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Creativity costs money in Second Life

December 19th, 2006 by Graham Attwell

This is a long overdue post on Second life. Honest – I was there before all the hype. And ten days ago I ran a workshop as a semester course for art education students at the University of Flensburg on using games and immersive environments in education. As part of that workshop we asked all participants to establish an account in second Life and developed a number of exercises and activities for them. The main aim was for them to evaluate the potentials and drawbacks of Second Life and immersive environments for art education.

I will write another report on the planning and processes of the workshop itself. In this post I will provide my own thoughts on Second Life – although my ideas are very much based on the feedback, exercise and comments of the students.

Firstly Second Life is compelling. The major problem was getting the students to stop ‘playing’ in order to have some feedback and discussion. However I am not so sure that is not just due to novelty value – it may well be less compelling after ten or twenty hours.

Second Life and other such environments raise interesting questions about identity. It may be because they are art students, but all the participants on the Flensburg course spent a long, long time designing their avatars – getting their hair right, doing their makeup and worrying about thir clothes. And  I think having an avatar and being able to change its appearance does help in developing and projecting an on-line identity and presence that is often lacking in text based on-line communication. Having said that I worry about the idea of a second identity. I think we should be encouraging learners to see their on line identity as part of themselves – not something separated. I said this at the plenary session on informal learning at Educa On-line and was criticised by some of the games people who pointed to the importance of play in learning. I take their point, but am still unconvinced by the subtext in SL which is that you can be someone completely different than yourself (despite being in a world which attempts whenever it can to copy western capitalism as a model).

SL – like other such environments – raises interesting question about gender. The students in my workshop were all female (interesting in itself that only female students signed up for the course). One chose a male identity in SL and was interested in the different ways ion which others reacted to her.

We were using 2 year old IBM Thinkpads for the workshop and had considerable hustle getting round the university firewall. SL was slow on the Thinkpads though notably faster on my Dual Core MacBook. Furthermore the search engine was broken all of the Friday and in general the performance of SL leaves something to be desired. Rendering can be very slow when going to new locations and text is often difficult to read.

Although in theory you can meet interesting people and talk to them the reality is that communication is as perfunctory as on some of the better populated bulletin boards. The main topic of conversation is sex and most comments are fairly crass. I guess for any real communication you need to meet your own friends. SL dies of course provide many social areas – bars and clubs but after the first five minutes novelty of watching our character dancing in a sleazy bar and having a few drinks it soon gets pretty boring.

So – education. Well the main education areas are pretty peaceful – no-one but me ever appears to be there. And pretty dull – a few notices and advertising for on-line courses -what is innovative in that. OK – I see some of the universities are developing on-line classrooms. But why? There is no more interest in having my icon sit down to an on-line lecture than there is in sitting down to a lecture myself. And considerably less contextual interest. Why oh why do we keep trying to copy traditional pedagogies in different on-line environments.

But my major reservation is the limitations on creativity. the students in the workshop are used to creating and wanted to create their own ‘exhibits’ in SL. Now you can make some squares and triangles and other basis shapes and can give them some texture. But its not much and not enough. Of course I suspect you can do much more if you pay but there is the rub.

The whole model of SL is a capitalist model and doing anything costs. This is not a tool for free public education. I am also amused to see the developing national identities and especially in the appearance of German BierKellers and German flags all over the place.

Having said that I do see a future for such immersive environments. But such places need to be outside the control of the Linden Corporation and need to be designed to allow real creativity for learners. In Europe there is particular interest in ‘virtual exchanges’ between learners in different countries and I think such an environments could be brilliant for this. But the learners must be able not just to select form a selection on Linden sanctioned appearances and names but to really shape and develop their own environment and to collaborate in the development of its social norms and social environments. OK – it might end up like SL – dominated by sex clubs,  and strictly based on wealth. But I am still optimistic that there is an alternative.

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