Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two Ways to Play & Virtual Worlds

Location: Just Starting a New 1/72 Kit

Lately the blogs I follow have focused on ways to "save" Second Life. Tateru Nino riffed on Philip Rosedale's notion of "Fast, Easy, Fun" as the mantra for improving SL. I found a few lessons about retaining one's customer-base (albeit an aging one!) from my 40+ years building scale models.

So what does "fun" mean?

"Fun" comes in all forms. For online environments, the fun can be goal-oriented and rules-bound, as in games. It captures one of the two sorts of play academics talk about most often: the ludic. The latin word ludus fit both school and play, since schools were places where creative play prepared Roman youth for citizenship, war, and scholarly life.

On the other hand,the fun can be playful for its own sake, which often marks what happens in virtual worlds. Academics call that type of play, one that sparks improvisation and vision, paedeia.

There's a blurry line here, because a friend playing Lord of the Rings Online has greatly customized his avatar and often uses his in-world home for ad-hoc social gatherings unrelated to a current quest or battle. Likewise, areas of Second Life that emphasize roleplay can be very ordered and competitive.

A Lifelong Hobby

Virtual worlds with 3D content are young online environments. Their big challenge appears to be capturing and keeping customers. I got this reference, to a "two-year effect," care of Lalo Telling's blog. Do that many hobbies really hold a typical person's interest for only a year or so?

That's laughable to me, since many of the hobbyists I know have lifelong interests in restoring old cars, collecting farm equipment, or making organic gardens. In my case, it's a little of all of the above, plus building model kits and running face-to-face roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Something about these activities holds the hobbyist a long time. Thus, virtual-world purveyors might think like Airfix, Tamiya, Revell, or Italieri, companies with a track record of immersing this customer and retaining his interest for so many years.

I've probably spent a good 1000 hours--more than 41 days of my life--making models since I first spilled glue all over a Jaguar E-Type, then sprayed enamel in my eyes on the night of the riots that followed Martin Luther King's murder. I recall that an actual doctor talked my mom over the phone, pro-bono, from the busy hospital as she rinsed my eyes out to the sound of glass breaking in the distance.

What a start to a hobby I never put away! I'll never win a contest, but my kits are good enough to "wow" non-modelers. In my undergraduate years the pastime became sporadic. In grad school I started building kits again, in part to forget the woes of living in a town I never loved, amid theory-spewing sycophants spouting Poststructuralist nonsense in the English department.

When I built a kit then, the banality of Bloomington, IN fell away. I was lost completely in a task, one requiring the type of focus that a Zen Master would recognize. Yet immersion in the task was only part of the fun for me.

Paideia & Ludus in 1/72 Scale

Modeling is rules-bound (fail to follow the instructions or mask before painting and you are usually doomed), so it predicates ludic play. Building models also involves the spontaneous and imaginative activities of paideia, when I scratch-build a part that the maker omitted, weather armor and ships so they look worn, and decide on modifications to capture a vehicle from my library of WW II books but not intended by the kit. This takes a type of artistic temperament to see analogues in real life and mix paints and apply materials that might include bits of actual mud or soot.

One key to keeping the kit-builder immersed in the hobby is the variety of subject. Experienced model-makers might have four P-51 Mustangs or Spitfires in the collection, but each of them is different. The range of subjects and challenges for a complex kit make the act of cementing polystyrene and painting it an ever-changing and often challenging task to one's mind and manual dexterity. I spent over two years, on and off, with a B-52D I figured I'd never see done. Now I'm ready for the next Mount Everest: a B-70 Valkyrie.

Beyond the craft of the kit itself lies the history of the subject. On my short-list of builds is the Airfix kit of the twin-engined Westland Whirlwind (one of the most graceful and least-known combat planes of the Second World War). Sadly, no Whirlwinds survived the scrap-metal drives of Postwar England, so when my kit of that subject gets done, I'll have created something that does not exist in nature.

Say, that should sound familiar to anyone who has spent enough time making, or marveling at, content in a virtual world.

Getting New Residents to Stay

Perhaps it's the lack of a ludic environment that leads newcomers to Second Life to say, so often, "so what do you DO here?" and then leave. If Linden Lab can focus on finding out what new users want in a virtual environment and then getting them immersed, they'll retain them for a while. Adding variety will retain them long-term.

The only problem of making the analogy to modeling or other "old-time" hobbies is that "old" bit. The irony is not lost on me that in many regards, model-making seems a dying hobby, unlikely to outlast Boomers and Xers again taking it up as they rediscover a few idle hours.

And so what? The companies can plan for another 30-40 years of sales and lay plans for whatever will attract a new generation, meanwhile. I probably spend $100 a year on models and supplies.

I'm guessing Linden Lab would just love that sort of assured revenue stream.

Update 8/3/10: I did some looking at Linden Lab's Destination Guide. See the next post for why I like it as a potential way to give SLers something to do in-world.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thoughts about "Gaming Up" Second Life

Too late
Location: Making Stuff

What's the biggest difference between MMORPGs and virtual worlds? Making stuff. You can level up and buy things in a typical MMORPG, but you cannot make the world around you. That for me keeps me out of online gaming (though I'm considering buying an Xbox for driving and WW II air-combat games). My main games are face-to-face RPGs, often as the designer and GM for a campaign. I don't design too many game mechanics, but I do my own "sourcebooks." Essentially, that's been my calling in SL.

Of course, most of my fellow SLers are not builders or game masters. What will attract more of them? I want to riff off Scott Jennings' post on this topic (found via New World Notes). I fear that while I like most of his points (lower systems requirements, make the UI simpler) he misses the social aspect that keeps the demographic I know best--affluent 18-22 year olds--away from both virtual worlds and MMORPGs:

Serious games are for losers: that is the vibe on my campus and those of my colleagues. Gamer-kids make up at best 5% of my campus. I'm betting that outside of Computer Sci. and similar programs at larger schools, that's also the percentage. They've also been warned by adults for years some version of "game a lot and you'll never work a real job. You'll fail out of college, live in a basement, and clerk in a convenience store, if you are lucky."

I'm betting that, given the oft-reported plateau in World of Warcraft registrations, that they've reached geek-saturation. Mainstreamers on this campus will play console games, casual games, but not MMORPGs or, for that matter, play in virtual worlds. They lack time and the stigma of being "too into it" is too strong.

College kids already have avatars: themselves.
The mainstream kids I know--this is an affluent campus--live avatarian lives already, thanks to parent-granted credit cards, nice cars, and weekend social scenes that rival Cancun's. The time required for serious gaming takes away from that and FaceBook, a time-hog if ever there were one, facilitates real-life contacts and rewards that bolster their social lives. No magical sword or cyber-hookup can compare. I'm betting that at larger and more economically diverse campuses, students have other distractions, such as jobs off campus, but also put real-life socializing, augmented by social networking, ahead of games or anything like them.

In addition to those two observations, Scott also skips a few key aspects that make SL hard to "game up":
Virtual women are not (all) fat guys. I'd argue that a key demographic for Second Life consists of women who do not want to shoot stuff. Linden Lab will have to depend on its users to make games, since they don't do that sort of in-world content; the Lab makes infrastructure. Games to emerge need to involve puzzles and adventure more than hack-and-slash, and I base that claim on statements by actual women, academic and otherwise, who use the world socially.

I love the meme of "fat naked man in basement" as much as the next geek, but it's a stereotype of SLers and, for that matter, for many gamers. We need to lose it when we speak seriously about attracting and retaining an audience.

Sex sells, but only for a while.
Sex is already a big in-world game, even though college kids seem bored or frightened of that aspect of SL. So I'm betting that the wistful (or cloying: you choose) promo for SL with the starry-eyed couple on the Eiffel Tower was aimed squarely at "the bored housewife," another demographic often used as a meme about SL.

I bet that, in a year, that guy will forget to put the seat down at night, too.

While such residents exist, does the allure of cyber-romance have enough staying power to keep a hobbyist occupied for more than a year or two? The only SLers I know from this demographic have left it because of boredom, what Richard Bartle calls "drift" in his book Designing Virtual Worlds. So while sex sells, the world has to offer more than that. Bartle says it well; to be really popular such venues need "content so potent that people can be quite willing--indeed, positively enthusiastic--to repeat an experience over and over again."

Game it up the right way.
Linden Lab has flailed around this issue, trying to promote SL by linking it to Avatar, then to the Twilight books and films. With a grid this big, if the Lab put some energy into themed gaming region where tier and lag were low, then invited the best content creators to build the initial infrastructure, they might have a hit on their hands. And get the physics to work, too: driving in Second Life is laughable. Why build those Linden roads if one cannot use them smoothly?

When Linden Lab has an intuitive UI, preferably Web-based, they need some splash. Perhaps some real cash prizes, in the $5-$25K range (chump change for a company like theirs), for a "SL Idol" contest? They could promote this in more mainstream venues; right now their ads only reach a niche audience.

The way it is, but better?
Linden Lab has a product that cannot easily--as currently construed--become Left for Dead, World of Warcraft, or Eve Online. The Mainland continents could become a sort of "Lifestyles of the Virtually Glamorous," which has been enough to keep The Sims franchise going strong. Caveat there: my students look at The Sims as a game for teenage girls.

That is not the demographic that "Ancient1," who replied to Scott Jennings' original post, sees This SLer runs a business serving "tens of thousands" of SL residents:
My experience has been that I am predominantly meeting working class family people over 35 years old who pay for land and services in Second Life because its their part time hobby to be in a virtual world. You could say its an escape for folks who work hard, have life and family stress like we all do, and login to Second Life to just “drift off” for awhile in another world.
I agree. Most of my social interactions outside academia have been with folks who have good computers but not always the right educations to wield power and influence in the ever-more-stratified US meritocracy. They use social media often as much as my students, but they do not have the casual social lives that college kids experience, often into their late 20s. The older users who typify the SL base are smart and well spoken, but cannot own Harleys and go on exotic vacations. Maybe they want to play a warrior or a vampire for a while.

SL could then be their "game." How Linden Lab keeps that audience coming is beyond me. Perhaps the mass audience will never exist, as it does for Facebook. Erik Sass' post on the continuing existence of SL among a niche audience takes a contrary view :
In this arena a small, highly-engaged niche audience may be more valuable than a large, apparently indifferent one (Facebook, I'm looking in your direction).
Right now we cannot even keep the educators in SL, as we realize lower costs and more freedom to host and back up content exist on OpenSim grids.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Luring Luddites to Teach with Technology

Location: Clutching Rare Books to Chest

I was amused by a The Chronicle of Higher Education story that landed in my in box this morning (link to full article).

Jeffrey Young notes several problems I.T. consultants face when training faculty. Young got savaged a while back by our Virtual Worlds Roundtable group for what we perceived to be poor reporting in OpenSim and Second Life. This time around, in my opinion, he did a much better job of interviewing several experts, including Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard.

A US DOE plan based upon Dede's ideas about edu-tech laggards has just been released, and the findings of a survey of 4,600 faculty nationwide startle even neo-luddite me:

Only 13 percent of the professors surveyed said they used blogs in teaching; 12 percent had tried videoconferencing; and 13 percent gave interactive quizzes using "clickers," or TV-remotelike devices that let students respond and get feedback instantaneously. The one technology that most teachers use regularly—course-management systems—focuses mostly on housekeeping tasks like handing out assignments or keeping track of student grades.

Boring, boring. Blackboard to me has always been a gated community for dumping handouts, and, truth be told, a place to avoid DMCA violations (the only reasonable use I can find for it).

Two of the Young's recommendations, based on interviews with experts, might help what (to this observer) is a stagnation in the use of virtual worlds in higher ed:
  • "Enlist longtime professors with no particular interest in technology and get them to try the latest online forums, videoconferencing, or clickers. . . .Then encourage the professors to give a lunch talk for their colleagues."
  • Stress goals, not technology: "Typically, colleges give seminars with titles like '5 Ways to Use a Wiki in Your Class' or 'Getting Started With Blackboard.' " Instead, Dede recommends that tech liaisons "deal with issues that keep faculty up at night. The titles should be, How do you keep students coming to your class rather than just copying the notes off the Web? or, How to get students to respond really deeply rather than from CliffsNotes."
Enormous pressures will be coming to our state-funded schools and their faculty to use technology. Even private schools like my own will feel the pressure from parents and students who expect innovative teaching with and without technology.

Goodbye to yellow notes and, I hope, PowerPoint slide-shows.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Educators on Avatar Appearance & Learning

Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable 7/20/2010

Location: Slapping Forehead and Laughing

I missed one of the best VWER meetings in a while. We have this impression of academics as frumpy eggheads who don't really care about their appearances. But what about their avatars?

Over 40 participants discussed the role that clothing and other aspects of avatar appearance play in getting respect from students, administrators, and the public beyond Second Life and other virtual worlds. More than a few of my colleagues came to the meeting in hilarious costume (AJ in a Mayan outfit is priceless). I'm pleased to report that everyone did wear clothing.

Some stand-out quotations follow, some hilarious, some sobering, all true:
  • I once had a rather eye-opening talk with some students in which they dissected the dress sense of everyone male and female in the dept, this is in RL, they expected people to "make an effort" and they made assumptions that however you dressed you were thinking about THEM (students) when you made your decisions
  • I don't think it matters MORE in SL, I think it is more that outside SL we are already conditioned to obey certain norms/expectations and so there tend to be fewer surprises.
  • Thinking about our appearance requires the same kind of intentionality that other rhetorical decisions do.
  • I can't show many presentations in SL to my bosses because there are just too many bosoms in them.
  • For me we are doing [medical] simulation not a lot of furries on a ward ;-)
  • That's an issue we haven't discussed. Psychological associations. What we perceive as "fun" might set off issues in fragile folks.
  • I am old and I remember when a teacher was fired for wearing his hair on his forehead .. bangs.
  • I once came to a chat with my students with a cigar, and one of my students had a real problem with it.
  • Well i had changed my avatar skin and i was meant to look like Angelina Jolie. . . . i looked like a man.
  • Yesterday I was wearing nothing. I think SL servers are perverted.
Need fashion advice? Try "What Not to Wear in Virtual Clothes" and look at the entire transcript from our meeting

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July Road Trip: Dharma Bum

What a Puny Plan
Location: Circuit La Corse: Corsican Continent
Soundtrack: T.Rex, "The Slider"

All we can do in Second Life now, that King Philip has returned, is hope for the best.

That's means it's time to saddle up fake the motorcycle and see which way the endless road leads. I pulled out the map and found the northern continent of Corcisa, with a lot of straight road that meant I could ride fast and make myself and the SL client crash.

Actually, though vehicle physics were as dodgy as ever, the simulation did not crash once. Here's what I found:
  • A giant statue of a behatted mole (a fez in the creator's profile) at this spot. It commemorates Michael Linden, the big digger for Linden Lab. From his profile: "I'm the In-World Content Manager, aka head mole of the Linden Department of Public Works. Roads, cities, seas, etc. -- all sorts of Mainland content."
Mole Man
  • A bunny breeders. Well, I'll pass, but it shows the sort of mawkish content that does sell in SL. It puts the lie to the idea that all SLers are twisted teenage boys or horny old men who pretend to be supermodels. I doubt either of those demographics would know what to do with a bunny except set it on fire.
Just What I Friggin Need
  • Crazy Video Phones: talking heads on the screen of this nonfunctional bit of whimsy. My favorite: the cardboard robot avatar, once a part of the LL default library every avatar got.
    Video Phone
  • Good Road. Thanks, Michael. The ride on the cobblestone portion on the Circuit was very pleasant. I'll keep riding as long as SL endures. And who knows how long that will be?
    Cobble Stones
I just roared along, singing with Marc Bolan's "Telegram Sam":

"Automatic shoes, automatic shoes
Give me 3D-vision and the California Blues
And me I funk but I don't care
I ain't no square with my corkscrew hair."

Best Glam line ever, that. And to evoke Bolan (who died as a passenger in his wife's Mini Cooper!) when I'm sad? I slide!

See you next month, but meanwhile, listen to some Glam. You know you need it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Terraforming Griefer Strikes at Drexel University

Location: Drexel University

It pained me to visit Drexel's SL campus, where I was curious to see the Literature Alive! House of Usher build.

At the landing point, I found that griefers had exploited a mistake that left the "edit terrain" setting on (I'm guessing). Mile-high cliffs tore through buildings on the dragon-shaped island.

When this occurs, some items can be knocked "off sim" and owners must request a server "rollback" to the time before the griefers struck.

It's a good lesson we long applied for Richmond Island, where only our estate manager can terraform. It's hard enough having multiple builders on a sim.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How Much Energy Do Avatars Consume?

You sure?
Location: Air-Conditioned Room

It's HOT and sweaty here at my latitude, so even an early morning bike ride to the farmer's market meant lots of sweat. That type of climate means staying indoors more, and that means more time online.

There's long been a meme transmitted online about how much energy Second Life's servers and client computers use. While doing some other work, I stumbled upon this article written by Daniel Pargman on Feb. 10 and republished at The Post Carbon Institute's Energy Bulletin.

For a Peak-Oil guy like me, this was the best of all possible worlds! Pargman did some decent mathematical analysis. A few findings follow:
  • A computer at work uses 120-150 watts, but a computer that runs Second Life (or World of Warcraft or any other computer games) can use up to twice as much power as these applications make use of your computer's capabilities to the max. Data center use a lot of power, but you home computer that utilizes these services draw a lot more and get less work (computer cycles) done per unit of energy used.
  • It is difficult to determine the usefulness (or damage) of using virtual worlds. On the one hand, you use a lot less energy (and generate considerably less pollution) if you cancel a trip and instead meet in a virtual world. But a computer uses a lot of electricity - if the option is an electricity-free activity (take a walk, talk to a neighbor, help your children do their homework).
  • (Based on 30K concurrency in SL and 240,000 kWh to run 2000 servers) In total, [this figure] divided into 30 000 avatars becomes 6.8 kWh per day. That is equivalent to 2 500 kWh per year and the home computer accounts for almost 90% of the total power consumption. Latvia, Romania and Argentina are a few countries that had a power consumption in the neighborhood of 2 500 kWh per capita in 2005. In Sweden, we used more than 15 000 kWh per person in 2005.
Pargman published his analysis in part to update Nick Carr's often cited claim that a Second Life avatar uses as much energy annually as does a typical Brazilian. Carr made his claim when concurrency was at 15,000 and the calculation, later corrected, that Linden Lab ran 4,000 servers.

The best shot by Pargman at this weak claim follows, "

no real person is connected to Second Life 24 hours a day and that Second Life actually had 700 000 "active user" (whatever that means) at the time. So the power consumption of each person who used Second Life would have been just a 50th of Nick’s original calculation. Furthermore, any computer that is used for 24 hours a day 365 days per year uses more energy than the average Brazilians whatever that computer is used for (playing Second Life or doing something entirely different). 


As for this Second Lifer, I'd be reading a book or doing some writing, like this blog, if not logged into a virtual world. And today the AC would be on full-blast.

So the environmental impact of our fun may be moot, as long as the population using processor-intensive applications like virtual-world clients remains small.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The UT System's Success (to me) With Virtual Worlds

UT Dallas School of Management
Location: UT Dallas School of Management

In a conversation that began in the comments section of a post at New World Notes, Hamlet Au put this question to me:

"I'm not aware of any education application *besides* the Canadian Border Simulation which have showed concrete, verifiable success metrics for using SL pedagogically. Are you? I'd love to know about them."

I knew that other case studies of good projects exist, often documented in the pages of The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. I mentioned that in an e-mail to Au, and cited some of the following information, in terms of how universities conduct assessment.

The University of Texas system's project, to me at least, provides a good indicator of how virtual worlds can be successful in higher education. My reasoning is twofold: first, all participating campuses stepped up, paying their own way, a second year. Second, the project had an assessment plan that meets standards for such work in higher education.

Yet as I'll come to show, even a project that made participants happy might not be a success, depending on who defines the term.

How Institutions of Higher Education Assess Programs and Projects

Success, to the accrediting agency to which my university belongs, involves a few steps. Generally, self-assessment means setting one or more goals, then devising learning outcomes for each goal and outcome measures that can be quantified. The department or program must have the assessment instruments and plan reviewed by outsiders, because there's always the danger of setting goals and measures that mean very little.

The University of Texas Pilot Project

This system-wide project, funded for its first year by a grant, encompassed 15 campuses. Each got 3 islands in SL. All but one school used their SL land for faculty developed projects. UT provides a page about SL for faculty here and a set of assessment rubrics here.

If you want to see their campuses (it's summer now, folks, do don't complain about emptiness) start at the signboard pictured above in Second Life. The boots and oil derricks are nice Texan touches, too. I hope to get to look at a few projects in depth during the school year. UT Dallas provides a Web portal that gives links to projects and student pictures.

The head of the project, Mario Guerra (SL: Luigi Miles), spoke to the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable on June 1. Mario took over after the sudden death of the founder, Dr. Leslie Jarmon. The entire transcript of Mario's and AJ Brooks' talk (transcribed from voice to text) is a slog, as all transcripts are, but it's here if you wish to have a look.

At the end of the year all 14 participating campuses choose to renew at least one of their three islands. At that point, they were paying their own way. That's good news to the participants, but it's not "success" in assessment terms, unless the goal was faculty involvement and the outcome measure were "at least one faculty project per campus in Second Life."

So here is what the assessment page, linked above, notes:

How do you know if using Second Life …

  • enhanced students’ learning and skill development?
  • engaged and motivated students?
  • accommodated students’ learning preferences?
A project that Mario singled out paired a Design instructor at UT Austin and a Marine Science instructor located 3 hours away. The Marine Science instructor used SL to replace a video link technology that was buggy. At the end of the collaboration, the "result was an underwater classroom and a research vessel that could test water, get data."

This simulation has "cool factor" all over it and would be far less expensive than finding an actual research vessel.

But did it enhance learning?

Wait for It: The Glory of Academic Life is Our Slowness

It will be some time before peer-reviewed academic articles let us know if the projects lowered costs (a goal Mario mentioned at our meeting) and enhanced learning. The collaborations enabled in the virtual world, moreover, were not to have been preexisting ones. The one cited for the Marine Science classroom was completely new.

Most faculty and college administrators I know would assume this project to be a success story, if student evaluations were positive from classes and programs that used the SL islands. Time will tell if the other collaborations were as rich and interesting for students' learning.

I do not have Mario's numbers on how much any project saved the UT system, when compared to teaching the materials in other ways, if indeed they could be taught at all without a virtual world. This may not satisfy Hamlet's concern for "concrete" metrics, but one must assume that, as at my university, the project at UT would not continue a second year without having passed muster with an Office of Institutional Assessment and a Foundations & Grants Office. Both are likely to be involved for the fiscal management of a project like UT's.

None of these sorts of offices work quickly. The result of this tedium is salutatory: unlike the private sector, where a smooth pitch and a nice idea can attract venture capital, a university Dean or an outside granting agency is unlikely to bow to a group of enthusiasts with a cool idea but little planning, foresight, or proof of success.

That's the beauty, and frustration, of collegiate self-governance. We have a system of checks and balances that can be infuriating to outsiders. But they do work.

Unless a state government mandated it, there would be no reason to release financial records that were reviewed by neutral parties within an institution. They are painfully neutral in my experience and that of colleagues at other schools. Great ideas and programs often cannot be funded, even if you are good friends with everyone involved.

And though course evaluations are not part of the FERPA law governing student records, I suspect that an institution might block the release of evaluations beyond what a school chooses to release anonymously.

The Annual Assessment Trap: So What Have You Done Lately?

If you want more funding, success must continue. That's one rationale behind annual measurement, the key to modern assessment. Success need not be "more projects each year," so continuation of at least some projects at each campus would be one key metric that assessment experts would want to see.

That does make the UT story unique, in a time of constrained budgets. It surprised me to hear how many UT campuses were opting in for another year in SL, at a time when gradually educators are setting up parallel projects (or just migrating) to OpenSim, where they face lower costs and fewer restrictions than in SL. I have no figures on the numbers for that exodus, but it's like the Richmond VA humidity, a funk that just hangs in the air when we get together as a group and hear tales of individuals and institutions setting up their own OS servers.

For UT, Mario noted that the ongoing success in SL was due to UT's laying a "foundation." He described this as varying from campus to campus, " maybe 3-4 demos, training for faculty and graduate student instructors: Benefits, what you can do." It also took leadership at the highest level to make this project work. He added that the UT "Vice chancellor was excited [regarding] SL opportunities" and moved things forward.

The voluntary renewals this year seem a good enough metric to indicate "success," though I do not have complete data on what projects occurred at each campus. I'd like to see how it goes on year three. If UT's involvement grows more in terms of numbers of projects and faculty involved, if not islands, that would satisfy my school's assessment agency as "success."

That would also address the most vexing question Au put to me in a follow-up e-mail:

"My question is whether this proves SL is working with their students, or just that it's working with people (select students and teachers) who are already evangelists for Second Life. I suspect the latter."

This is what I suspect, too. When I put this question to the assembled at last night's Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable, I was just not satisfied with the answers I got. In fact, that merits a different blog post.

I fear that too many of us remain cheerleaders. But if the UT system brings in more designers, faculty, and students, then we'd have a project that grows beyond an evangelical base.

Coda: The Disconnect Between the Eggheads and the Suits

Of course, Linden Lab would naturally measure success as the number of islands paying tier, an irrelevant metric for educators. Hence a disconnect in SL between the company and the eggheads.

It's great if our work makes Linden Lab money, but I really could care less, as long as my nonprofit university pays its tier and our House of Usher build does not go "poof."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

AJ Brooks on Education in Virtual Worlds

Feb 9_VWER_017
Location: Virtual Office

I talk to AJ Brooks more than anyone else in SL, with Viv Trafalgar running a close second. Yet while Viv and I often prognosticate about the future of virtual worlds, AJ is usually engaged in moderating the weekly Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable, so our chats tend to be on the topic of that day.

Using as my point of departure AJ's article "Virtual Worlds? Outlook Good," from the September/October 2008 issue of EDUCAUSE Review, I asked AJ to visit my office on Richmond Island and revisit his topic. A great deal has occurred since then.

When I asked AJ what had changed the most since he published the article, he noted that "the virtual world gird is beginning to become more distributed."

For Linden Lab, AJ is not optimistic about the future of their virutal world. "I think SL's future is in their own hands right now," he said. "They can continue to be an island unto them selves, and miss out on being part of a larger grid effort - truly putting them into the 'AOL' type position I've been talking about for a while now....OR they can work with those pioneers who are designing the true metaverse, one that is not proprietary. My guess is that they will NOT do the latter."

While Brooks is "cautiously hopeful" about the return of Philip Rosedale to the CEO's chair, "I think this ship is headed in a direction, and Rosedale is probably not inclined to change that direction."

Brooks detects a gradual departure of educators leaving SL for OpenSim-based worlds, since "educators are pioneers, and they've seen their community attacked over and over again."

AJ's answer to my question about one thing he'd change in SL, if he could: "I'd build in a creative commons type permissions structure so we would not have this issue with content creations and ownership issues (or at least not as dire)."

That's my #1 wish as well, since it would free up content for out-of-world backups, something I'll easily be able to do in OpenSim.

The entire text of our interview can be found here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What Educators Would Tell Philip Rosedale

VWER June 29 2010
Location: Virtual Worlds Roundtable

Two weeks ago, the Roundtable membership held a rather boisterous meeting, its topic " 'Dear Philip': what educators would tell Philip Linden, were he present."

Here are a few highlights.
  • Louise Later noted that SL is still not accessible to many with disabilities, and this should be addressed
  • AJ Brooks claimed that community has been weakened in recent years
  • Several participants felt that the firings of the Linden Lab staff working on educational projects and treatment of Jokay Wollengong sent a negative message about how the Lab values educational institutions and content
  • Others felt that the lack of out-of-world backup hinders growth because institutions expect redundancy for projects and many educators must provide backups to granting agencies
  • The consensus was that the number of educational institutions in SL cannot be determined. At the same time, several participants sensed a decline in the presence and interest of higher education in SL.
The meeting had a humorous end. A few participants noted that stability seemed improved in the time that Mark Kingdon served as CEO. Then we all got stuck on the sim at the end of the event and could not leave. This provided a Kafkaesque twist to our situation as educators in SL.

Readers with an interest can surf the entire transcript, including my top blowing into orbit over some remarks about educators and "the American way." It's worth a laugh, in any case, to see me lose my temper.

For even more on this topic, I highly recommend Prad Prathivi's "Business versus Fun: How Rosedale's Return Splits Second Life." This post generated many comments, including this final one (and one of the best): "We can experience malfunctioning grids elsewhere, for 1/4 the price."

Perhaps Philip Rosedale and the next CEO hired under his leadership will recognize this. Given the consensus I saw at the VWER meeting, for educators that prospect seems doubtful.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Touring Heritage Key Using Explorer HUDs

Valley of the Kings
Location: Ancient Egypt

For some time, Viv Trafalgar has been after me to come back to a few regions in Heritage Key to see how the HUDs now available enrich an explorer's encounter with the past.

I have to say, these were just what I'd have wished to have for The House of Usher roleplay with my classes last year. The easy-to-master interface, shown here, provides a number of tasks for the adventurer. When all of the tasks are complete in a section, the explorer gets a prize.

Using the HUDs

I began at Amarna, and the HUD told me to visit several sites. For this part of the experience, Viv gave me a primer on the current version of the HUD (here's a sample from the Valley of the Kings):
Quest: Howard Carter

Viv: each tab - uncover - envision - explore
Viv: has a quest attached to it
Viv: the first is finding four clay tablets, another is doing tasks around the household.
Viv: when you do [all the household tasks] you get a ring that lets you dance like an Egyptian

I began at the river's edge, where, upon clicking on the reeds, I began to gather them. This led to my first task's completion, and I learned something about how the ancient Egyptians used the river, as well as its flora, to sustain themselves.

Being the mummy-hunter that I am, I had to send the avatar to Valley of the Kings, where a HUD can be found at Howard Carter's camp. I'd already gotten a mask of Anubis on a prior visit, after figuring out the hieroglyphics in the mural room (with some hints from Viv).

I explored for some time, getting four of Carter's missing journal pages. I also got a stylin' bead necklace.

There's more to the HUDs than prizes, however:

Viv: at the top, there is a map button and a 'small' button
Iggyo Heritage: very nice for a first effort! Having a Web page in the viewer...familiar metaphor
Viv: clicking 'map' will pop up an aerial map

Viv: that will go away when you click it
Viv: click the envision tab so quests are explained
Viv: but they are also logged so visitors can engage in multiple quests simultaneously. There are more suprises on the way, too.

The Valley of the Kings has grown in scope since my last exploration. I found more useful interactive features, like this display about Harry Burton's role in the excavations.

Tuts Tomb Entrance

Other objects loaded web pages (here's an example) from Heritage Key's rich library of 2D Web materials.

Other clues have to be unearthed, and when they do, some of them provide links to videos or other content to help solve the riddles of the architectural site. In this video linked to a clue I dug up, Fiona, 8th Countess of Carnarvon, gives a tour of the recreated tomb of King Tut at Highclere Castle.

How HUDs deepen immersive learning

As much as I love these Web links, it would be richer for students--if the speed of streaming the content permits--to have these materials inside the Heritage Key experience.

Viv and I talked about how the sort of in-world experience (as opposed to popping up Web sites) deepens learning:

Viv: it was important to have a way for people to reflect on what they did - inworld, not just on a webpage ... that breaks the immersion
Iggyo Heritage: this is brilliant

The hard work of many hours by Rezzable's team shows. All in all, I could have spent many more hours just at the Valley of the Kings. It promises to provide the sort of learning about Antiquity that cannot be done with a textbook or film alone; the immersive simulation brings the Tut dig to life.

Heritage Key content rezzes faster than before, though there is still some lag as pages of Carter's journal loaded for me. That would prove frustrating for students, and I was on a hard-wired connection with a very fast and new laptop.

Now I'm laying my plans for bringing some of this technology to my own pet projects.

For Usher, I could see the HUDs being customized so that the friends of the Ushers might each wear a different one, depending on their roles in the story. One of the group might have to look for medical clues, and when finding them all, s/he might discover a text on Chloral Nitrate, a drug that we decided would have been used to treat the sort of narcolepsy Madeline suffers. Then the student would know that Roderick had been giving his sister too much of the substance, sending her into a coma. A different HUD would lead the student to find the hidden passages and passwords that Roderick uses (and forgets, in his madness) to parts of the House that reveal secrets.

Gathering Reeds
In an interview with AJ Brooks that I'll soon publish here, we agreed that virtual worlds, given the current state of higher education, will remain a "niche" technology. Content such as Heritage Key's merits a larger audience, and the company's initiative with Unity's Web-based viewer may get them the audience they want.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Shared Media Presentation by Peter Miller

Location: TidalBlog

In a slide show with audio, Peter Miller gives a good overview of how shared media work with Second Life's Viewer 2.

For those who have not tried shared media, Peter provides an excellent primer.

Have a look. It's worth reconsidering whether or not to use the unpopular viewer, now, or at least wait until other developers make better viewers that permit this feature.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Palestinian Site in Second Life Stirs Controversy

Location: Lord Ansar's Protest Site

Philip Rosedale's first crisis, as Interim CEO of Linden Lab, may have arrived. I happened upon a huge controversy in the Linden Lab blogs today, over a site designed to protest Israeli tactics against Palestinians. I won't run the strongest images here, but the bodies of the dead are shown as prims draped in flags, and a captured Israeli solider is displayed in a cage.

At first I hesitated to go. I've some relatives who are Lebanese Maronite Christians and others that are Shiites. My Druze friends have relatives who fought on the side opposite my relatives in the Lebanese Civil War. So rather than editorializing my own strong opinions the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, I'll just report.

So far, as I learned from the Linden Lab blog post, one item has been subject to an abuse report to Linden Lab. I understand that it depicts The Al Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The creator, an avatar named Lord Ansar, permitted me to take photos and ask questions.

Iggy: you dress as an armed jihadi. Does this exhibit actively support that form of jihad? Or do you have another reason?

Lord Ansar:
just because i like Mojahideen, i support them even with my look. . .its not somthing to be ashamed of. . . its something to be proud of

Lord Ansar: Palestinians are proud of resistance

Iggy: Do you think that Linden Lab will make you remove this protest?

Lord Ansar: i wish that that they will not ... Second life is a full life like Real life with all thoughts and all sides every one can do his own Land i think i didn't put anything wrong here

Iggy: anything else you would like to tell my readers?

Lord Ansar: if Lindens ask me to remove a specific thing i will do

Lord Ansar: as they did they asked me before to remove killed children pictures and i did

Lord Ansar: i want all the world to know the truth of zionists and zionism .. because media is not saying all the truth

Lord Ansar: and wish that Palestine will be free again. . .one day we will live in peace

Iggy: Inshallah, Ansar. Thank you.

A wish for peace is probably all that most folks will agree upon in this debate. The site is going to stir many strong emotions, and perhaps some legal action, given the content.

Do these pictures "speak for themselves?" Go and have a look yourself and decide (teleport link).

I have read that there's a growing Palestinian movement, including even Hamas and Hezbollah, for non-violent resistance to the Israeli government's tactics in the occupied territories. That would be worth an exhibit, too.

Why Second Life Cannot be a Game: Fast? Furious? Fun?

Location: Reading Savage Worlds Rulebook

image: Heroes Over Europe Console/PC Game

I'm an old-school paper-and-dice gamer, and there's a move afoot in the world of such games to make playing and game-mastering simpler tasks. There's a lesson in here for virtual worlds, if they ever aspire to become gamelike.

Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Games is a result of that impetus, and I'm pleased with how the rules flow. It's the first game book I've bought in several years (the low price helps) but mostly I picked it up because I wanted to see how, in detail, the rules work. With the one exception of how to spend experience points, I found all I needed very quickly. In fact, the entire book could be read through in a few casual sittings, because the emphasis of Savage Worlds is, to quote them "Fast! Furious! Fun!"

The old saws that games must have goals and rewards, winners and losers, and set rules are not quite enough. Those parameters can be forced on a virtual world. But will the result be fast, furious, and fun?

Fast: Fail

If Linden Lab or others running virtual worlds derived from Second Life want gamers, either my sort or those playing MMORPGs, "fast" is going to be a chore. Hamlet Au recently declared that "SL is a primarily a game and entertainment platform," and if so, it's not a good one for the sort of games I would wish to play.

Consider the recent snafu in SL combat sims caused by Linden Lab's server upgrade. The Alphaville Herald covered it in detail, but the comments are worth reading. Players of "real games" note the the lag of fighting in SL makes it ridiculous. One should not have to roleplay around an arrow stuck in mid-air by lag.

Furious: Fail

It may have been possible before Linden Lab's policies over OpenSpace pricing led to the closure of all water sims that were perfect for naval or air combat. I'd read that the combatants from Caledon took their air battles to Crimson Skies and retained SL for its roleplaying strengths.

Mass battles, then, are no longer possible. So Linden Lab is stuck with a roleplaying platform that is lousy for combat. Even I have played enough first-person shooters to know how lousy SL's mouseview is for that sort of play.

I should go back to Deadwood or Tombstone and have a few gunfights again, just to test whether any improvement have taken place since I last tried. But the quality of the graphics and the squeaky-clean results of being shot deterred me from continuing.

As for larger fights, unless the Lab is willing to recreated a few Outlands sims that are essentially water or desert so the Goreans, the Steampunks, and the WW II roleplayers can have mass battles (if they could, even in a desert) I don't see how SL will ever compete with dedicated games for combat. So SL fails the "furious" test that Savage Worlds and most online games pass so well.

Fun: Good for Now

Roleplay demands more than fighting, of course, and here SL's user-generated content comes in handy; games generally do not offer that. That remains the "fun" for gaming in SL, but if a competitor can reduce lag and permit UGC to a degree that game masters and builders like, Linden Lab's cash-cow, the roleplaying community, may leave.

I'm done trying to tell folks "Second Life is not a game." I'll instead say, it's a place you can build games, but don't expect the games to be very good if you want more than a few players involved. It's fine for roleplay, and if you want to add sex to your roleplay you'll find a lot of options."

Do Educators Need Games?

Gaming has gradually gained respect in K-12 and higher education. I attended two panels at the 2010 Conference on College Composition and Communication dedicated to gaming, much of it World of Warcraft. Today's serious interest in ludology can be traced to the work of a few scholars such as James Paul Gee (see his What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy). PhD dissertations on gaming are in the works, and small interdisciplinary programs are dedicated to the academic study of gaming and gamer-culture.

We academics do need simulations, and we can use roleplay in creative ways.

Yet even for a simulation, SL does not permit historians to use interactive learning for my favorite topic, military history.

We cannot, say, have 200 participants to recreate one of Stonewall Jackson's small-unit battles from the Shenandoah Valley, or simulate a "box" of Schweinfurt-bound B-17s attacked by a squadron of Focke-Wulf 190s.

Luckily for humanity, not all of our history involves battle. One can easily use SL for an immersive roleplay of the trial of Socrates, with some students doing research to build an approximation of the building where Athens' Assembly met. Others could design clothing and props.

We could build Independence Hall and reenact the debate over the Declaration of Independence. We could do many more thinks, and good work, such as the WWI Poetry simulation, are there to guide us.

But these simulations are not exactly "games." And that accounts for one reason college students don't return to SL after classes end. They have rich social lives; they don't need roleplay and for most of the ones I teach, gaming provides a break from their grind of academic work and heavy responsibility (God, is it heavy) to fit in and be social. Except for the dedicated gamers, they are not playing World of Warcraft or other MMORPGs.

SL does not, and may not be able, to provide the sort of gaming experience my students enjoy outside of class. You'll find those games in our Commons and in their dorm rooms, a Wii or XBox 360 console. about that Blazing Angels: Squadrons of World War Two? Now that might get me to pick up a console. I'm sure not going to fly a Mustang or Corsair in SL anytime soon.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Businessweek Goes Back to SL

Location: Reflective State of Mind

All in all, it's not a bad treatment of what has happened since their famous 2006 cover story. That earlier piece (cover image shown) greatly contributed to the hype-and-bust cycle that we are still experiencing.

I might quibble with a few points, but some standout observations include:
  • How the broken in-world search contributes to problems in growing SL
  • How the clunky UI and orientation experiences deter new members.
  • The mainland prices have tanked.
  • That a cloud-based SL would prove better for most mainstream users; I agree.
  • That the Lab seems to have bought into the inevitability of virtual worlds as "The Next Internet."
Much of Matt Robinson's story (click for full story) is devoted to interviewing the four individuals featured in 2006. It' s worth a look to show where we've come since then. For a change, mainstream media covered a virtual world with some care and attention to details.