Category Archives: Virtual Worlds

History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education



The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC (#FutureEd) has begun.  We’re now in week #2 (of six weeks) and, so far, it’s been a real eye-opener. Cathy Davidson (Duke University, author of Now You See It) is our ring leader, instructor, coach, and provocateur.  The course, like education itself, is made up of many moving parts.  There are the videos – short segments featuring Cathy, so far explaining the historical context for the conversation; the readings; the online forums – lively conversation; the personal assignments – optional, depending on how you are taking the course; and, of course, the myriad other social connections made through Twitter, Facebook, Wordles, and the blogs of the enrolled students.

The goal of the course is to thoroughly explore our American education system, which was primarily designed to prepare workers and leaders for the industrial age, and strategize together, as a community, about how we can change that to fit the era we live in now – the information age.

Until today my pleasure in the course has been mostly private.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the readings and the videos, done some exploration in the Forums, wrote a short entry on my favorite teacher (Mrs. Hirschfelder – chemistry) and certainly, I’ve done a lot of mulling and processing.  But today, I was able to take that private mulling to a whole new level with a terrific group of fellow thinkers and FutureEd travelers in the virtual world.  My friend and colleague Liz Dorland (Chimera Cosmos in Second Life; @ldinstl_chimera) organized a group of FutureEd study group to meet and discuss the course as avatars in Second Life.

Our FutureEd study group meeting in Second Life

Our FutureEd study group meeting in Second Life

There were nine of us to join the cozy campfire circle on the Tufts University island, many of us meeting for the first time (here are a few more pictures of the gathering).  We hailed from Pennsylvania, Missouri, California, Washington, Belgium, Scotland, Brazil.  Fellow travelers and adventurers in education.  We talked about our experience thus far in the course, the ideas in the FutureEd videos, other MOOCs we’ve taken (or started, rather), connectivism, immersiveness, the advantages of small group meetings, differences in education traditions between the U.S. and other countries represented by the group, oculus rift, advantages/disadvantages of online learning….in other words, we covered a lot of ground in one hour.

It was a terrific group of smart people, looking to connect and deepen their understanding.  If that sounds like something you’d like to try – join us.  We  plan to meet every Monday at noon SLT (Pacific time).  And here is the SLurl for our starting location (we will take some field trips as well). If you have questions about setting up SL and getting in to join us, comment below and we’ll figure it out together.



Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Virtual Worlds

The Radix Endeavor

The Radix Endeavor

The Radix Endeavor

There’s a new MMO in town – brought to us by the MIT Education Arcade, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in collaboration with Filament Games. It’s the Radix Endeavor. This massively multiplayer online game (MMO) is designed for STEM learning in middle and high school. I just spent the last hour, on a quest with my avatar character in the Radix world, trying to get a feel for its possibilities.

My Radix character.

My Radix character.

The first thing to notice about the Radix Endeavor is that it’s browser-based. So no messy downloads, no firewall problems, and, from appearances, not a huge bandwidth requirement.  Check out the minimum hardware requirements here.

In order to play the game you create a (free) player account, click the “play game” link on their website and – poof! – you land on the island of Ysola. This is a fictionalized world with made up names for people, plants and animals. There are biological problems to be solved, quests to be taken – all in the service of solving the health problems that seem to have befallen the inhabitants of the island.

The developers offer teacher and student accounts.  I created a teacher account which gives me a dashboard to monitor my students progress in the game.

So let’s start with the good stuff:

  • Great that it’s browser-based in terms of access, but of course, that also means some serious disappointments (see below)
  • The game action is quest-based  (i.e. “use your measuring tool to find a feltspittle flower that is a least 3 tomes high” and “capture a jngspout so we can feed him the feltspittle flower and analyze his excrement”…what middle schooler doesn’t want to hear that?)
  • The world is persistent.  I collected feltspittle flowers, logged off, signed in again, and my inventory persisted and my dialog with the doctor picked up where we left off.
  • The game is designed to align with the Common Core standards in math and Next Generation Science Standards for high school.
  • The teacher portal will aggregate data on the students’ decisions, strategies, and progress so that they can tailor what goes on in the classroom to the students’ needs.

On the not-so-good side:

  • The look of the game feels very young to my eye.  Simple line-drawn structures and characters, not much dimension, shadow or nuance. It feels like a paper-doll-cut-out world and I worry about that in contrast to the rich and sophisticated look of the other MMOs students know.
  • No one else was in the world when I was there so I was only able to have “canned” conversations with bots.  Not very satisfying.
  • Extremely annoying and repetitive background music.  I muted that right away.  No need for that.
  • Navigation is clunky – places you can’t go but you only figure that out when your avatar just won’t move forward (like hitting an invisible wall).  Teleporting from region to region is verrrrry slow.
  • There is a map you can summon but I was longing for the ability to change my camera position and see the whole scene around me – to zoom out.
  • There doesn’t seem to be any way to take artifacts from your work in the world out of the world – that would be a nice touch for students creating blog posts or other artifacts of their learning.
  • Adding to my inventory.

    Adding to my inventory.

    Even though the quests are akin to real world problems (curing a mysterious lung ailment called “polyflux”, I worry about all the fictional names for animals, plants, and diseases.  Just seems a shame to introduce yet another vocabulary when our students already have so much trouble with the existing language of science.

  • There seems to be a system of badges/points you earn on your various quests (good!) but that function wasn’t yet in place in my tour of duty. Despite the fact that I correctly surrendered my feltspittle flower and my jingspout, my points did not go up (wah).
  • I didn’t get too far past my initial three quests, but in the first hour, I felt like I was mostly doing busy work. Going and getting things, placing them in my backpack, bringing them to someone else to “judge” (did I get the right thing?). Not sure how long it would take to get to something meatier, but I would guess that most teenagers would have given up before I did.
  • Teachers will need solid support materials to help them connect the quest structure of Radix to the rest of their plan in a biology course.  I’m sure the developers are planning that but I didn’t find any such materials yet on their site.
The map.

The map.

It’s great to see so much thought and creativity applied to the development of meaningful STEM games. Many of the negatives I point out above are tradeoffs that must (now at least) be surrendered  in exchange for a browser-based virtual world and its important to add that Radix is in beta. I could see tremendous potential for growth here but, right now, it feels a bit rough.


Filed under Virtual Worlds

Designing a New Learning Space

As part of a project with Tufts University School of Medicine, my colleague, Liz Dorland (SL = Chimera Cosmos) and I  (SL = Spiral Theas) set  out to design a new learning space for their Service Scholars Program.  Their requirements were:

– A comfortable meeting space for medical residents to gather and chat

– An amphitheater-style setting for special events, speakers, and presentations

– Small, private group settings for role-play practice

We inherited a Second Life island from a previous Tufts University urban planning project where students worked to create and test various city plans. Since the current landowners had completed their project, they were fine with us taking apart anything on the island and refashioning it as we wished. They generously shared their administrative rights and privileges with us and,  with our newly bestowed super powers and nothing but empty road ahead, we dug in.

This is how the island looked when we took possession:

Aerial view of Somerset island.

Aerial view of Somerset island.

So the first order of business was to come into Second Life as their administrator avatar and take apart the streets, houses, roads, and landscaping.

We created our own, new administrative avatar: Dr. Care. She would be the keeper of any materials, textures, equipment or scripts that we used to build out the new space.  That way, when our new project concludes, we can turn the avatar over to the folks at Tufts and they will have full access to anything they might need.

Next up, we did some touring around to figure out what kind of space to develop.  What look and feel would best suit the needs of these learners?  Since Liz and I have done a lot of healthcare education work together in Second Life, we already knew that we’d prefer an outdoor setting.  Fewer buildings mean fewer doorways, stairways, and a lot less location-confusion and tricky navigation for new avatars.

Liz is a big fan of  the designer Alex Bader.  After visiting a few places in Second Life that feature his designs, I could see why.  He has a wonderful eye and produces lovely foresty glens, river walk ways, magical looking bridges, and realistic looking beaches (with waves). On his web site you can see the range of textures, buildings, and landscapes he creates.  His work has a tasteful, ethereal quality to it that just seems to signal you are in a special place.  We thought it would be perfect for this group of medical students – restful, welcoming, and open.

Dr. Care purchased the River Bank Building set and Liz set to work on the terraforming.  For those of you who’s not yet experimented with terraforming in a virtual environment – it’s great fun. Raising and lowering mountains, carving out rivers, smoothing over grasslands….it gives you a tremendous sense of power.

We used the waterways and mountains to apportion the island into roughly five areas (shown below on our island map):


the amphitheater (in the center of the island), the three small group areas (red, green and blue) and an exhibits area for the future.  We also carved out a gently sloping landing area, where people will teleport in, that affords a peekaboo view of the amphitheater up ahead. We plopped a welcoming gazebo in that spot.

Chimera Cosmos and Spiral Theas in the gazebo.

Chimera Cosmos and Spiral Theas in the gazebo.

While most of our participants will most likely teleport from venue to venue on the island, we also wanted to build paths between locations.  Liz laid down the lovely Bader River Walk paths seen below.  A tricky proposition to get the leveling right, positioning boulders and mossy banks in order for it to look realistic.

Walking paths.

Walking paths.

In the distance, you can see a waterfall, which marks the location of the main amphitheater.  Waterfalls add a lovely visual element as well as a gentle and soothing background sound.  Also note the trees in these photos – we went with birch, spruce, and pines.  They seemed to fit with the general feeling of the place.

Next up we shopped around for the right seating options.  We wanted attractive, outdoor-style seats, complete with automatic sit poses (helpful for new avatars).  These wooden garden benches fit the bill:

Easy to sit on wooden benches for the amphitheater.

Easy to sit on wooden benches for the amphitheater.

We installed a Pres-o-matic screen (made to look a bit more rustic with a newly created wooden frame) and web viewer, along with a slight stage area for the speakers and stools to perch on.

View of the amphitheater.

The small group areas are outfitted with a campfire circle (logs with sit poses) that Liz had in her inventory and a display screen. Comfortable and simple.

Small group arrangements.

Small group arrangements.

Around this time, Liz was hankering for a proper beach – and look what she nimbly created on the west side of the island.

The beach.

The beach.

It seemed a shame to see the beautiful waterways on our island with no way to travel on them, so in went a playful canoe.  Boats rez on demand from a sign at the dock and, once seated, you have a number of passenger sitting pose options (fishing, reading, or dangling your hand in the water) and of course, you have your oars, if you are the rower.

Rowboating our way around the island.

Rowboating our way around the island.

We managed to traverse all of our new rivers as well as circumnavigate the island without incident.

So, at last, we are ready to open the island to the students.  Since this is a private island, visitors must be given access by the island administrator. We’re looking forward to working with the residents to see their use their new space and what accommodations and modifications to make over time as they make it their own.

Aerial view of the newly renovated island.

Aerial view of the newly renovated island.


Filed under Virtual Worlds

Women in Control: Real and Virtual World Healthcare Intervention

We’ve just wrapped up our NIH-funded experiment, using virtual worlds for health behavior change and patient education.  The Women in Control study, out of Boston University Medical Center, was a year-long research program to test a virtual world versus real world-delivered diabetes healthcare intervention.  The program’s subjects were Boston area Black women, between the ages of 40 and 60, who suffer from out of control type 2 diabetes (T2DM).  The Co-Principal Investigators,  John Wiecha, MD, MPH and Milagros C. Rosal, PhD, designed an intriguing study with a talented team. The eight-week health behavior program was an adaptation of a CDC program called The Power to Prevent. One hundred women in the greater Boston area participated. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups – those who engaged in weekly 90-120 minute sessions in the virtual world of Second Life and those who did so in face-to-face meetings at Boston Medical Center.

Our research questions: How feasible is the use of a virtual world for this purpose? And will subjects in the virtual world program demonstrate similar impact at study-end on health behaviors as subjects in the real world, as measured by patient activity levels; dietary patterns; adherence to diabetes medications; and improvements in metabolic and anthropometric indicators (hemoglobin a1c values, body mass index, and blood pressure)?

We are still churning the data and analyzing our results, so stay tuned for future posts and publications, but we do have this 4-minute video (beautifully compiled by Ariella Furman, Framed in 3D) that gives you a feel for the study and the impact on the subjects.

You can also read past blog posts on the study here and here.

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Filed under Virtual Worlds

Learning in a Virtual World: Population Dynamics

Population Control: Past Policies and Future Challenges

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research (GFMER) offer courses to healthcare providers around the globe.  Often, their “students” are doctors, nurses, and other practitioners in remote locations with minimal support and limited time.  Consequently, many of their courses are offered online.  Once such course, Sexual Health and Reproductive Health Research is offered each year to over 150 healthcare workers all over the globe, as you can see in this map of their students’ base locations:

Map of GFMER course participants.

In their quest to innovate and offer the best possible learning solutions, Dr. Mario Meraldi, from WHO and Dr. Karim Abawa and Dr. Aldo Campana, from GFMER recently partnered with Dr. John Wiecha, from Boston University Medical School to offer one such course in an online 3D virtual world.  Participants from Ethiopia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Kenya, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the U.S. came together as avatars for a learning event on Population Dynamics:  Past Policies and Future Challenges.  Those with spotty internet connections joined the event through a synchronous broadcast delivered via Livestream.

The event was one hour in length and took place on the WHO/BU island in the virtual world of Second Life.  Working with the session’s facilitator, Dr. Marloes Schoonheim (a GFMER demographer), we designed a learning space that led participants along a learning ramp, with stops along the way. Here you see an aerial view of the designed space, followed by a diagram showing the numbered learning stops:

The learning space, showing the ramp which bends around a mountain.

Learning stop map.

Dr. Schoonheim gathered the learners at each stop and talked through visuals or an experience designed to illustrate her particular point. In the following picture set, you first see a graph depicting world population growth estimates between 1950 and 2010, followed by a visualization of thousands of babies’ faces on a rotating cylinder to underscore her point.

World population growth 1950-2010.

A visualization effect for world population growth.

The instructional designers and producers for the session were:  Neil and Robin Heyden, Janalee Redmond, and Liz Dorland. We started with Dr. Schoonheim’s PowerPoint slides, which after some discussion, turned into a storyboard. Brainstorming as a team, we came up with ideas for the visual displays and effects. As we designed this learning space, we kept in mind the principles in the Open University article, Designing for Navigation and Wayfinding in 3D VirtualLearning Spaces, by Shailey Minocha and Christopher Hardy (2011). In their article, the authors make clear that the design of a learning space impacts the processing of information and the learner’s grasp of new concepts. For example, we made the route clear by adding a well-worn dirt path texture to the ramps, as seen here:

A clearly defined path.

Stacked, rotating photo cubes provided a good presenter perch.

Each stop was marked by a large visual (photograph, book cover, map, or graph).  The graphics were all created by designer and Photoshop expert, Kate Motter. Additional visuals were displayed on slowly rotating cubes, stacked at the stop.  In a playful touch, Dr. Schoonheim sat on the stacked cubes, to indicate where the learners’ attention should focus, as she gave her remarks. World maps reinforced the location of each case study. Dr. Schoonheim infused her comments with locational language (for example: “to your left”, “in the next gallery”, and “follow me up the ramp to the world map”) to help direct the avatars.

At the halfway point, we offered a short break with virtual snacks served on a platform, overlooking a stunning vista (complete with waterfall).  The learning ramp, bent around to deposit the participants back to the starting point, where they assembled in an open-air seating arrangement for a question-and-answer session.  The chat was lively with questions coming in from the Livestream audience, as well as the in-world learners.

Snack break, with a view.

With 19 avatars in Second Life and 40 viewers in the Livestream audience (many of whom watched in small groups, clustered around one computer), the event reached a significant audience.  In addition to managing the broadcast, Ariella Furman recorded the session so that others could later, asynchronously, review the session.

In our after-session-review we noted the following opportunities for improvement:

– Time between stops, while feeling like natural transitions to the avatars in Second Life, felt like dead air time to the Livestream audience.  In the future, we should design to fill those gaps, and keep our broadcast audience in mind, as well as the avatars.

– Highly visual elements, like the rotating photo cylinder, take a few minutes to rez for most viewers therefore sufficient time must be accounted for in order to achieve the desired effect.

– Rehearsal time was mandatory.  Our crew conducted three rehearsals – the first was a run through of the content with discussion amongst the team at each point.  The second was a technical rehearsal to test the video, livestream, and simulated effects.  The third was a dress rehearsal, conducted in real-time (without interruption), just as the live event would be.  With each rehearsal, the transitions smoothed and the problems lessened.

Marloes’ avatar.

– The facilitator’s comfort in the virtual world was an essential ingredient.  Though new to online virtual worlds, Dr. Schoonheim quickly took to the medium.  She invested many preparation hours in Second Life, getting used to the navigation and the “feel” of being in an avatar.  The avatar’s look was important to her. Liz Dorland helped her with hair, skin and clothes to match her real world appearance. We also gave her a speaker’s animation effect (pacing and gesturing), and added a notepad into her hand.

– It’s difficult to balance the positive impact of interactivity (fielding questions throughout the session) with the importance of keeping on track and sticking to the alloted time. Participants posed questions during the session which the producers acknowledged and queued up for the final question and answer session (given how impossible it is for the speaker to give their talk and monitor a flowing chat window simultaneously).  Marloes led an engaging discussion session in the last 10 minutes of the event by addressing those saved questions. In hindsight it might have worked well to have a second content expert, a sort of teaching assistant, to type answers to questions as they came up in local chat during the session. If the audience feels their questions are attended to, they will engage further.

All in all, the event went smoothly.  Here are additional photographs and here is an Economist article, on the topic of population dynamics and fertility rates that Marloes recommends for further information. Be sure to check back in a few weeks, when I will post Here is a montage video of the event, currently being created by Ariella Furman.


Filed under Virtual Worlds

11 Lessons Learned Conducting Training Events in Virtual Worlds

Over the last three years I’ve planned, designed, and orchestrated a dozen learning events in the virtual world of Second Life.  I’ve been fortunate enough to work with extremely experienced and talented programmers, producers, content experts, scripters, and machinima artists from whom I have learned volumes about planning and staging successful learning events.  As I reflect on these experiences, I’ve drawn up a list of the top eleven (ten seemed so predictable…) most important lessons I’ve learned (as you might imagine, this list has a well-matched, ancestral double called,  “the most egregious mistakes I have made”).

1.    Train for a just-enough (and no more).

As with most virtual worlds, Second Life is chock-a-block full of intriguing possibilities.  You can fly, build, photograph, gesture, control the time of day!  In addition to all that, the interface is rich/complex and there is always more than one-way to accomplish any task.  It’s tempting, when introducing someone to a virtual world, to show them everything – or to show them just oonnnne more really cool skill as it might be the tipping point to infuse them with the enthusiasm you have for the possibilities.  However, I have finally learned to resist that temptation.  On their own, learners will perform a calculation – if the preparation for the learning event outstrips its value to them, they will deem it unsuccessful.  So it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the skills training to the barest minimum.  Not only that, most people can’t absorb tons of information in one sitting; I know that I didn’t – why should I expect that others will? Our pre-event training regimes include only those skills the learners will need in order to participate in the event and no more.

Learner Preparation < Value of Event

2.    Establish the learning goals upfront and use them as a filter.

In the early planning stages, work with your content experts and the program sponsor to establish a short and well-defined list of learning goals.  What is it that you want your learners to exit the program knowing?  That list will serve the team well in many ways. It will drive decisions about how to spend money (will that fun simulation help you meet the learning goals?), clarify how to allocate time on the agenda, and serve as a filter when the inevitable “mission creep” begins.

3.    Make sure your back up plan has a back up plan.

The old saying really is true, if it can go wrong, it will. I have seen so many “unexpected” problems crop up in every event I’ve been a part of – sound problems, connectivity hassles, access issues, electrical problems, region shut-downs, you name it.  It seems obvious, but the very best way to avoid these inevitable glitches ruining your event is to anticipate them and have a plan in place to address each one.  For example, it’s good to have phone numbers and/or skype IDs for all learner participants (if they have sound problems, you can always skype them in).

4.    The power of two facilitators.

Our learning events always include a content expert who has worked with us to develop the session’s content and then, typically, serve the lecturer/facilitator role.  We now recommend two facilitators.  Hopefully you can line up colleagues, who are used to working together, but it can work equally well with experts who you bring together for the cause.  Why two?  It’s helpful for the learner to hear two perspectives, two voices and it improves the event’s flow to hand-off one to the other.  Very importantly, while one is speaking/leading, the other can monitor the local chat, provide feedback, and address content questions that arise.  If the instructional design calls for small group work, then you instantly have two small group leaders (voila!). They also serve as back-ups for each other (if one is having sound problems, the other can pinch hit).

5.    Measure twice, cut once.

That age-old seamstress mantra totally applies here. There is just no substitute for rehearsals where you can go through your program to work out all the kinks. Run your facilitators, producers, and other program staff through at least one full rehearsal, preferably two.  If the calendar doesn’t permit time for two, full rehearsals, then opt for a “blocking” rehearsal.  That is, rehearse all the transitions, without the intervening content (when people come on, go off, all the movements and transitions).

6.    Answer the question, “why are we doing this in a virtual world?” before it gets asked.

No doubt about it, conducting learning events in virtual worlds (any virtual world) is a lot of work – for the sponsor, the producers, and for the learners.  So it only makes sense to use virtual world technology if you are making use of its unique affordances.  That is, if you are doing things that can only be done in a virtual world.  If you bring your learners into a beautiful virtual environment and then talk at them with a PowerPoint deck for an hour, everyone will leave feeling cheated.  Instead, make it work for you. Devise a simulation, do some role plays, leverage some whimsy, do some collaborative building, defy the laws of physics – make it clear why you have all gone to the trouble to be there.

7.    Experienced technical support producers are essential.

In addition to your upfront investment in learner training, participants will need technical support on the day of the event. Count on it.  The presence of experienced, calm, and professional technical support (we call them “producers”) is a must.  Did I say “calm”?  Let me say it again.  Calm. My preferred ratio is one producer for every eight new learners. Make sure you have a private back-chat channel open (IM, group chat, or Skype) for the producers to strategize, share, and hand-off among themselves.  Consider asking the learners to come 15-20 minutes early in order to troubleshoot any pesky technical issues before the event gets underway (not all will be able to, but those who do will be taken care of, freeing your producers to focus on the just-on-time or late arrivals).  Have your producers wear a “Ask Me for Tech Help” label on their avatar.

8.    Consider venue design carefully.

Our open air event venue

After playing with a number of event location design options, I’ve gravitated to the simplest possible.  Our events typically have outdoor seating (no doorways to navigate, no walls to bump into, and no ceilings to hinder the view) with very large and simple visuals (to avoid view problems).  I tend toward natural looking scenes (a few trees, open sky, and a blue-water view) with very little visual clutter.  But, of course, you also want the design to reflect and support the content of your event. Design your seating with automatic sit (upon clicking) and encourage all participants to be seated as soon as they arrive (which helps to calm things down).  Landscape simplicity also helps to keep the prim count low to reduce the processing load.

9.    Document everything as you go.

I am continually amazed by how quickly I forget useful things. Who attended?  What was the plan?  How much did we rehearse?  How long did it take?  What happened in local chat?  Keep a record of it all, including a blog post or two (like this one!) to sum up your major take-home lessons.  You’ll be glad you did when the planning for the next event begins.

10.  Don’t forget to assess.

It is important to find a way to build evaluation into your learning plan. Often, we get so caught up in the work of producing the event, we forget to gather feedback from the learners when it’s over.  Even if it’s just a short questionnaire, provided as a link, at the end of the session, find a way for your learners to tell you honestly what worked (and didn’t work) for them.  You might also consider gathering similar feedback from the facilitators and producers. They often catch glitches that you might miss.

11. Find a way to make it fun.

One of the things we all love about virtual worlds is that touch of fantasy about them.  Even though it may be important for your event to project a serious and professional tone, your learners are sure to enjoy at least one touch of whimsy somewhere in the program (we typically do this on a break or at the end).  It could be something as simple as some virtual food and drink, served up to your guests.  Maybe an automatic dance floor for everyone to trip the light fantastic?  Fireworks are always fun.  A simple t-shirt emblazoned with your company or program logo, given to each avatar at the end of the session can be a surprising hit.

Chimera Cosmos puts on a fireworks display for our group session.

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Filed under Teaching with Technology, Virtual Worlds

The Value of Third Person Perspective

The default, third-person perspective in Second Life

As writers we know that third person perspective is a form of storytelling in which the narrator relates all the action in the form of another person, making use of the pronouns “he” and “she” (as in, “She boarded the ship bound for Venice.”).  This produces a very different effect from telling the story using a first person voice (“I will tell you the story of my trip to Venice.”).  Writers often feel more comfortable storytelling from the first person point of view, but that third person perspective actually gives the writer more headroom, more freedom to spin the yarn in unusual ways.

I’ve been thinking more about the third-person perspective, as it relates to virtual worlds. The photo you see above is the typical viewer perspective in virtual worlds, like Open Sim, Second Life, Jibe, Kitely, Wonderland, etc.  It’s as if you are floating just behind your avatar, looking over his or her shoulder.  Seeing what your avatar sees in front of them, but including your avatar in the frame of reference, as a constant reminder of their presence.  You are not them, as you are in a “first person” perspective virtual experience (like first-person shooter games – Call of Duty, Halo, etc). This third person perspective makes it clear that there is another – an avatar, an alternate you.

A recent blog post by Christopher Hutchison (Khosian Fisher in SL) got me thinking more about this.  In his post, Hutchison (who is a computer science lecturer in the UK) talks about the notion of imaginary friends.  That intriguing and mysterious element of childhood, when we manufacture imaginary friends through which we play out the dramas of our young minds.  Psychologists have long pointed to this behavior as normative and healthy – a way for children to work out their fears, anxieties, as well as their joys. He references the work of Marjorie Taylor, professor at University of Oregon and author of the book, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.  Taylor’s book explains that these imaginary friends allow children to explore relationships, anticipate the consequences of behavior, and role-play various emotional encounters in life.  Children who have imaginary friends (and it’s more common than not) tend to be less shy and more able to see things from anothers’ perspective.

So it’s not a huge leap (and Chris makes it beautifully) to think of these avatars we create in virtual worlds as adult versions of these “imaginary friends”.  When we interact with others in a virtual setting, we are offered the anonymity and comfort of working out conversations, navigating relationships, and grappling with new ideas.  As if we are rehearsing all of that for real life.  The space may well be virtual but the rehearsal is very real, and the lessons learned from it apply directly.

When I first began exploring virtual worlds about three years ago, I remember being immediately taken with the way that colleagues, more experienced than me, referred to their avatar. It was always in the third person and always in a way that playfully implied how very real that person was to them. For example, a colleague who’s avatar’s name is “Flora” would say to me, over the phone, “Flora will meet you there at 3:00.” She would never say, “I’ll meet you in the virtual world at 3:00”. There is also the endearing cultural phenomenon of using local chat to write (in italic) an action or a thought that the real person attributes to their avatar.  For example:

Spiral:  Hi, Flora!  Good to see you.

Flora:  Hey there.  How are you?

Spiral:  Fine, thanks.  How long have you been here?

Flora:  looks knowingly at her watch

Flora:  Since 3:00, but I had lots to catch up on, so that’s ok.

The italic phrases are always playful.  A sort of thought-bubble – a wink and a nudge.  A comment that, in this case, Flora is making, but letting you in on the secret.  And this habit has always carried the nuance, for me, of the avatar’s puppeteer coming through and showing themselves, reminding us of the third person perspective. I love this cultural artifact of virtual worlds.

Vishnu and his ten avatars

It’s worthwhile to remember the origins of the word “avatar”.  It derives from the Sanskrit word, “avatara”, meaning “descent”, as in a deity descending from heaven to Earth. In English the word has come to mean an incarnation, a representation, a manifestation. The term is often associated with Vishnu and the varying list of avatars in Hindu scripture. It seems to be less about incarnation of a deity (in the Christian sense) and more about manifestations of the divine in human life and the natural world.  It’s interesting to ponder the many ways that these interactions our avatars have (with us, as their puppeteers) manifest themselves in our regular lives…how are they influencing us?

My musings about the power of the third person perspective came to a head this week with this Science Daily article, The Third Person Perspective is Helpful in Meeting Goals.  The article’s authors, psychologists at Cornell University, investigated the impact of referring to and reflecting on events in your past in the third person versus the first person.  In the article they conclude that reflecting in the third person helps give valuable perspective and can actually help accentuate changes made, over similar reflections made in the first person.  To quote one of the investigators, Thomas Gilovich, directly:

“We have found that perspective can influence your interpretation of past events. In a situation in which change is likely, we find that observing yourself as a third person — looking at yourself from an outside observer’s perspective — can help accentuate the changes you’ve made more than using a first-person perspective.”

I can draw a clear line of sight between this observation and the experience we’ve had working with various learners in the virtual world. Take, for instance, working with diabetes patients in the Women in Control project (Co-PIs John Wiehca and Milagros Rosal).  Women in Control (WIC) is an NIH-funded study to measure health behavior changes between two groups – those who participate in a health behaviors intervention in face-to-face sessions conducted in the real world, and those who engage in the same intervention in the virtual world.  I’ve blogged about this work in earlier posts here and here.

As we’ve worked with the patients in this study, I’ve taken particular note of the way they refer to their avatars.  The subjects get quite chummy with their virtual representations, right from the beginning, and they consistently refer to their avatars in the third person. Great concern is expressed over their avatar’s appearance (clothes, shoes, hair, jewelry as well as their size and shape).  They consistently ask where the avatar “goes” after they quit the virtual world and express a desire to put her “in a safe place”.  When they first navigate their avatar around the virtual space they’ll say things like, “Oh, no!!  She went in the water and now she’s all wet!”  or “I can’t get her to do what I want her to do.”  or   “I want to make her fly!”.  They consistently refer to this virtual being they’ve just met in the third person – and that referencing continues throughout the eight-week intervention.  The WIC team is still hard at work on this project, but stay tuned for the results.

Another example is a project with family practice physicians, learning patient communication techniques in a virtual setting.  In this case, the doctors, present as avatars, role play interactions with standardized patients (also avatars).  The third person perspective here, I think, gives them a certain anonymity; a distance, while still being very present, that allows them to take greater risks.  In a profession that demands consistently upheld expertise, it must indeed feel quite risky to be a beginner and make mistakes in front of your peers.  I suspect that the third person perspective of the avatar offers them a safe remove to be a novice and allow for a natural, stumbling learning curve.

In both of these projects, I can see the inherent value in the third person perspective awarded by the virtual world.  A unique affordance, over and above the more obvious advantages of expense, travel, and ease of access. For me, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “it depends on your perspective.”


Filed under Virtual Worlds