Saturday, February 21, 2009

How We Talk About Second Life: Are We Drinking the Kool-Aid?

Crowd Shot 2
Location: Cloud 9? The Valley of Despair?

Does Utopianism Drive Away the Mainstream?

I’m reading Synthetic Worlds, Edward Castronova’s first book on MMORPGs and virtual worlds. Castronova strongly feels that it’s only a matter of time until virtual worlds rival other major communication media in number of users and ubiquity.

If this is true, why are some of us in the educational community harming the reputation of virtual worlds and thwarting broader adoption by colleagues?

Here are two scenes from a yet-to-be-completed movie, now playing in my head.

1) A colleague at another university attended an educational focus-group discussion on virtual worlds. He was the least experienced person in the room, and he was not impressed with how we “insiders” automatically embrace VWs in our work and talk about their magic in ways that do not consider drawbacks of many sorts. His story reminds me that many of us seemed to have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid and become uncritical utopians.

2) It still smarts a bit to think back to an e-mail discussion on an SL e-list for educators, where I suggested that Linden Lab needs to do more to bring in mainstream faculty and not simply early adopters. I was pounced upon, and my sense was that many of my attackers felt as though grubby mainstreamers are unworthy of beholding the glittering jewel that is SL.

Both scenes are not pretty, and I fret about the ending of this film-in-my-head. The vetting of our work by organizations such as EDUCAUSE helps academics make the case for investing time and energy. On the other hand, does the way we discuss SL undercut the very progress of the EDUCAUSE recognition?

Nowadays, I temper my enthusiasm and talk sedately about SL and what it can do for teaching. How to do that deserves careful consideration in the limited space here. I also realize what I recommend won’t be universally popular. Got other ideas? Let me know.

Avoid the term “resident” with colleagues. I like the term for writing to those who know SL well, because it captures the immersive experience and the sense that the metaverse is a place. But “resident” can connote institutionalization for mental illness.

Avoid in-world jargon and assumptions. “Rez” and “prim” and “lag” are not going to instantly explicable to novices. But the biases we hold about the virtual world can be even worse when we toss them around. I was jumped on at Burning Life for complimenting several participants. I typed in chat that “my students who have visited this event will never see SL as a game again.” All the avatars nearby—old-time SL residents—heard was “game” and they laid into me. I got really angry about that—as angry as I’ve ever been over something that occurred in SL.

Avoid both sensationalism and denial. Unpleasant and unsavory content, as well as technical problems exist side-by-side with moments of effective learning and technical wizardry. The broader Internet contains both as well. I let my colleagues know that and admit that SL is still a young technology.

Avoid the myth of inevitability
. I was pleased to hear our presenter at the last SL Education Roundtable, a noted librarian who works in-world, say that we should not go around assuming that SL and other worlds will catch on quickly or easily. Because their use may be intuitive for us, we cannot assume that will be true for others. Remember, corporations fail, and promising technologies can be deferred for many years, even decades. Some never re-materialize after a disaster: the Hindenburg’s fate put an end to the fascinating, and promising, technology of Transatlantic airship-travel.


Peter Miller said...

Totally agree. The trouble is you have to buy into the mindset that this is more than just clever client-server software and many people can't make that leap anyway.

Iggy O said...

Peter, sometimes the residents are a lot more clever than the client-server setup!

Maybe that's the problem. In an article I teach by Howard Rheingold, one of the Amish he interviews about cell phones in PA Dutch country quotes Jarod Lanier:

"you can't design foolproof machines, because fools are so clever."

That's SL. When educators begin to admit that it's not utopia (not enough do) and agree to act in a civil way to newcomers (here most do, thankfully) we will make more progress.