Tuesday, March 23, 2010
I am always myself in this life or the Second Life
Whether you're combating illegal immigrants at the Canadian border, fighting dwarves in WoW, or combating the scourge of Whypox, immersive virtual worlds have a way of sucking us in and making us feel like we're really in a distant place even though we're wedged behind a computer screen. MUVEs like Second Life or Whyville enable us to recreate phenomena from the real world that is otherwise unsafe or unsuitable to replicate in the real world. In doing so on a large scale and with a very diverse bank of possibilities we are able to emulate highly infectious and dangerous disease outbreaks or the high stakes of dealing with unscrupulous individuals at a border crossing without taking any risk to ourselves. "But it's just a game" you might say. Well sure, it CAN be just a game. But it can also be a fully immersive, self contained, teleportation device to another time or place.
The level to which students became enveloped within Second Life and Whyville to study their respective subjects was highly interesting in the ways that students interacted with each other and the system in such a realistic and thoughtful way. It seems a good part of this came from the sheer number of possibilities that could come out of any particular situation, much like it would occur in real life. While it is understandable that both groups would readily prefer playing in a MUVE rather than simply role play in their classes the reasons behind them are somewhat disparate. With the Canadian folks in Second Life it was a necessity for them to receive the most true-to-life training as possible. Of course after 9/11 this was only feasible through the use of Second Life. However, the children playing in Whyville would not have to necessarily use Whyville to express scientific inquiry through infectious diseases. They could much more readily continue to use the Think Tags that they had been using. However, I do not disagree with using MUVEs in either case.
What I found extremely interesting in the examples was the amazement at the group participation in discussing phenomena that happened in the MUVEs. For example in the Second Life example the inactive participants critiqued and created discourse about decisions that were made in the MUVE. This discussion led to much greater outcomes and more opportunities for learning than would have occurred in just classroom role playing alone. Similarly in the WoW example with the forums the volume of discussion that came out of gameplay and the level of participation that cut through the strata of game experience. It seems that in such environments there is far more inquiry because the environment is not wholly like the real environment that we live in every day. With investment in a MUVE growing with daily gameplay, so (seemingly) grows an interest in learning how to master the MUVE's environment.
While players are still themselves within online environments, it could seems that without the face-to-face interaction (such as the WoW example) there isn't a fear of being seen as a fool for asking "silly" questions or giving "silly" answers. Perhaps this is why there is such a wide range of participation. This and the fact that everyone in the world can share, at one time or another, a similar experience by following the instructions of others that have "been there and done that". However, in the other examples involving MUVEs and face-to-face interactions, the depth of the simulation coupled with the already established classroom interactions seems to have freed students to readily express their thoughts about the happenings within the MUVE. This seems to be particularly possible because of the lack of repercussions from failing within the MUVE.
It seems that the use of MUVEs within the classroom has great potential to not only make learning fun, but also to situate the learning as close to the real thing as possible. This is a great opportunity for classes where phenomena cannot easily or safely be replicated in the real life classroom. Similar to what the Canadian folks did with their border crossing in second life, perhaps one day when the only airplanes that fly are pilotless (like predator drones) we'll be high-fiving all those folks who spent countless hours playing Microsoft's Flight Simulator. Needless to say, with the right MUVE it seems that there can be endless educational possibilities for these types of simulations. And if you've seen the movies Surrogates, by the time we wind up like that, we've certainly taken MUVEs way too far.