MUVEs for learning

In the beginning of his book “Being There Together – Social interaction in Virtual Environments” Ralph Schroeder (2011) provides a definition of Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs):

The VEs discussed here relate to virtual reality (VR) technologies. In a previous book, I defined virtual reality technology as ” a computer-generated display that allows or compels the user (or users) to have a feeling of being present in an environment other than the one that they are actually in and to interact with that environment” (Schroeder 1996: 25; see also Ellis 1995) – in short, “being there”. (Schroeder, 2011, p. 4 – original emphasis)

And from this follows that MUVEs can be defined:

(…) as those [virtual environments] in which users experience other participants as being present in the same environment and interacting with them – or as “being there together.” (Schroeder, 2011, p. 4 – my emphasis)

In line with Schroeder’s definition, the term MUVEs is sometimes used exclusively to characterize virtual environments designed on a 3D spatial metaphor (i.e. Ketelhut, Dede, Clarke & Nelson, 2006), because this is seen as a precondition for experiencing presence when there is an emphasis on the “there” component in the understanding of presence. However, in the field of distance education, the concept of presence has been debated for decades, and has included the sense of self and sense of others that do/do not occur also in 2D virtual environments. Most notably the work of a Canadian research project referred to as “Community of Inquiry” (COI) that ran from 1997-2001,  managed to bring focus to the concepts of cognitive, social, and teaching presence as being essential to especially distance educational experiences. The COI project started with a focus on presence in text-based computer-mediated communication (i.e. Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 2001), but has since moved on to also study these particular types of presence in 3D virtual environments such as Second Life (i.e. McKerlich & Anderson, 2007; McKerlich, Riis, Anderson & Eastman, 2011). The difference, between Schroeder’s perception of the presence concept and that of COI research, highlights the fact that there is no (cross-disciplinary) consensus on the definition.  In fact, many definitions and sub-categories of presence can be identified, and this is evidently something I’ll discuss thoroughly in my PhD.

It is important to notice that the primary focus of my study is on Second Life. Nonetheless, other types of MUVEs cannot be ignored simply because both the research literature and the participants in my study often refer to these other types in an attempt to make sense of Second Life. In the table below, I’ve provided an overview of the different types of MUVEs that are relevant to have in mind as part of the overall context of my study.

Clearly, learning happens in all these MUVEs, but from a formal educational perspective, there are some very interesting differences between these different types of MUVEs. Among critics of VWs, I’ve often heard the argument that “VWs are just virtual learning environments based on a spatial metaphor”, and while it is true that VWs, such as Second Life, are based on a 3D spatial metaphor and that this is an important difference, it is not the only one. To me, the communication modalities, the interaction frequency, and not least the content creation possibilities offered in these types of virtual environments, are just as important.

In my study, the teaching and learning processes have been situated in a blended environment consisting primarily of a combination of Second Life and the more conventional 2D virtual environment called FirstClass. At the Master’s Program of ICT and Learning (MIL) that I have used as case for my study, FirstClass provides the ICT infrastructure in this distance ed program, this is were the majority of the administrative and teaching activities take place – the students tend to use complementing technologies for their learning processes. During my research period (2007-2011), the use of FirstClass and Second Life has changed: in the first research cycle, the majority of both teaching and learning activities took place in FirstClass, whereas in the final, fourth research cycle, Second Life provided the setting for the majority of the activities. Regardless of this, I still believe both environments contribute with some unique affordances that are important to ensure high quality teaching and learning – and ideally, none of them should be used as stand-alone environments.

/Mariis

References

Garrison, D., Anderson T. &  Archer, W (2000): Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2: 87–105

Ketelhut, D. J., Dede, C., Clarke, J., & Nelson, B. (2006): A multi-user virtual environment for building higher order inquiry skills in science.Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

McKerlich, R. & Anderson, T. (2007): Community of inquiry and learning in immersive environments. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 11(4).

Rourke, L, Anderson, T., Garrison, D.R., Archer, W. (2001): Assessing social presence in asynchronous text based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), 50-71.

Alice and Dorothy play together – but what about Wendy?

In a recent post I wrote about why I don’t consider SL a game, Richard Bartle was very kind to comment and point my attention to one of his articles entitled “Alice and Dorothy play together” (Bartle, 2009). I’ve now read it and together with some of Bartle’s other works, I find it very useful in relation to my own work with what I prefer to call open-ended Virtual Worlds – so thank you again, Richard for stopping by and pointing to various resources :-)

In the article, Bartle describes three philosophies or design approaches that have influenced the work of designing Virtual Worlds. Based on three major fictional works, Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from Oz, and Wendy in Neverland, Bartle identifies differences and commonalities and discusses their ability to “play together”. It’s important to notice that Bartle is addressing a game (world) designer audience, and that Bartle’s work in general has focused on Virtual Worlds designed with the explicit intent to entertain the players – fun is the key motivation for using such worlds. In the table below, I’ve tried to summarize some of Bartle’s points.

Without going too much into detail with the table here in this post, I think it’s important to notice a couple of things in order to understand what follows. In terms of “appeal” this should be seen in the light of immediate attraction, does the world attract and more importantly retain newbies? Evidently, a Dorothy world like WoW (with millions of active players) also appeals to oldbies, the kind of players who find joy and interest in “leveling up”, the kind Bartle calls “Achievers” (as we shall see further down). The table also shows why SL has problems when it comes to retaining users (with approx. 20 mio. accounts, but less than 100.000 concurrent users on a daily basis, there is a problem). Judging from the table, SL’s credo “Your World, Your Imagination” becomes a double-edged sword. The lack of a fixed narrative leaves the SL-user completely on his/her own to come up with a reason to play/stay. This problem, however, is not unique to SL, but points to a classic dilemma between the different needs of newbies and oldbies. Following from this, the next question that comes to mind then is: what motivates Wendy? or more precisely, why do users find interest in SL and what do they do in SL?

In “Designing Virtual Worlds” Bartle explains how he in the early 90’s, based on a long-lasting debate between senior players of MUD2 regarding the motives for playing, analyzed the ideas of what constituted fun and found that players could be categorized into four major types:

  • Achievers, who are interested in doing things to the game, i.e. in ACTING on the WORLD. (later sub-categorized in Opportunists and Planners)
  • Explorers, who are interested in having the game surprise them, i.e. in INTERACTING with the WORLD. (later sub-categorized in Scientists and Hackers*)
  • Socializers, who are interested in INTERACTING with other PLAYERS. (later sub-categorized in Networkers and Friends)
  • Killers, who are interested in doing things to people, ie. in ACTING on other PLAYERS. (later sub-categorized in Griefers and Politicians)

Based on continued refinement of these categories, Bartle created the so-called Player Interest Graph depicted below:

The Original Player Interest Graph (Bartle, 1996/2004 – see references)

The graph describes players in terms of two dimensions: how they prefer acting on things as opposed to interacting with, and how they prefer to direct their attentions toward other players. When trying to apply this graph to SL, I see three issues that don’t match.

  • The term “players” indicates that there is a game to be played**.
  • The category “killers” implies a combat game-type world.
  • The category “achievers” is also closely tied to the existence of a game – Bartle highlights their motivation: “These people put the game-like aspect of the virtual world to the fore. They like doing things that achieve defined goals, thereby progressing their character through the world’s built-in ranking system.” (Bartle, 2004, p. 130)

Regardless of this, I still think the principal idea of the graph can be used in relation to SL, and so I have re-designed the graph:

SL User Interest Graph

  • Users is my personal preference. Linden Lab calls its users “residents”, and many experienced users in SL refer to themselves as “residents” – I do too. It is, however, a problematic term. My observations and research data clearly show that many (especially newbies, but not only) feel homeless and marginalized from the general SL community (but this has to be the topic of another post).
  • Griefers is a term borrowed from the game worlds, it is, however, how we define trouble-makers in SL too, and the term is also used in academic writings on SL (i.e. Boellstorff, 2008). I did consider the Internet term “troll”, but since trolls seem to be deliberately malicious, and my experience with (some) griefers is that they often have more humorous intentions (albeit still annoying to those they act upon), I discarded it.
  • Designers refers to the SL users, who well … design things (buildings, art, clothes, animations etc.). I did consider the term “producers”, but in my opinion the socializers also produce and contribute to the content of SL. Compared to Bartle’s achievers, there are some interesting similarities. Designers also aim at mastering and acting upon the world, and even though there is no leveling system in SL, the mastery also results in high scores in terms of social capital (cf. Huvila et al, 2010).

Given my particular focus on education, I would also categorize teachers (and to some extent students) as designers – we design for learning, but that’s another story :-)

/Mariis

*) Bartle uses the term to refer to skills, rather than (malicious) intentions.

**) Yes, I’m aware of Linden Realms and the many RP-communities in SL, but that still doesn’t make it a game per se.

References

Bartle, R.A. (no date): Virtual Worlds: Why People Play.

Bartle, R.A. (1996): Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs.

Bartle, R.A. (2004): Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders.

Bartle, R.A. (2009): Alice and Dorothy play together. In: Harrigan, P. & Wardrip-Fruin, N. (eds) Third Person – authoring and exploring vast narratives. The MIT Press. p. 105-117

Boellstorff, T. (2008): Coming of age in Second Life. An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.

Huvila, I.; Holmberg, K.; Ek, S. & Widen-Wulff (2010): Social capital in Second Life. In: Emeralindsight, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2010. p. 295-316

Psychological Relativism – perspectives on reality/virtuality

Yesterday, in a talk at The Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds (FCVW) conference, Jim Blascovich spoke about reality, virtuality, and our perceptions hereof. Blascovich made some interesting and provocative claims about reality, starting with the question: “What is reality?” and answering it by saying: “No one knows!” Blascovich then presented a photo of the Earth and a photo from SL, and asked are they both real? Yes! Are they both virtual? Yes!

Um, so at first glance this may seem confusing, but as far as I understood it Blascovich’ point was that our perceptions (of anything) are idiosyncratic hallucinations, and we see/perceive things that are not there and things that cannot be there – the human brain adapts and “right things” (cf. the work of George Stratton on perceptual adaptation). Together with Cade McCall, Blascovich explains this in a paper on “Attitudes in Virtual Reality“:

“In contrast to the continuing struggle and debate among interested scholars over the hard consciousness problem, many scholars from many fields concerned with the question, “What is reality?” agree that what people think of as reality is an hallucination; that is, a cognitive construction. Together with religious gurus and mystics, philosophers (Huxley, 1954) and experimental psychologists (e.g., Shepard, 1984), maintain that perceptions are invariably idiosyncratic hallucinations, albeit often assumed and treated as collective. (Blascovich & McCall, 2009, p. 3 – my emphasis)”

I don’t know … I think this is difficult to comprehend, and I couldn’t help but think about Plato and his cave-analogy. Based on a question from the twitter-audience, I did get the impression that Blascovich recognizes the empirical world (our Earth) as real though; because he went on to make the distinction between “grounded reality” and “virtual reality”. However, the tricky part is that what we consider “real” or “virtual” depends on our individual perspectives, and this is referred to as the principle of psychological relativism:

“Analogous to Einstein’s theory of special relativity regarding time and space, psychological relativity theory states that what is mentally processed (i.e., perceived or thought of) as real and what is mentally processed (and thought of) as not real (i.e., virtual) depends on one’s point of view. People contrast a particular “grounded reality”— what they believe to be the natural or physical world—with other realities they perceive—what at times they believe to be imaginary or “virtual” worlds. However, what is thought to be grounded reality and what is thought to be virtual reality is often muddled or even reversed. (Blascovich & McCall, 2009, p. 4 – my emphasis)”

While I really appreciate Blascovich’ emphasis on “context” as being crucial to our perceptions, I think the problem with relativity is that it makes it very hard to reach consensus on anything, or to achieve “collective hallucinations” so to speak – and for many people the uncertainty of relativism is unsettling. Whenever I bring students into SL, they clearly struggle with such ontological questions, and I think the uncertainty about what is/isn’t real can become a barrier to adaptation of the medium.

Fortunately, it isn’t all completely relative. The research done by Blascovich and colleagues (not least Jeremy Bailenson – cf. Infinite Reality) shows how i.e. movement, anthropometric, and photographic variables influence our perceptions. And by studying such results, we – as VW designers/users – can accommodate different perceptions and it gives us a more informed starting point for some very interesting discussions on the ontology of VWs.

Admittedly, I’m still processing some of Blascovich’ points in terms of consequences for VWs design, and I’m not sure if it makes sense or if I can make sense of it … according to Blascovich “reality is a state of mind”, and mine sure is messy!

Without diminishing the work of Blascovich et al. I still think that one of the best explanations of “real” stems from a dialogue between a rabbit and a wise old skin horse:

/Mariis