There is something messy about the relationship between users and corporations. (Petersen, 2008:1)
This spring, together with a colleague, I’ll be running a class on “Audio-visual and digital media as communication tools” for our 6th semester communication students. My perspective will be on the changed conditions for marketing, production, and consumption in relation to new media, and as part of this, I’ll be using a paper by Søren Mørk Petersen entitled “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation” (2008). In this paper, Petersen offers a critical perspective on the pros and cons of user generated innovation and content creation, and his main point is summarized in the abstract:
For many years the Internet was considered an apt technology for subversion of capitalism by the Italian post–Marxists. What we have witnessed, however, is that the Internet functions as a double–edged sword; the infrastructure does foster democracy, participation, joy, creativity and sometimes creates zones of piracy. But, at the same time, it has become evident how this same infrastructure also enables companies easily to piggyback on user generated content. (Petersen, 2008:1)
What puzzles Petersen is how at the same time new, so-called participatory media enabling user generated content can cause both very positive and very negative user experiences, and Petersen finds some explanation in combining basic principles behind the technologies in question with the logic of capitalism. The paper is good in explaining how we, the users actually pay when using “free” services, technologies, media – something that always seems to surprise the majority of students.
In preparation for this course, I’ve collected case examples from different types of SNSs, external corporate blogging etc. such as Google and Facebook, who – involuntarily – keep feeding into these kinds of discussions. Sometimes I actually appreciate talking about other media than SL, and I had not planned to include it. However, then on February 7th Linden Lab (LL) posted a call for bloggers. The call spurred quite a controversy in the SL related Twitter- and blogsphere, and I think it’ll make a perfect example of the “messy relationship between users and corporations”. So, let’s first have a look on the call:
Basically, LL invites bloggers to submit original posts with “exposure” as only the only payment. This marketing approach isn’t unusual in the Web 2.0 economy, but it soon resulted in some vey negative tweets among some of the SL users I follow, and if you take a look at the comments, people were not impressed by this initiative. Lack of payment was, however not the only reason why some SL users reacted so strongly. The guidelines for submission (depicted below) also caused concerns, and I also think that the history between LL and its users had an important impact on the (negative) reactions.
Before returning to my own take on this, let me just mention some of the reactions that quickly came about in parts of the SL blogsphere. Besides these authors’ interesting and very different perspectives on this issue, the comments are equally worth reading. One of the first reactions, I noticed was actually a comment made by Crap Mariner on the call – LL decided to delete! the comment, but prior to this, he managed to photo document it. As you can tell, this was a prickly, but satirical comment as was this one posted by Botgirl Questi, which also was deleted! Evidently, any site owner has the prerogative to moderate and even delete comments, but there are better ways of handling the process, and I’ll return to that. Inara Pey’s post “LL calls on bloggers, bloggers call out LL” fits in the more negative category, as does Chestnut Rau’s “ LL says “Calling all bloggers“, and Hamlet Au’s “SL bloggers wonder about blogging for SL on an unpaid basis“. Prokofy Neva’s “What, the Lindens do an open call for bloggers instead of a closed fic thing and you’re bitching?!” was one of the first posts I read in favor of LL’s approach, and Gwyneth Llewelyn’s “Working for free for Linden Lab’s blog” was also quite positive. Though not wanting to contribute herself, Tateru Nino also applauds the initiative in “A good effort“, and even though I don’t agree completely, I agree that the idea was good, but very, very badly executed. As an academic, I’m not used to being payed (at least not directly) for writing, and I do “love to write about Second Life”, but I will not be contributing, and this mainly has to do with the guidelines and LL’s general approach to its users.
In terms of payment, I’m not so dismayed as other SL users. From a strictly economical point of view, I think the “exposure payment” is defensible, given that for some SL users, this could actually be of great interest. When Hamlet Au contacted LL for a comment on the lack of payment, the answer confirmed that LL thought such an arrangement would be “appealing” to some of its users. However, from a PR point of view, I do think LL (again) is out of touch with some of the more critical SL users and that paying even a small sum would have bought LL a priceless amount of good will.
As an academic, I’m used to “submission guidelines”, but when reading LL’s Community Participation Guidelines, there’s a lack of transparence in terms of by whom and based on what criteria, potential submissions would be assessed. Even though this blog mainly is a manifestation of my personal views, I do try to follow general academic practice, and furthermore I try to maintain my academic integrity. Part of being an academic means providing a critical perspective on given phenomena, and I would seriously doubt that LL would accept posts pointing to some of the more critical issues concerning the use of SL. Since, the LL initiative clearly is a marketing effort, and that LL, in my opinion, suffers from a rather severe “fear of critique”, as they so clearly demonstrated by deleting Crap and Botgirl’s comments, my concern would be that LL would only want “Hollywood pretty painting pictures” – just as their marketing material in general. The great irony being that if LL admitted to certain critical issues, new users of SL probably would be better prepared for the SL experience and maybe wouldn’t leave so quickly due to unmet expectations. LL rightfully reserves the right to review and edit, and that is normal procedure when you pay somebody, however since LL doesn’t, a more sympathetic approach would be to do this in collaboration with the author(s), and an additional benefit would be that LL actually could learn something from this experience by connecting with its users.
Sadly, I’m no longer convinced that LL really wants to connect with its users, and what really sickens me is the way LL has handled this affair. Moderating posts is ok, but deleting posts that have already “aired”, and ignoring criticism only gets the opposite effect of what was wanted. It exposes a company afraid of critique and in desperate need of a PR person, and in general it adds to a very unprofessional image. I’ve been in SL for almost five years now, because despite all its shortcomings, I still consider it to be an amazing platform for all sorts of purposes. Nonetheless, I’m still surprised when LL repeatedly fails to communicate and connect with its users. LL really needs to hire someone to come and clean up this “mess” to avoid further feelings of exploitation – someone who’d genuinely appreciate the beauty and potentials of user generated innovation and content creation!
This is the fourth post of five describing the work of the students from the PD class, I’ve been running since December 5th, 2011 with students from the Master’s Program on ICT & Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University where the students have to do presentations in-world. Background information on the course/the presentation task can be found in this first post, and here’s the link to the second post, and the third post. On Monday, January 23rd Team D had to present their analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment.
Team D and their focus
Just like the previous presenting teams, Team D’s members come from very different backgrounds working as College Teacher and IT-consultant, Midwife and Educational consultant, Assistant Engineer and AV-Lab consultant, and finally as Cooperate Psychologist and HR-consultant. danamaia was already familiar with some of the people behind the SLenz Virtual Birthing Unit-project, and the team decided to further investigate the use of SL as a supplement in Midwifery education leading to the following investigation question:
How can immersion facilitate Midwifery students’ learning of clinical skills and competences in a 3D-mediated learning environment?
Team D’s sandbox
To support the MIL students’ work in SL, each team was assigned a sandbox on December 9th (after they had learned the most basic SL skills), and the pictures below show the progression in team D’s sandbox:
And a week later on January 11th, Team D’s sandbox is starting to get filled up with a nice addition of phantom walls based on transparent/green binary codes.
January 12th; Plywood here, plywood there – the basic building material of SL now seems to fill up Team D’s sandbox.
Team D’s presentation
Team D’s agenda looked like this:
- Historical perspective on 2D and 3D
- The psychology of immersion
- Learning in Plato’s cave
- Didactic Design
We were then asked to move up-stairs where Team D’s Saxodane literally walked us through Wirth et al.’s model of Spatial Presence that focusses on the construction of a mental “spatial situation model” as a prerequisite for a satisfactory user-experience in new media and VR-technology.
Team D’s representation of Wirth et al.’s Spatial Presence model.
By the end of Saxodane’s talk we were asked to take a step forward, the floor disappeared, and voila!:
In the cave, Team D’s tomsteff, made a very interesting comparison of Plato’s cave allegory, SL, and Beaudrillard’s thoughts on Simulacra and Simulation.
Evidently, ontological questions on reality/virtuality/hyperreality come to mind when entering an environment such as SL, and tomsteff challenged us to consider what impact such issues would have in relation to learning.
Next up was Team D’s own Midwife, danamaia, who gave us a nice introduction to the Midwifery-project in order to set the scene before visiting the place. The project has been well documented, and it was very interesting to hear about some of the research results, and not least how participating students had reacted to the project.
Team D’s danamaia explaining the didactic design behind The Birth Place (displayed on the walls) based on Riis’ model on the floor.
MIL11 students gathering in front of Te Wāhi Whānau/ The Birth Place .
We were asked to take a tour and explore the premisses. The place is highly informative with many clickable objects leading to the extensive wiki and other materials.
Up-stairs danamaia explained the role-play that two students had to try based on materials from the purple pyramid.
Due to time constraints, we were not able to explore the role-plaing possibilities in full detail, but we did get a good impression of the potentials. After the successful birth of a new Netizen, we all went back to Team D’s sandbox, where Saxodane wrapped-up their presentation.
Team D has has had a strong focus on games throughout the course, and as I told them, I don’t think comparing and judging SL too much based on gaming theory/practice is appropriate. In my experience, the absence of a gameplay makes SL a very different VE – especially in terms of teaching and learning potential. Nonetheless, there were many fine elements in the team’s presentation and in their design, and once again, I think we all ended up having a very good and fun joint learning experience.
MIL students celebrating Team D’s presentation with some wine,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ….
Reluctantly I accepted a new name, and the game could begin.
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 ;-)
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 :-)
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.
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: