Research on “Ways of Virtual World-making – Actors and Avatars”

Sisse Siggaard Jensen, Professor, Ph.D. of Digital Communication at Roskilde University, Denmark has had her dissertation “Ways of Virtual World-making – Actors and Avatars” accepted for defense for the doctorate degree Dr. Phil. Sisse truly is one of the leading pioneers in this emerging research field, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her many times during my PhD-work, and this is just wonderful news – big congrats Sisse :-)


The dissertation can be purchased as e-book here

UPDATE: Non-native Danish speakers can order the book by sending a request to: academicbooks@academicbooks.dk

l bought the dissertation yesterday and I have been unable to put it aside – it really is fascinating reading for those interested in research in VWs! The dissertation contributes to the research field with an interpretive, constructivist, and semiotic understanding of human actors’ engagement with the virtual worlds of EverQuest and Second Life. The study is aimed at empirical analysis of different ways of engaging with VWs, and it is based on longtime participatory observation and video interviews (from 2002-2009). The overall research question is: In what ways do actors make sense of situations of engagement with virtual worlds? 

Key theoretical and methodological influences in the study are:

  • The concept of metaphors (i.e. Lakoff & Johnson 1980, Johnson 1987)
  • The sense-making approach (i.e. Dervin 2003)
  • The optic of actor-network theory (i.e. Latour 2005)
  • The emphasis on ways of seeing in relation to video analysis (i.e. Grimshaw 2001, 2005)

Besides contributing with models of her own (actor-network diagram, sense-making triangle) that I need to study further, I also noted that Sisse provides some very good overviews of key points of interest in VW research such as; history of VWs, and overviews of research in relation to avatars, identity, and engagement. Further, Sisse’s work with video interviews and analysis hereof also makes this dissertation interesting from a methodological point of view, and in general it is a valuable resource and important contribution to the field.

Sisse will defend her dissertation on Friday June 1, 2012 at 1 – 5 PM (GMT+1) in building 00, at Roskilde University, and it will be streamed on Roskilde university’s website: ruc.dk as well as on the blog: worlds.ruc.dk, which is the blog of the Danish research project “Sense-making strategies of the innovations of Virtual Worlds”.

The opponents for the defense are: Professor Jay D. Bolter, Georgia Institute of Technology, Professor Andrew Burn, London University, Professor Kim C. Schrøder, Roskilde University (chair).

/Mariis

References

  • Dervin, B. (2003): Sense-Making’s journey from metatheory to methodology to method: An example using information seeking and use as research focus. In Dervin, B.; Foreman-Wernet; L & Lauterbach; E.  (Eds.). (2003). Sense-Making Methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin (pp. 133-164). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  • Grimshaw, A. (2001): The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Grimshaw, A. (2005):  Eyeing the Field: New Horizons for Visual Anthropology. In: A. Grimshaw & A. Ravetz (Eds.), Visualizing Anthropology (pp. 17-31). Bristol, UK: New Media Intellect.
  • Johnson, M. (1987): The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980): Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language. The Journal of Philisophy, 77(8), 453-486.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003 [1980]): Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Latour, B. (2005): Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lego Universe; I ran out of imagination!

Disclosure; this is by no means intended to be an analysis of Lego Universe – that would not be fair at all. It is simply a reflection on my first experience with this MUVE.

I’m not a Gamer, I never have been, and I doubt that I ever will become one. Nonetheless, I do try to keep an eye on what colleagues are doing in the gaming sector, and yesterday I had the opportunity to try out Lego Universe in relation to the 2011 Virtual Worlds Graduate UnSymposium (VWGUS).

The Virtual Worlds Graduate UnSymposium’s blog.

The VWGUS is organized by a team of dedicated educators who have a special interest in using different kinds of MUVEs like MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds. This year’s symposium ran for two days, and I joined in for the session about Lego Universe conducted by Knowclue Kidd.


Knowclue’s wiki – Marianne Malmstrom’s bio.

I don’t know Knowclue personally, but I’ve heard of her work and seen her at the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education conference.


Participants at the VWGUS2011 in the ARVEL CAVE area.


Knowclue Kidd talking about her work with LegoU.

Even though I didn’t know the first thing about Lego Universe, I was definitely smitten by Knowlue’s enthusiasm; you could easily tell that she’s a dedicated teacher! While Knowclue was talking about her work, we were encouraged to create accounts, download clients, and log in to the game. So, as I understood it, the gameplay is that inside the Lego Galaxy some sort of evil force is tearing through the galaxy and breaking everything. It’s the player’s job to join Nexus Force and save the universe, and the first stop is to build a Lego brick rocket that will enable you to leave the starting point and join the other players in groups and quests.


Download in progress – using my favorite name.

Initially, I was very happy to see that I could use my regular online name – for me this really is my first point of identification.


My character – customizable.

Ok, so in this universe, I’d be a small brick figure. No worries, from playing around with my alts in SL I’m used to experimenting with different appearances. Also, if we had not been pressed on time, there seemed to be plenty of possibilities to customize the look. But then the next step was to choose a new name!? Why, what was up with that? How was I to find the other players (avatars from SL), hmmm ….


My new name …

Reluctantly I accepted a new name, and the game could begin.


First impression of the universe – kids can handle a lot more information than you would expect.

Wauw! The first thing that struck me was how beautiful this universe is. Let’s face it; regardless of how much I appreciate SL, the first impression is oftentimes very grey and very laggy. In this universe I was almost overwhelmed by the colors, sounds, moving objects, dialogue boxes, and all the many things happening all at once. My fingers immediately hit alt + arrow keys in an attempt to control the camera/my POV. I had no luck with this, but it could be simply because of my inexperience. Another thing that struck me was the pace; everything seemed to happen in a very upbeat tempo, other characters were running around fast and furious trying to smash “enemies”. Not knowing exactly what to do, I tried to do the same, but with the unexpected consequence that I often found myself lashing out/hitting other characters, when all I wanted was to chat with them – no, I’m really not a gamer ;-)


Talking to “Bob” – apparently my first mission was to unlock my imagination.

I noticed that many of the other characters were running up towards a platform in the distance, and so I followed, smashing everything I met on my way. Here we met, Bob, a NPC, who told us to unlock our imagination by collecting 6 “imagination power ups”. Still not having a clue, I simply watched and copied some of the other characters’ actions, smashed some more objects, and actually managed to complete this first mission resulting in moving up a level. Very motivating to be able to progress so early in the game :-)


First mission complete – so far, so good.

According to Bob, the next mission was to find Sky Lane, who could teach me how to build a rocket that I would need to leave this place and join the others in the Nexus Force. Again, I looked at the other characters, and I did spot Mrs. Lane, but I simply couldn’t figure out how to get to her. I went back to Bob, but he was not very helpful … and so I gave up. Anyways, it was time to leave the game and go back to SL to finish the session.


Alas! I ran out of imagination :-(

Evidently, I had spent a little too much time in the Lego Universe, because the in-world session was ending, and I decided not to participate in the next session that was about Quest Atlantis. One game was enough for me in one day.

So, what’s the takeaway from this experience? Well, if nothing else, I learned about my own shortcomings and habits/expectations when it comes to MUVEs. It should be noted that I only spent about 20 min. in the Lego Universe, so my reservations are not targeted against this particular environment. Yet, having been in SL since 2007, I’ve become accustomed to some in-world/in-game features that proved to be very important for my initial (and perhaps overall) experience.

First of all, there is the name-thing. When I entered SL, I could choose at least my first name almost freely (provided someone else hadn’t already taken it), which gave me the opportunity to use my regular handle and that way establish the first connection/identification with my avatar. Entering a (Lego) universe, where “my” name had absolutely no reference to me, seemed like a setback. However, I suspect that in the case of Lego this has to do with issues of security, a way of protecting the youngsters for whom this game is intended. In time, I’m sure the players learn to identify with their new names.

Second, my positive experience of SL is very much depending on my ability to change my POV. To me the embodiment in SL is mainly based on vision, sure there is the build-in sound of walking, but that seems more like a distraction because it doesn’t really resemble walking (at least not compared to my RL). There are also the build-in sounds of flying and teleporting, but again I find it hard to relate to those (probably because I obviously lack RL comparison). So, to obtain the sense of embodiment that to me relates to the degree of immersion, I usually rely on vision. Further, the ability to change POV, zoom and orbit influences my orientation and navigation. As mentioned above, it could be that it is possible to control the POV in Lego Universe, I just didn’t figure out how to during my short visit …

Third, in SL there is no gameplay, nobody tells me what to do, what the purpose of being there is, how I should interact etc. In SL, it is still “my world, my imagination” on a whole different level than in other MUVEs. When entering a game-world it is crucial that the gameplay appeals to you, that you find it relevant, accept the terms, and literally play by the rules. In all fairness, I’m not exactly the target group for Lego Universe and judging from the talk by Knowclue, her pupils clearly like this universe very much. Sadly, Lego announced just a few days ago that they will be terminating Lego Universe by the end of January 2012. I don’t know where that leaves Knowclue, but given her engagement and enthusiasm about this, I’m sure she will find other virtual universes to explore to the benefit of her pupils and colleagues :-)

While humbly accepting “Bob’s” harsh verdict on my lack of imagination in that particular universe, I leave you with this machinima created by Knowclue and some of her pupils:

/Mariis

Reality – the worst g/Game ever?

Many of the presentations at the Visualization in Science and Education conference that I’m currently attending have evolved around games, simulations, and virtual worlds, and in one of today’s talks the presenter showed us this picture:


Picture from “Motivate Us Not”

In this particular talk, the “problem” with reality was linked to the complexity of the world’s many challenges, e.g.  in terms of risks we’re facing – which evidently can be quite overwhelming and most likely will cause some people to withdraw from the “real” world, and ultimately leave it to others to try and meet these challenges. However, the picture also pointed to a theme that has been recurring throughout the conference, namely why we need virtual games, worlds etc. in the first place – why not stick to (the reality of) this world? If the skeptics at this conference leave with the impression that those of us in favor of such immersive/augmented technologies want to replace Reality, then I think we have failed (and note that was not the view of the presenter).

Both I, and the colleagues I know who use these technologies in education are not trying to replace, but rather to supplement and work with mixed realities in a re-situated perspective, drawing on the best affordances from each. In another talk, the presenter distinguished between the “game” understood as software, and the “Game” understood as the social context; the community, the practice, the artifacts, and the interactions surrounding the game. I found this to be an important distinction, which could be applied to my own work, and while as an educator I also have an inherent interest in the nature and development of the software (from an instructional POV), I do believe that the context is crucial – and probably could make the difference as to whether people would use these new types of technologies to escape or improve our reality … regardless of how we choose to define it. I’m not done thinking about this, but this morning’s talks provided really good food for thought, and proved that Reality isn’t such a bad Game after all ;-)

/Mariis