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Second Life

June 21, 2007

I attended a roundtable discussion today on Second Life and how the University could utilize it. It was interesting, but also at times very, very frustrating.

First, a bit of background. I\’ve dabbled in \”virtual environments\” of various ilks for a very long time in computer terms. I worked on VRML environments as a grad student in the late 90s, had a membership in ActiveWorldsActiveWorlds back in the day, and did a fair bit of work putting together custom levels for Quake III: Arena with an architectural focus. Depending on how you define \”virtual environment\”, in fact, you could claim all the old BBS-based games like Trade Wars as belonging to the category, and I certainly spent a bit of time playing those in the late 80s through mid 90s.

All this having been said, I find it hard to shake some persistent skepticism about technologies like this. While I won\’t deny that faster computers, better graphics cards, and more efficient software have allowed these experiences to become much, much \”better\” I chuckle every time I see a university try and set up a \”virtual campus\” on Second Life. What\’s the point? Why spend all this time and effort to try and replicate – badly – activities such as a lecture? Looking at a PowerPoint presentation is painful enough without trying to watch my avatar watch a poor facsimile that uses much more bandwidth, crashes, lags, and takes up less space on a screen.

Second Life really gets useful, it seems, when its spatial expressions are the subject of study, not just its location. To illustrate this point, one of the most interesting people at this roundtable discussion was a Womens Studies professor who had her students very consciously spend two days designing their avatars. They talked about issues like body image, self esteem, and built-in biases (why does Second Life assume that everyone is white, young, and thin?). Another example cited was the breast cancer environment that crammed all their \”slides\” into a very small space of their island while having two large conference rooms and a huge director\’s office. WTF?

As someone with degrees in architecture, it also must be said that the type of environments that people usually develop on platforms like this are hideously bad. Not only are they an embarrasment to someone coming -out- of an architecture program, but if you included those in your portfolio as evidence of design skill I doubt many programs would let you -in-. If Walter Benjamin is correct in saying that architecture \”is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction\”, what sort of architectural lessons are being learned by the masses who experience the crap like the picture above this essay?

Nonetheless, I plan on sticking around this group. As a spatial environment that allows social interaction, I can easily imagine an introductory architecture/design class taking place there. Imagine learning spatial principles not with abstract diagrams or slides, but by moving around an environment that demonstrates them.

Now if only they\’d release a BFG-9000 in Second Life. 🙂

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