Three activities in virtual worlds


Mark Childs gave a talk on Friday at Leicester. This blog post is a summary of the key points. His talk focused on his research on Virtual Worlds. He provided three examples. The first was the use of SecondLife for disaster management communication. This was in conjunction with Yung-Fang Chen and El Parker in Coventry. It was a conversion of a table-top exercise, where the students take on the roles of different agencies after a natural disaster. One students in pairs travels from office to office in SL and negotiate on behalf of their agencies. The other stays at base. The student found it a complicated environment. Note cards in SL were available with instructions, and the students could walk around the environments and click on different note cards. However, this resulted in cognitive overload, a solution would be to print out the note cards.

Evaluation of the students’ experience elicited the following points. In terms of their avatars, they could play about with them and personalise them. Would it be possible to use the avatars to signify different roles, by using uniforms for example?  Interestingly, the participants didn’t identify with the avatars. They were characters as a means of interaction. And they found it difficult to identify with the roles of others in game. ‘In the computer, there is no extra talking.’ It varied as to whether funny avatars were a hindrance or a help.  The design of the world was fairly basic and students didn’t experience it as particularly realistic. In essence, it was ‘a fake real world’. They wanted more emotional resonances so it felt tense, time dependent, e.g. actual refugees, collapsed building etc. Finally, engagement was not through the design of world but through motivation to try out things they had learnt.

The second example focussed on learning goals in a BA Media and Communication at Newman College and in particular, a module on media futures. Journal entries related to module themes and student were assessed on two entries related to one theme. Mark was a guest lecturer on the course in support of the theme of identity. Findings, included the value of text as a means of feeling connected, and the value of ‘para-linguistic’ things. There was both a standard lecture space and a sand box. The learners were given tasks of interpreting appearance of avatars and they used voice for presentation, and text for dialogue.

In terms of student interaction, there was little participation – ‘isn’t anyone contributing today? Room seems very quiet.’ The students were asked to build an identity cube and volunteers can then discuss what this means. This is based on Carina Girvan Sleepy Littlething. They were given instructions on creating cubes and had to upload 5 images to add to the cubes faces. The theme was something that represented them and their identity. Mark argued that this gives them a way to focus on what they are doing, reification (thingness). And through this they can then get to their concepts of identity. The creating of the cubes gave the abstraction of identity a solidity, which provided a basis for exploration and it related to Wenger’s notion of reification or thingness.  The activity appeared to have energized the students and gave a springboard for their ideas. However, it can lead to distraction, discussion of abstractions still limited, but raises awareness of themes.

The third example was around installation and performance, with the Artist/Performer Herbert Gallery in Coventry in Oct/Nov 2012. In this, three artists who work in design performance acting in virtual worlds and particularly mixed reality. It explores realities within realities, blurring of the real and virtual spaces; or rather a mingling of realities

In the last part of his talk, mark explored some of the definitions and concepts associated with the virtual experience. The defined Virtual Worlds as: ‘synchronous and persistent network of people and programs embodied as avatars and agents facilitated by networked computers using navigable space to engage the user’s belief’. In terms of space: these are navigable consistent spaces with physics. All give rise to mediated presence. Similar to gamespaces ritual spaces theatrical spaces, bounded spaces in which separate rules and conventions exist and which have a heightened semiotic system that requires engagement of belief – fourth places. He finds the ‘Conscious Competence Learning Matrix’ He referenced Barrett 2002: 35 Cycle of disengagement and Caspi and Balu 2008: 339 Cycle of engagement.