, mind you… just crummy war and Western yarns, from what I could tell.) I always wondered if he actually contextualized the movies, or if he just let the VCR run for 45 minutes while occasionally exclaiming, “Hey! Quit screwin’ around!”

Let’s just hope that teachers who use videogames do not follow the same patterns of behavior.

(Hmmm… let’s try a simulation of that…)

Virtual predictions

January 8, 2007

Here’s a little something David Letterman fans might appreciate. The ACRLog provides a link to the “top ten technology forecasts” put forth by the World Future Society, which did not predict the end of libraries. Apparently, they have done so before, but not this time. While I feel relieved to know that libraries won’t become obsolete, I do have a lot more questions than warm and fuzzy feelings about futuristic techno-utopias and Second Life, which the blog also mentions.

Prediction #4, which ACRLog specifically mentions, is of most interest to education. It visualizes the redundancy of classrooms and teachers in a world where students will learn in virtual realities with avatars as guides. Visiting virtual worlds may be fine for some disciplines, but they cannot apply to all. It would work in science and technology, but their usefulness seems murkier in the social sciences and humanities. Admittedly, something like SimCity would be useful for some social science classes. However, virtual reality would work at a very superficial level for history, and it would be nearly impossible for studying literature.

Regarding the idea of avatars guiding coursework (a prediction made by the World Future Society), I have difficulty imagining such a scenario. I understand the desire to loosen the reign that human teachers have on classes, but I feel that the use of avatars would replace one “oppressive” form of teaching with another. These avatars might “know” what you need to get through a class, but the information students enter about themselves would necessarily be too superficial for real interaction. Getting into privacy issues, exactly how much information would one need to give to have a “tailor-made” course guide? I would not want an avatar to discount my complexity as a human being, or to have potentially sensitive information about my personal life. I prefer to use my own brains and tangential intellectual leaps, or to discuss things with a human (including the teacher). Avatars might be fine for “paint by number” classes, but I have doubts about its practicality for classes that require thinking.

I guess I’m thinking about my “profile” on a number of websites. I’ll use Amazon as an example. The list of recommendations is based on very superficial information about items I have ordered, written reviews about, and searched for under my account. However it does not understand my motivation for those actions.

I would like to believe that things will be easy as technology becomes more advanced. Certainly, I don’t mind the ease with which one can do the busywork in everyday life. I just have concerns about the notion that technology will be the salvation of learning, and that we will sacrifice deep understanding of our “first life” in favor of approximations within a “second life.”

The ACRLog posting links to an article about Second Life, which has become the latest “hot thing.” The article still doesn’t have me convinced. I don’t think defying the laws of Physics is all that great… especially if one is in Physics class. (I suppose the teacher could use it as a “teaching moment,” which could get way off topic if too many people do too many physics-defying tricks.) Anyway, we get bamboozled enough as it is in the movies.

I suppose one can develop a sense of community and collegiality in Second Life, but we have yet to see if virtual dune buggying does such a thing. Besides, if I want to practice dance moves at a Tiki bar, I would go to one in the real world, not in a virtual classroom. I could even have a couple of Mai Tais to loosen me up, which one cannot do in Second Life. (And what’s with the “retro” stuff? I thought we were in the 21st Century!)

I do have to wonder about the overly-optimistic predictions of these futurists. In addition to Cynthia Crossen’s article about predictions of the past, Siva Vaidhyanathan recently wrote a column about the futility of trying to predict the future (which inspired me to write an entry in my own blog), and how doubt rarely enters the minds of grand visionaries who talk about changes that will supposedly improve things.

I do not discount distance education. It certainly has the advantage of convenience, and it may offer the prospect of “having fun” while learning (however one defines that). Still, we have quite a bit of work to do in approximating the non-digital world. I doubt that we will reach that point in 25 years. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it took much longer.

As a real kicker, even the World Future Society President doesn’t believe that the forecasts have any metaphysical Nostrodamus-type quality. His quote at the end is worth noting:

    Much of what will happen in the future depends on what we humans decide to do… If we could know the future with certainty, it would mean that the future could not be changed. Yet this is a main purpose of studying the future: to look at what may happen if present trends continue, decide if this is what is desirable, and, if it’s not, work to change it. Knowing the trends can empower you for effective action.

Not much different from science fiction, I suppose. Still, I hope that at least some of these predictions will come true within 25 years, and that we can continue to use technology as a tool to improve our lives… not to become our lives. I especially hope for #10, as well as the predictions about new energy sources. I do have ambivalent feelings about #9, which relates somewhat to the education prediction.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with David Letterman’s Top Ten lists. I have a much easier time believing those.

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