A bit of a virtual world conundrum

There was one article by Mitch Wagner related to Second Life this week that generated a lot of conflict, disagreement and thought this week, including my own.

I received a free account for Second Life in the spring of 2004 at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose while attending graduate school. The first few times I went on, it was not really compatible with my video card, so gave me the blue screen of death and a belly full of frustration for a while. After about a month, I read that the Lindens had improved video card compatibility to possibly work with my buggy NVIDIA laptop card, so I managed to get in and through the tutorial.

At that time, I had not yet worked on a project that used Activeworlds for developing virtual worlds, so I was very excited about the prospect of a tool where I could build an online space that would be an expression of my personal identity. However, I needed to get familiar with the norms and acceptable communications in the new world I was entering, so I spent time exploring different locations and listening. No one really spoke to me and when I did engage, they tended to be rude and tribal. I was wearing the clothes I entered with, so was instantly looked down upon, I assume because I was not showing my technical building/designing skills with my appearance. The groups of people clearly knew how to accessorize and create motion scripts that made them appear more lifelike and a part of that world. I clearly was not and they let me know quite directly. I faced the same treatment when I originally went into Ultima Online and fled there quickly as well.


After a few days of finding either rude folks or empty spaces, I left and started playing City of Heroes, which my lovely wife bought me as a late birthday present (since it didn’t come out until late April.) I had been a fan of Freedom Force and was a big comic book collector, so the idea of playing a hero was appealing. I immediately created characters that were briefly fun and interesting, but the story that I most engage with (in old games like the Ultima I-IX, Bard’s Tale, Nocturne and Warcraft III) was lacking. My favorite was probably The Federal Deficit a giant man in a green suit who liked to hit things. If I ever find the class presentation I did that included him, I’ll post it here for posterity.

World of Warcraft

I am not a huge social gamer from a Bartle’s Taxonomy standpoint, so playing with others online isn’t really a draw for me. I like to achieve my own goals. If I cannot do that alone, I get frustrated. The same is true of my Warcraft play; when I hit the level cap and have seen all I want to see, I quit again. I started WoW in the fall of 2004 after hearing about it from either Constance Steinkuehler who was playing Lineage II at the time or someone who was presenting at Indiana U. that fall. My memory fails me and my notes are occasionally in disarray. These are all the characters I have managed to get to level 40 or above.

That’s not really in keeping with the design of the game, but I, as you can tell from my blog title, care a lot more about a well crafted, engaging story than trying to get a bunch of people to follow directions and not get me killed in Stonecore.

From a time perspective, I have spent far too much time in WoW in my estimation, though I know others who have spent far more.

This is just for my characters who are level 10 and above since 2004 across several servers, though mainly Muradin and Shadowmoon:

1. Kandinsky (lvl. 85 NE Resto Druid) -42 days, 16 hours

2. Frustration (lvl. 85 NE Frost DK) – 9 days, 1 hour

3. Izobelle (lvl. 70 Draenei Shadow Priest) – 8 days, 18 hours

4. Klahtrakt (lvl. 64 Tauren Marksman Hunter) – 23 days, 13 hours

5. Utterance (lvl. 40 Worgen – 1 day, 6 hours

6. TheLukestar – (lvl. 21 BE Mage) – 13 hours

7. Colmoondrin (FIRST CHAR.) – (lvl. 22 NE Druid) -2 days, 20 hours

8. Thistlenacht – (lvl. 28 NE Warrior) – 1 day, 18 hours

9. Pressman (Bank) – (lvl. 14 Gnome Rogue) -2 days, 11 hours –

10. TheLukester – (lvl. 10 Goblin Shaman) – 3 hours –

11. C0da – (lvl. 58 Undead DK) – 5 1/2 hours –

12. Klezmer – (lvl. 12 Troll Mage) – 8 hours

13. Asheater – (lvl. 14 Tauren Shaman) – 13 hours

14.Belphyria – (lvl. 22 Orc Rogue) – 1 day, 19 hours

15. Thilda – (lvl. 18 Undead Warrior) – 1 day, 3 hours

16. Zelneytra (lvl 12 Human Paladin) – 10 hours

17. Heuristic ( lvl. 12 Dwarf Paladin) – 9 hours

18. Episteme (lvl. 16 Gnome Mage) – 19 hours

19. Ozmistra (lvl. 10 NE Priest) – 6 hours

Total time: About 97 days or 2,328 hours. That is a little over three months played out of 6 years 3 months. I know other folks who have played many more hours in a shorter period of time.

I have also had several other characters over level 10 and even some over 20 that I’ve deleted over time and have no records of time played on those. These are just the ones I’ve kept.

The difference in time it took between Izobelle to get to 70 and Klah to 64 shows how much easier they have made it to level in WoW over the last few years. Klah was the first character that had made it to 60 under the original game. Kandinsky was second and I played him in Burning Crusade, Lich King, and now Cataclysm and was first to 85 and I started playing him when a friend joined in fall of 2006 just after the birth of my daughter when I wasn’t able to sleep because of her colic. Frustration I’ve only had since Lich King and was second to 85, but she started at 55. I cannot make myself level Klah to 85 (or even 70) as I’m just bored. The game is effectively the same 10-15 activities over and over. Kill 10 of X, gather 8 of Y, bring the head of Z, go to place A, deliver item B, etc. There is a reason it has been referred to as World of Workcraft.

Using Second Life with The Door ARG

One of the main arguments against playing Second Life (and probably MMOGs in general) is the sheer amount of time it takes to get things done and to spend time in them as Wagner notes. I returned to Second Life in the fall of 2006 to try to use it for a transmedia/alternate reality course game called The Door, I had few technical problems because of a very powerful MacBook Pro. I spent months building locations in SL tied to the game where students could go to look for clues and get extra credit. The following video is an online capture of something the students could have witnessed.

In the spring, I implemented the course with its Second Life component. It took a three-hour class period to get students through the tutorial available to us in the spring of 2007. Students refused to come to office hours there. The installations crashed in the classroom and because Deep Freeze was on them, it could not update properly. One day we went to my virtual office as a class and a pair of avatars were, to use a euphemism, “doing something explicitly inappropriate” in my front yard. Exactly what one wants their undergraduates to encounter. When I figured out how to boot them out, one person decided to constantly fire a weapon at me while shouting profanity. I persisted and tried to get them back into SL throughout the rest of the semester, but the students would not go voluntarily. In the interviews, they said that it was frustrating to use and crashed most of their home computers.

Over the ensuing years, I kept going back to SL and held virtual office hours there. One semester quite a few people came, but usually they preferred the phone, IM, or face-to-face meetings. I used SL to illustrate cognitive, affective, and psychomotor concepts in a cognitive psychology course, which was an interesting experience, but it was not particularly efficient for conveying the information. In my doctoral courses, I had students analyze how virtual worlds and SL in particular could be used to immerse learners in concepts, but we struggled to find good examples, except the NIH-funded Tox Town. It was interesting, but like most of the educational space we visited, it was deserted. That was many students most common comment in one study we did: “There were no people to interact with.”

I continue to work with students to find a way to make learning experiences in SL more efficient, engaging and effective. Like methods such as those in the social constructivist realm, immersive types of education using virtual worlds may have the propensity to better engage critical thinking and creativity, especially if students are the ones doing the building and design activities. It may be a matter where those of us working in education continue to try to act upon learners using the environment to teach them concepts when the benefit of using SL is that it allows them to create. It is the idea that one of my former graduate students had that we have to discriminate the following concepts and make better choices about how we design learning experiences.

  • In a designed for experience, the faculty creates learning experiences to act upon the learners such as what I did in Anytown and The Door.
  • In a designed by experience, learners create games and learning experiences for themselves and future learners such as in The Global Village Playground
  • In a designed with experience, learning experiences and spaces are created with not only with the feedback of learners but also their direct aid. In this conception, the  learners are exposed to the concept of the game and are provided with prescriptive instructional design methods to follow and then help the instructor to construct future iterations of the game or course as we attempted with Broken Window

I very much think that SL can have a strong place for learning if we use it differently. Teachers at a workshop I gave a few years ago were doing amazing work with student identity through building virtual spaces in Teen Second Life. In Quest Atlantis, the kids loved to build their own spaces in Q-Ville, which was great when designers did not occasionally tell them how to script objects to shoot us into space.

What we may want to think intently about is how to emancipate our learners in virtual worlds and give them the power to engage and work. Give students the power to communicate and make claims to truth using the building tools and objects to seek and understand. We need to think differently about how and why to use virtual worlds in ways that are not direct instruction models, but allow them to explore their own creative, critical thinking, and problem solving agency in the world.

The time factor with virtual worlds will be there as long as we are trying to replicate real-world interactions. If it takes 15 minutes to leave a party in the real world and the norms in Second Life are effectively the same for communicating with others, it will continue to take 15 minutes to leave in the virtual world to avoid appearing rude. I do not know how to deal with that issue, nor do I know that there is a solution, since SL and many virtual worlds are effectively simulations modeling reality. It likely will require that we think differently about what we want from schooling and how long we think learning experiences should take. This has been the case with social constructivist methods that take more time, but show improvements in higher order thinking skills. As a society, we have to decide whether surface level knowledge that can be assessed easily is more important than engaging our kids in critical thinking and creative tasks that prepare them for their futures.

As long as the world continues speeding up and more rapid tools are available for communicating, those that are less efficient are likely to lag in their use unless they can be shown to provide something more that is of high value to society. That is the challenge for those who are proponents of Second Life and virtual worlds for learning, which I am. It may take a different lens through which to view the affordances of these spaces in order to convey the real benefits that may be lurking in these building spaces. We need to tell the stories of learners who are really benefiting from these spaces and are empowered by them.

Virtual worlds use for learning is a very young field of study. We need to keep at it, but we need to start thinking laterally about a subject that has not borne a lot of statistically significant fruit to date. Perhaps, it is our perspectives on teaching and learning that fail us or, more likely, it is flawed, blunt assessment instruments that do.

Keep thinking!


One thought on “A bit of a virtual world conundrum

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