Deuxième rencontre Alsic entre avatars Francophone

Venez nous joindre dans Second Life, mercredi le 30 juin à 19h30 (GMT+2) devant le bâtiment Alsic qui se trouve, dans Second Life, à http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/EduNation%20III/51/97/22

La rencontre sera une nouvelle occasion de pratiquer un peu de français (tous niveaux bienvenus) et de se familiariser avec le monde virtuel de Second Life.

Alsic a un réseau Ning pour Second Life : http://alsic-sl.ning.com
Vous pouvez confirmer votre participation sur ce réseau, mais serez les bienvenus même sans confirmation !

Thierry Claremont
Ciara Coveria

Synthetic worlds – third places?

In the previous post, I described synthetic worlds as generative. From this, we understand that they offer a more open-ended experience than computer games. This suggests that their primary function is social. Indeed, Oldenburg’s concept of a ‘third place’ where “individuals gather to socialize informally beyond the workplace [second place] and home [first place]” (1999) may help in defining synthetic worlds. Oldenburg outlines eight characteristics of ‘third places.’ I will look at each of these in detail and discuss how it applies to synthetic worlds (SW).

Characteristic In what ways is this characteristic true of a SW?
Neutral ground Users can come and go as they please.The anonymity of avatars allows people to engage with minimal involvement. 
Leveler The avatars’ users rank and status in the workplace or society is not of importance. Avatars may choose a status unconnected to their physical-world status.There are not normally prerequisites to join virtual worlds (NB some have age requirements e.g. WeeWorld ages 13+, Second Life 18+)
Conversation is the main activity There are many different conversation channels in SWs e.g. group audio chat, group text chat, private text chat. Conversation is possible despite language barriers e.g. via translating tools.
Accessibility and accommodation SWs are persistent and thus perpetually accessible. However, barriers exist e.g. users need computer access, computer literacy skills
The regulars (attract newcomers and give the space its characteristic mood) The social aspect of interaction in SWs is what attracts many avatars to return. Also, the communication is synchronous: if one player changes something in the world the other avatars will see this. Avatars, therefore, fill the world with meaning.
A low profile SWs do not fit this characteristic in the literary sense. They are far from being ordinary,
Playful mood Playful quality to SWs e.g. avatars’ gestures, terminology e.g. ‘sandboxes’ rather than building sites
A home away from home Users organise their own comings and goings in and from the SW.

 

As we can see from the above table, synthetic worlds meet nearly all of Oldenburg’s characteristics of a ‘third place’ apart from that of a low profile. They are free or inexpensive, are easily accessible, are proximate for many of the users to their first or second places (arguably even more so than other common third places such as cafes or bars which may involve walking from ones home or workplace), involve regular users and are welcoming. Synthetic worlds, thus, can be seen as social worlds, separate from the social environments of home and the workplace. They can be considered as meeting places which foster creative interaction and where people or their avatars can establish and feel a sense of place (telepresence) through socialising. Indeed, in a survey by Parks Associates, 29% of respondents gave their top reason for visiting a synthetic world as being “to escape real life.” Thus, it appears important that the social aspect of synthetic worlds feature in the definition I will choose to adopt for my research.

« I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country. »

Philip Rosedale, the creator of one of the largest synthetic worlds, Second Life, said, in an interview by Daniel Terdiman on Wired “I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.” Therefore, let me, first, look at the characteristics which are common to both synthetic worlds and online gaming worlds (or Massive Multiplayer Online Games such as A World of Warcraft or King of Mafia), before turning to the characteristics which set them apart.

The graphical user interface is perhaps the most similar feature between online gaming worlds and synthetic worlds. The interface allows the player or user to interact with the environment in ways that are not simply text-based. That is to say that the space in the environments is depicted visually and there can be direct manipulation of the graphical elements e.g. dragging and dropping objects or turning a simulated steering wheel to move a simulated car.

Another feature common of both phenomenon is that of shared space. Both environments allow many users to be connected simultaneously. For example, for the year 2008, on average 38,000 users were logged in any one time to the synthetic world Second Life whereas the average number of users connected to A World of Warcraft at the same time is thought to be around 500,000.

Synthetic worlds and online gaming worlds also share the feature that the individual world’s existence continues whether an individual user or player is connected or not: the environments are ‘persistent’. (Note, however, that this is not true of single-user games such as online Pacman.) As Bell (2008:2) expresses, these worlds cannot be “paused.” Rather the environment is dynamic and evolves continuously even if one user has exited the game or world. For example, building in the synthetic world ActiveWorlds continues even when a user is personally not logged in; meaning that, on their return to the world, a new home or castle may be part of the environment. Another example, taken from a multi-user game, is that of Mafia Wars where a player may find, on returning to the game, that someone has stolen their character’s money or beaten up their character.

Now let me turn to what differentiates synthetic worlds from games in general and more specifically online gaming worlds.

Salen and Zimmerman (2004) stated that “a game is a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, designed by rules that result in a quantifiable outcome.” Demsey et al (1996 in Crown, 2008) add to this that “a game involves some aspect of competition, even if that competition is with oneself.”

In games, the superior meaning is undoubtedly to achieve an appointed activity. There are goals and objectives. The underlying structure and the plot of the game are of great importance. The games are based upon a story and a story line that players must follow to progress towards a pre-determined goal. Often, the games adjust the level of challenge, placing goals, at a level slightly beyond the users’ capacities.

In a synthetic world, users have neither a real quest or a defined objective to fulfil nor an evil to defeat. There are also no levels for the users to go up or down nor is there any pre-determined story. In comparison, there is a high degree of freedom. They have few embedded rules and structures. Instead, a synthetic world needs its users to fill the environment with meaning and to extend the environment in order to make sense. The rule structure of a game is arguably what differentiates games from synthetic worlds. Whereas progression (and, thus, meaning) in games is highly scripted, synthetic worlds allow a wide range of behaviours and variations in how they should be “played.”   As a result, their progression and their meaning are generative.

Book (2004:11-12) even claims that “When gamers visit social worlds they are often disappointed or confused when they find that many of the things they have come to expect from their favorite gaming worlds either do not exist or exist in very changed or limited forms.” This reinforces the argument that meaning, in synthetic worlds, is created by their users and any patterns emerge from social reaction rather than being pre-determined due to the rules, story lines and pre-arranged plots which guide the interaction. Synthetic worlds, thus, differ from online gaming worlds as they are generative and therefore can be considered as offering more open-ended experiences.

Defining « virtual » worlds…

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to define « virtual worlds » and I am running into some problems. Potentially, because as Bell wrote: “There is currently, no agreed-upon definition” of a virtual world (Bell, 2008:2). Whilst I’ve seen that some researchers present very technological definitions, for example, “crafted places inside computers that are designed to accommodate larger numbers of people” (Castronova, 2004 in Bell, 2008), other researchers incorporate the sensory experience offered by virtual worlds: “a computer-generated display that allows or compels the user (or users) to have a sense of being present in an environment other than the one they are actually in” (Schroeder, 1996:25). As Schroeder argues, it appears vital that researchers establish a clear definition, firstly, in order to be able to set the phenomena apart from other technologies, and secondly, to guide research.

The need to find a common definition appears all the more important, on consideration that the term ‘virtual’ is loosely applied to anything online. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language draws attention to this. It explains that although when introduced, in the computational sense, ‘virtual’ was applied to things simulated by a computer, the adjective is often applied to things that really exist and which are created or carried out using computers e.g. virtual communities. Indeed, ‘virtual’ is often used in reference to things that mimic their “real” equivalents. For this reason, it may be more pertinent to use the term “synthetic worlds” for the ‘world’ in itself is in fact in force. It has become an extension of reality and perhaps even a reality itself. Moreover, it is made by people and often includes characteristics that do not mimic or mirror physical world equivalents e.g. being able to fly, or teleporting.

This week, I’m working on how to try to define synthetic worlds and what characteristics set these worlds apart from both the physical world and from other online phenomenon. I’ll be writing more on this topic…

Apéro Alsic

Il y un mois, j’ai commencé à explorer Second Life avec des collègues du labo de recherche et d’Alsic. Je fais partager cette invitation pour l’apéro qu’on organise dans Second Life la semaine prochaine :

Alsic vous invite à un apéro entre avatars 08 juin 2010. Venez nous joindre dans Second Life, lundi le 14 juin à 19h30 (GMT+2) devant le bâtiment Alsic qui se trouve, dans Second Life, à  http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/EduNation%20III/51/97/22

L’apéro sera l’occasion de rencontrer autres avatars susceptibles de participer à EuroCALL à Bordeaux en septembre (http://eurocall2010.u-bordeaux4.fr/), de pratiquer un peu de français (tous niveaux bienvenus) et de se familiariser avec le monde virtuel de Second Life.

Alsic un réseau Ning pour Second Life : http://alsic-sl.ning.com

Vous pouvez confirmer votre participation sur ce réseau, mais serez les bienvenus même sans confirmation.

Thierry Claremont, Almu Piers, Ciara Coveria, Hoby Scarfield

Hiding behind your avatar?

One of the questions I raised after listening to Nik Peachey’s interview was ‘how does personal attachment to an avatar impact on participation?’

 An avatar can be described as “user embodiment in a collaborative virtual environment” (Gerhard, Moore and Hobbs 2004:5 in Peterson 2006:3). That is to say, an avatar allows the user to adopt a graphical representation in a virtual environment. It has been suggested by Schroeder (2002:3 in Peterson 2006:4) that avatars heighten the users’ sense of being in the virtual world (the users’ telepresence) and also the users’ sense of co-presence with other users or learners. Peterson (2006) argues that the importance of avatars in establishing a sense of being enhances social communication and, thus, telepresence and co-presence are important influences on online interaction. 

 Some research (e.g. Bradley and Lomicha, 2000:362, in Roed, 2003:3) has suggested that it is easier for learners to communicate in the target language when they are behind a computer screen as the screen acts as a “shield from being on stage”. Speaking may be considered the most anxiety-inducing skill in learning a foreign language. This is somewhat of a catch 22 situation as studies (including MacIntyre and Noels, 1996 in Roed, 2003:4) have shown that starting a conversation in a foreign language, asking questions in the foreign language and self-motivation to speak in a foreign language when afraid, whilst being considered as the most anxiety-provoking learning strategies are also those which learners rate as being the most effective. It is, therefore, of interest to discover whether providing learners with a screen and an avatar as shields may encourage greater participation and, in turn, greater self-efficiency beliefs amongst learners.

 Henderson et al (2009) have addressed this question with regards to the virtual world Second Life. They researched one lesson where students of Chinese, having covered the topic previously in class, visited a SL restaurant to identify and order appropriate food. They concluded that the lesson had a positive impact on the students’ self-efficacy beliefs but that this was in relation to the environment in which the avatar was acting, rather than the avatars themselves. The suggest that the students had a greater perceived sense of relevance and authenticity in the virtual world, due to its immersive nature, and that this impacted on the learners judgment of their capabilities to execute the task.

 Peterson, in his report on using the virtual world Active Worlds with intermediate ESL learners (2006), 71% of participants reported a sense of telepresence when using their avatar compared to 46% of participants when considering telepresence in chat-only communication. Of this 71%, 88% believed that their avatar also increased their sense of copresence and more than the majority of all participants in the study (58%) wanted to further study English using their avatar due to these affordances.

 After reading these studies, it appears that further research is needed to try to work out, and distinguish between, i) how the avatar impacts on participation and self-efficacy in synthetic worlds and ii) how the synthetic world as a whole impacts on participation and self-efficacy in such a world. Although difficult to do so, particularly from an ecological perspective, some light may be shed on this issue by using a control study e.g. in a bland VW environment, and comparing this to a study where avatars exploit many aspects of the immersive environment.

SWOT analysis of Second Life, Nik Peachey

I just came accross an interesting interview of Nik Peachey, a freelance learning technology consultant about teaching English in Second Life (http://www.blip.tv/file/2482035). The interview is a general overview of the subject, and is addressed at teachers rather than researchers, but I feel that some of the points made during his SWOT analysis are pertinent,  particularly those concerning identity, the multimodal nature of synthetic worlds and the lack of social norms.

 STRENGTHS


more sociable than Skype

– personal attachment to avatar – Personally, my second life first name is the same as my real life first name. I wonder for how many avatars this is true? Why this choice? To what extent do leaners associate-disassociate their avatar with themself? How does this impact on participation?

– possibility to easily identify an identity and space ownership

 WEAKNESSES

– lack of established social norms. Different modes working together but not always at the same speed. I myself have noticed this. The text mode sometimes is used after the chat mode impacting on the turn taking in the conversation and the progression of the conversation. I wonder to what extent this impacts on learners. Do they find it difficult to follow a conversation through different modes acting at different rates? How does this impact on comprehension?

– gestures and body language is limited. There is no eye-contact. If the learning objective is spoken English do the limited visual clues force learners to be more forthcoming in their spoken communication? How does the lack of visual clues affect comprehension? Do learners find it more difficult working through one channel (audio)? In what way does the environment impact on the audio and therefore provide visual clues? i.e. how often are references made in speech to objects in the environment?

– autonomous language learning opportunities are limited

 

OPPORTUNITIES 

possibility for tandem projects though difficulty in finding people to speak to in SL– authentic tasks and projects – more correlation with how languages are learnt in real life than in a classroom

 THREATS

 reliability Certainly this can be true. However, to what extent do technical problems provide real-life communication tasks for students. E.g. explaining to each other how to solve the problem? Is this not an opportunity for collaborative work in the target language?– « griefers » – outsiders who interrupt

– institutional resistance to adopting this way of teaching