Monday, November 22, 2010
Texter or Gamer: Which Are You?
Location: Solitary Pursuit Called Writing
I'm a hermit by inclination. Whether it's real life or the shimmering and consensual hallucination called a virtual world, I like my quiet. I don't appreciate the random IM, the unsolicited chat-request when I'm replying to my electronic mail. Lots of folks who fancy themselves writers seem to be that way.
This reaction is a long-term one that built over many years, but until I read "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction" in the New York Times, I did not fully understand why. Writer Matt Richtel notes that what Sherry Turkle has called "always on, always on you" technology has created new social types on campus, "not the thespian and the jock but the texter and gamer, Facebook addict and YouTube potato."
My colleagues who gather to discuss education in Second Life, and who post to blogs about it, often confuse these types. There's a conflation of ideas that runs like this: our students live virtual lives already and virtual worlds are an inevitability for them.
This is a mistake. Mediation and virtuality are separable to them, if not to us. There's a huge difference between the augmentationist who is always on Facebook or texting people known already and the loner who chooses to get immersed as a alter-ego, then connect a guild or a few distant gamer-pals through an MMORPG. Most Richmond students, who tend to be socially adept and careerist, are not loners by inclination and they've been scared by stories of gamers who end up where they began: mom and dad's basement.
Ironically, they hurt their grades either way, as the NYT story shows.
In my case, I escaped the basement, though I never had my bedroom down there. We had a nice dry cellar with 1970s wood paneling, and, yes, the D&D group met there in the 70s and 80s. I even escaped the lure of online gaming because of the massive amounts of time needed to be good at a game and the inability to make one's own game; I've long been the game-master type rather than the player. Academics and folks who write a lot tend to tilt that way, too.
But I'm neither traditional texter nor gamer. So are many of those who made SL what it is today.
It's possible that Linden Lab's recent move to stress the social aspects of Second Life over its creative aspects is a wise move: there are more texters than gamers out there. This leads me to think about which social networkers they want. If my students are any indication, they already have all of the social network they need; it consumes enough of their time to hurt their intellectual work. They have no patience for a non-intuitive interface such as SL's.
Will my colleagues who buy into triumphalist narratives about the course of networked technology "get this"? Not until they come to understand the shaping power of various technologies and the habits of use of various generations. There will be exceptions; one colleague is just as wrong in claiming that the Linden-Lab ideal customer is a bored housewife.
Finding a sweet-spot demographic is Linden Lab's problem to solve. Since I'll likely not be teaching in SL again, but only in focused-and-directed simulations in OpenSim, I have time for other worries. I ask a neo-luddite's questions about our networked lives and worry more about the next generation of young people. They are even more addicted to portable devices and easy connectivity than the ones I now teach.
How on earth can they be taught to listen to what silence can say?