Saturday, July 19, 2008

A post-hiatus post

Blogger have developed a few new page elements, including the Blogroll, so I have added that with 2 of my favourite fellow Web 2.0 learners' blogs listed. I also notice that, finally, I can now find my blog in Google (those little webcrawlers must have indexed it at last) and there is also something coming up in Technorati. Wow, I am famous (just kidding)...

The Strange Otherness of Second Life

Whilst playing what are usually termed video games, especially the later (and thereby increasingly detailed and sophisticated) Harry Potter games on PS2, I often got considerable enjoyment from just wandering around and exploring the virtual world that some designers had quite obviously spent many, many hours creating. There was little or no danger to 'me' (and none at all to me) and, as 'Harry Potter' or one of the other characters, it was possible to immerse oneself in the virtual (albeit limited) world of Hogwarts or whatever. One could enjoy the virtual nature, lighting, sounds and effects at one's leisure. The downside was, I suppose, that if you met another character (not a main character), and there were indeed other students or creatures sprinkled around the virtual world for those who could be bothered to explore, rather than just following the linear nature of the platform game, these characters could only 'speak' what they had been pre-programmed to 'say' to you.

This appreciation for the virtual world is undoubtedly what has led me to investigate Second Life (SL). I have shunned any 'scary' fighting games such as World of Warcraft despite the fact that I can see the artwork and technology of these types of games is incredible. I have seen screen captures of wonderful-looking worlds in other games but would never play or participate in them because of either an element of conflict or the realisation that if playing online, one is playing against real people with an unknown set of ethics, values, behaviour, and so on. I get the impression it can be pretty brutal in the world of online gaming, especially for the novice. However, at the same time I am missing out on experiencing a richly detailed virtual other world.

As I previously posted, when I found out about SL several years ago, I could see it was something quite different from gaming. I could see it could be attractive to non-gamers and the relation to real life was actually probably a lot stronger, with greater attraction for adults, rather than teenagers or children. However, it did seem a bit creepy and perhaps had a sordid element to it. After SL was covered in the Web 2.0 program, I decided to look into it again from a different angle - that of the potential for education and libraries, especially reference work.

I quickly read the following titles from my library: "Second Life for dummies" by Sarah Robbins and Mark Bell, "Second Life in-world travel guide" by Sean Percival, "How to do everything with Second life" by Richard Mansfield, "Designing your second life: techniques and inspiration for you to design your ideal parallel universe within the online community, Second Life" by Rebecca Tapley. I did not read them in detail but skimmed over the technological 'how to' bits to try and get to the real heart of SL and I believe I have a 'handle' on it now. It would be very difficult to sum up what SL actually is in a few words but it is a fascinating thing, that's for sure. What most intrigues me is the technology and the potential of it. I couldn't give a fair description of SL without having actually experienced it first-hand, and over some time, which brings me to my next quandary: whether to stick my toe in or not?

SL is really, more than anything else, an interactive online social tool. There's nothing wrong with that, but it holds little fascination or allure for me in that respect. If I want to meet people, I prefer to do it in the real world. I can see that meeting people who share the same interests is useful and fun, but, again, I can do that in reality. Sure, there are people on the other side of the world who I am in contact with, but I can use email or other methods of communication at the moment.

The job of creating an avatar seems laborious which is something I had not considered. I thought you would just pick an avatar and off you go. Indeed, you can do that but SL prejudices seem to be as bad (if not worse!) as in Real Life (RL). If you have not spent many hours altering your avatar with custom-designed skin, hair, clothing and so on, then you are viewed negatively or you stand out as a newbie. The only way to avoid such censure or judgement seems to be to take an avatar of an animal or other creature (a ball of light, for example) but of course that limits you to where you can go. Try turning up to a vintage jazz club or a library as a ball of light or a dragon! Anyhow, it's all very strange and I am not sure I can be bothered. The other element is meeting and virtually interacting with other 'real' people. Unlike a game, there are few rules and anything could happen. I find the idea of 'meeting' another person in that way very peculiar, although maybe it's not like that at all.

The other thing I noticed about SL is much of it seems to be about acquiring things: house, furnishings, accoutrements, clothes, jewellery, etc. It's like the real world only weirder. As I am not a lover of shopping at any time, this element of SL is also quite unattractive to me. The most interesting facets of SL to me are: the ability to explore, in-world gaming, and the ability to attend virtual learning events. I can also see the benefits in 'role playing', such as woman 'playing' as a 'man' and experiencing what that would be like, virtually. There is great potential for learning, such as in a news item I saw recently where Israeli students played a virtual game (not SL) where they had to be Palestinians. The students said it helped them to understand what it would be like. Clearly, especially for young people, this type of virtual reality helps their understanding and imagination.

Who knows? Maybe in the near future my curiousity will get the better of me and I will take the plunge. Or maybe I will wait until I can see greater benefits from SL before doing so. I guess, ultimately, there is not a great deal of risk as you are not 'you' in SL but an avatar, but it's that fear of the unknown I suppose. If I do go ahead, stand by for another posting on my initial experiences! In fact, I might now go and see what I can find out about other people's first experiences before I go ahead myself. I just have this nagging thought that I should get in now, before this virtual world thing explodes!