Category: Second Life Big Bad Blog 2010

Ok, I just had to do that to see if people would read my blog.  Sorry about that.

Actually, it is kinda appropriate.  This is the last day of the Big Bad Blog challenge, and we are asked to consider what we got out of the experience.

In a real sense, I did come out of the closet.  I finally allowed my geeky, fun activities to bleed over into my semi-professional educational technology blog.  I already get plenty of hassle for being involved in Second Life at all. “It’s been on the brink of total failure for years,” according to those who can’t walk, build or program don’t think it has any educational value (you know who you are).

So, I’m never sure what people will think if they find out that I also run around having fun swinging a light saber … or dancing with furries … or other activities that I would consider tame but will seem exotic to the uninitiated. People may ask why I waste my time fishing in Second Life, but I don’t think they’d question this as an acceptable albeit fly-bitten activity in first life, for instance.  Any activity in a virtual world seems open to question and suspicion, but especially things that are strictly fun, social, past-times come in for odd looks.

After all, while it is marginally acceptable to study serious games, we have to be, uh, serious about it, right?  If we researchers admitted to actually participating and having fun in the culture then we …. well … then we’d be thrown out of the Serious Scholars Club.  (Truly, we have a card and a secret handshake …. just don’t ask anyone to show you … super secret stuff, ya’ know.)

So, as a newbie SL blogger, I’m glad I’ve finally broken down the barrier between the two lives my Second Life avatar leads … or would that be one Second Life and a Third Life?  I’m losing track here … sounds like time to go feed my iPad fish.


Yesterday, I borrowed the department’s iPad and started playing around with it.  I wanted to get a sense for its good and bad points, see what the gadget-loving hobbyist in me thought of it, let the teacher in me ponder its potential place in my (often virtual) classroom, and finally experience for myself the device in the middle of the (as usual) hyped debate about the future of society.

My initial reactions were a mix.

First off, it is more sturdy than I had imagined.  When I hold it, it doesn’t feel frail.  Like my pretty sturdy iPhone, the iPad seems built to stand up to normal wear and tear — and my occasional lapses in judgment or attention.  I am still not sure I’ll be comfortable tossing it in my backpack – or just carrying it around like a book, but it also isn’t going to break in half  in a stiff wind.

But this is both good and bad.  After a few minutes, I had to adjust how I held it in order to deal with the weight.  I  kinda moved around a bit and finally settled on holding it in my left hand, resting on my left knee.  Over the course of a couple of hours, I still occasionally noticed that my hand was getting tired.  It is like holding a substantial book for hours – you just get tired.  While not as bad as my Gateway tablet, the iPad is still not quite the replacement for the paper copy of the New York Times or a paperback book in terms of how I “naturally” interact with print media.

This would be less of an issue if the screen were not so very shiny.  That much reflective surface quickly reveals where the overhead lights (or the sun!) are located.  This means that I need to shift around not only to manage the weight of the device but the direction of incoming light.  It can be a bit distracting at first and may be a problem for users in traditional classrooms and computer labs.

But as Malcolm Reynolds would say, “You’re hitting on all the sellin’ points.”

True, true.  The shiny screen is drop-dead gorgeous in its clarity and color.  Reading on the device is just as easy, for me, as reading print.  And I am not young.  At nearly 5o, I have bifocals and have often struggled to read text on my iPhone, PalmPilot, and even some computer screens.  The iPad’s books and program screens were crisp, clear, and readable.  So much so, that I almost forgot I was holding a computer and not a paper version of the Times.  (Have to be careful NOT to toss the thing onto the desk when done with an article!)

It is very refreshing to be able to hold digital media at the same angle I hold a book.  I leave it to usability experts and cognitive scientists to tell me if this position is somehow optimal or natural, but being able to hold a screen down and at an angle felt really good.  Again, I don’t know why this should be.  I’m no Ludite and have been reading a lot on the screen for 35 years.  But reading on the iPad felt less tiring than reading this on the screen.

I also greatly enjoyed interacting with the programs through direct touch rather than a mouse or keyboard.  Of course, most of what I did for those two hours did not require typing.  I was mostly reading and looking at unusual applications.  Oh, and playing Plants vs. Zombies (an ideal game for exploring the touch technology of the iPad, really …..).

As soon as I switched to trying to take notes in the Notepad application, I became frustrated.  It was like trying to learn piano with a hypersensitive teacher.  Typing on the virtual keyboard resulted in a great many typos.  In fact, for a while, I could not type ANYTHING correctly.  I started getting better after about 10 minutes, but I am not sure that the iPad will ever become a replacement for my main computer, unless I invest in a stand and a keyboard.  And that seems like it would defeat the purpose of having one.  And yet, the hobbyist in me is wondering if I could somehow justify the purchase of one for myself.  Just think …. if all I did was save the reams of paper involved in reading my favorite newspapers (and yes, I am a throwback to the Victorian era and do read multiple city papers), would that be a reasonable excuse?

Since gadget loving girl wants it, that brings me to the question of … does this device have a place in education, particularly in higher education? There are a lot of cool science applications available for this.  Some organize and provide reputable science information so that students may be less likely to run out to Google or Wikipedia to research everything.  Others provide data visualization or physics experimentation and play.  Any of these would be potentially useful.

But education is not passive consumption of information, and it does not take place in a vacuum.  Most educational activities require that students then get involved at some level by taking notes, doing assessments, or producing something – a report, a response, critical reflection, or their own understanding and new knowledge.  If nothing else, they must be able to produce artifacts that I will eventually grade.  And then I come back to my difficulties with the virtual keyboard.  I will have to experiment further to see how easy it is to take notes or make annotations or work in two different applications at a time.  While many educators vehemently decry multi-tasking, at many levels we require that students do so by reading and note-taking in near-simultaneous fashion.  My question is — does the iPad support this common work flow for students?  Or will they be juggling the iPad and a notebook?  Which, again, seems to negate the reasons for having this device.

I will keep looking at these questions over the next week or so.  Meanwhile, I encourage you to check over at Don’t Waste Your Time’s collection of opinions from other educators.  I really have to agree with David Hopkins — all we know for sure right now is that we have more questions than real answers.  We need to gather data before we make grand or pessimistic pronouncements.

Finally, the educational virtual world geek in me has to ask … will it run Second Life?  At the moment the answer is …. “yes and no”.  It does run the same apps that were available on the iPhone and iTouch for accessing a few streams of information from Second Life.  For most people, accessing chat, IMs and inventory were the main purpose for using Second Life on a mobile device.  And I have to agree that this is all I wanted on my iPhone. It allowed me to attend meetings in the virtual world when I couldn’t be anywhere near a computer — and that was great.

But I am now waiting for a real Second Life viewer to be developed for the iPad.  It seems to me to be the perfect platform for this interactive 3-D building environment.  Where the keyboard and mouse always seemed clunky, actual touch control of 3-D space could allow for natural “hands on” manipulation of objects a la Minority Report (remember how Tom Cruise’s character interacted with the computer system … wow).  Being able to rotate and move things while I’m building with my hands would be awesome sauce.

So, at the end of a couple of hours of play, I’m intrigued and hoping that we will come up with new ways to interact with digital media now that we can go back to kindergarten and use our fingers.  But until we make that step, the device seems mostly ready to allow users to consume media – by reading, playing, or listening/watching.  But it is not a device for serious creation or meaningful interaction.  Yet.

Today’s topic on the Big Bad Blog Challenge is:  Is your avatar more or less your current biological age? Do you portray a younger avatar, or older? Why is this?

For me, the answer is …. it depends upon the situation.

As I mentioned, I role play a Jedi Knight in Second Life, at least some of the time. When my avatar is engaged in role play with the group, or on any of the many Star Wars sims, my avatar looks young. She plays a 29 year old human who is very active and fit …. and she looks it. In truth, her appearance is pretty close to what I looked like at 29. I’m slowly aging her as the years go by (about three times as fast as RL time since there are three SL days for every RL day), but it is a bit difficult to find an adequate 30-something skin. If anyone has suggestions, please do post them in the comments!!

But when Christien represents ME, she wears a middle-aged skin and shape. She has short blondish hair and could honestly stand to lose a few pounds.  She wears glasses.  And a lot of her clothes look pretty much like what you’ll find in my closet. In part, I do this because my professional colleagues know what I look like in RL – they often see me at conferences, and I prefer to present myself …. well, as myself.

Why the difference?  Because the same avatar is used for two different purposes.  Recently, I created several other avatars so that I could lend them out to students who couldn’t make their own — or for people who just wanted to play around with Second Life but didn’t want to go through the process of creating an account.  So, I could have different avatars for different purposes.  Problem is that Christien Suntzu is my main avatar for both contexts.  Back in the day, it was more difficult to create accounts, and so I conserved by using one for two very different purposes.

The rather different appearance helps me and others keep straight “who” Chris is at the moment.  Is she a role playing character, similar to my World of Warcraft avatars?  Then, she is dressed as a Jedi knight and looks in her late 20s.  Is she an educational researcher?  Then, she looks like a middle-aged woman and dresses either in a suit or in jeans and a sweater.

Might I branch out just to see what it feels like to be someone different?  Possibly.  I have those other accounts – some of those look like robots, are male, or are females of different races or even species. But I am not sure how much I’ll ever identify with them.  I have been playing computer games for a long time, and most of my characters did not look much like me.  In part because early games gave the player so few choices, I don’t tend to strongly identify with the avatar on the screen any more than I identify with a chess piece on a game board.

One reason I have enjoyed Second Life is the fact that I can make an extension of me that has some fidelity to the real thing — and that makes SL rather unique even today.  So, I enjoy “being” at the end of my 40s in the virtual world as a tribute to how far the technology – and the creativity of the residents – has come.

I’ve been “in” virtual worlds since the earliest days of the MUD.  Throughout these decades, I’ve never really understood the interest of people in virtual relationships and “adult activities” online.

I certainly have always had friends in virtual worlds.  Some of those friendships have crossed from the virtual to the tangible worlds through meet ups at conferences or professional meetings.  But to develop a romantic relationship between my avatar and that of another person seems problematic to me.

I’ve read James Paul Gee’s discussion of the three identities of people online: me (the person), my avatar (the thing on the screen), and the projective identity (what I want her to be).  Throughout any encounter online, ALL THREE of these identities are in play – which means that I (Barbara) am always involved in any actions that my avatar (Christien Suntzu) undertakes.  And therein lies the rub – I am already in a relationship, and having an online one – to me – would probably put the real life relationship in jeopardy.

While I have met people who argue that you can keep the SL and the RL relationships separate, I have seen very few successful instances of this separation.  In fact, over many decades of online game play, discussion forums, and text/ 3-D roleplay, I can think of one couple that was truly successful.  Even in groups doing strict role playing, one or more of the virtual partners (or their RL partners) becomes confused about which relationship is the “real” one.  When this happens, people become hurt and angry.  Sometimes, RL or virtual relations come crashing to an end.  Oftimes, a partner needs to leave the virtual world in order to salvage the RL relationship.

And from the sidelines, you have to ask, “Was it worth it?”

To me, the risk is too great for a meager pay off.  So, I continue to rebuff advances from people in world – even for the sake of running a good role-play scenario.

I’m jumping in on Ch’know‘s annual challenge: the big bad (SL) blog challenge a few days late.  Which means that I am …. as usual …. catching up.

This also means that I’m addressing yesterday’s topic today …. with the hope that I’ll also do today’s rather interesting topic later in the day.  Whatever it takes to avoid writing on the dissertation proposal, I guess …..

YESTERDAY’s topic was: Write about three positive things going on in your Second Life.

So here goes:

  1. One of my favorite groups is rallying.  I am a charter member of the New Order of the Jedi in Second Life and have watched it morph, nearly die, move sims, rally, return to its roots and repeat that cycle many times over the years.  It attracts a wide range of Star Wars fans who have an equally wide range of interests, skills, talents, and tolerance for playing well with others – so no surprise that it struggles at times to find and retain its identity.  But it seems to be more or less back on track.
  2. Despite the news of Linden Labs restructuring and returning to THEIR roots (being a medium for moving goods/services and hence MONEY between people while taking a cut themselves … capitalism at its best), I have new people from education asking to meet up in Second Life and be friends.  The bubble of hyped enthusiasm has burst, thank the Force!  Now, we can go back to growth on a sustainable and human scale again.
  3. Some of my old friends are also returning to Second Life.  Some got tired and disenchanted with the hype.  Many of us got really tired of running into X-rated builds (or worse … having them build NEXT to us!).  And a lot of us got tired of defending the use of SL as an educational tool.  But the burnout has faded, and I’m running into mature, hard-working educators, designers, and programmers again.  And it just makes me more likely to be in world myself.  Hopefully this will become a minor snowball.  I’m even considering going to SLEDCC again this year.

It’s not perfect, but then, any platform that allows the average user to build and change it is not likely to be perfect.  Step back a moment and feel the pure wonder again of a virtual world in which you can create anything you can imagine and make it interactive and persistent.  And open to the world!  What other programming engine do we have to take the place of Second Life?