Interdisciplinary Second Life Workshop

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The schome community was invited to present at an Interdisciplinary Second Life Workshop at the University of Twente, Holland, on the 14th June 2007. Dan represented the community at this event. There's no transcript for the presentation (we all know Dan makes things up as he goes along) but the presentation slides are available to view here.

The event included a public lecture on the evening of the 13th June, both this and the full workshop are outlined below.

June 13th

On the eve of the Second Life workshop Dr Peter Ludlow (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and founder of the Second Life Herald) presented a highly entertaining public lecture covering a wide range of topics.

One of the central themes of the lecture was that of emergent behaviour within the community. Dr Ludlow began his virtual world journalism in The Sims Online (TSO). TSO had a much more limited palette of actions than Second Life, but nevertheless it became a hotbed for the emergent behaviours including starting businesses, mafia-esque extortion and protection rackets, the formation of shadow governments (theoretically) dedicated to standing up for the “little man” and even a vibrant financial exchange (albeit not supported by the game client, but via eBay and similar).

Second Life of course is now home to many of these same emergent behaviours, which makes it a perfect place for reporting interesting (and more often than not challenging and thought provoking) in-world stories, in Dr Ludlow’s case via the Second Life Herald. One of the highlights of the lecture centred on the telling of a dispute and the resulting conflict, aptly illustrating the way real life ideals spill into the virtual world, and the complex and clever 'tools' individuals can acquire to resolve (and escalate!) issues..

The arrival of a number of real-world businesses to Second Life was covered, with Dr Ludlow suggesting that in creating a presence many corporations had fundamentally missed the point of a virtual world, failing in any way shape or form to provide compelling, interactive content, with little or no social element and a distinct clash with the overall Second Life aesthetic. Of course the investment required to create a Second Life presence for some of the biggest companies in the world is in the grand scheme of things next to nothing. Arguably then the publicity of their arrival is where the primary value lies, a continuing engagement with their in-world content coming a distant second.

The lecture covered the ‘numbers’ issue (what the statistics of Second Life actually mean) and some high profile media issues concerning content in Second Life. The content issue in particular raises some interesting scenarios. There’s some feeling that were Linden Labs to move to controlling or guaranteeing content in some way then their role, from a legal standpoint, would shift quite considerably to something much closer to that of ‘publisher’. And consequently they may well find themselves at the beginning of any number of law cases.

Following the lecture a number of attendees ended up in Enschede town centre, pondering the possible futures and resulting consequences of our increasing use of virtual worlds in our daily lives. There was certainly a degree of agreement that the real world/virtual world boundary was one that was at best very thin. The argument isn’t about ‘where’ something is taking place (.ie. on a screen or in cyberspace) but that ultimately every story and every experience is a human one. It happens to you, it’s part of your life, and as such isn't at all virtual, but a very real and lived experience.

June 14th

The Interdisciplinary Second Life Workshop began with an introduction and welcome from organisers Adam Briggle and Anton Nijholt of the University of Twente. The first presentation was given by Dan Seamans, representing the Schome project based at The Open University. ‘The Vital SPark: Managing a Dynamic Learning Space in Teen Second Life’ provided an insight into the Schome vision and how it embraced Second Life in order to pilot a more empowering and student-driven learning environment.

The presentation took a close look at Schome Park, covering the subject areas, island layout, and support and management tools including the help and tracking systems. Views were also given on some of the issues with running an educational island in Teen Second Life (opportunities for griefing, the sometimes challenging results of enthusiastic community building and the difficulty of staff developing new content within a live environment) and also the strengths (student creative freedoms, collaborative developments and self-governance).

Second on the schedule was ‘Interreality Communication: iCat Meets Second Life’ presented by Patrick Ozer of Philips Research. Patrick focused on a (real-world) device called the iCat, designed to provide a means of communication from Second Life to real-world and vice versa. The iCat is small enough to fit on a desktop or even a monitor, providing visual and audio cues configured to represent certain events. For example it could ‘whistle’ if you receive an instant message within SL, alerting you if you are not sat in front of the computer.

Robert Slagter of Telematica Instituut presented on the topic of ‘Real Business in Virtual Worlds’. With much press being devoted to real-world businesses taking their first cautious steps into virtual worlds and the success (in some cases) of purely virtual organizations Robert presented a framework to aid in identifying and understanding the different business models available. Placing on this framework a number of the most publicised real-world companies moving into Second Life clearly raised questions as to whether operating in a virtual world was fully understood. The kinds of interactions and services provided are often out of step with the experiences a virtual world aims to provide.

Finally David Nieborg from the Universiteit van Amsterdam presented ‘Don’t Sponsor a Game that is a Playground for Criminals! - The Many Media Frames of Second Life’. As the title suggests David looked at the high media profile of Second Life, a world where the degree of hype is matched only by the voracity of the sensationalist reporter. There are of course genuinely fascinating legal, economic, technical and socio-cultural issues at play here, with David concluding that it is really up to us all to frame virtual worlds in a way that can be understood by the wider community.

Dr Peter Ludlow (see previous post for a summary of his earlier public lecture) posed a number of questions before he and the speakers fronted a lively question session. The issues were wide-ranging, from the longevity of Second Life to the potential impact of autonomous agents. Conversation continued in the bar and later in a restaurant in Enschede, highlighting just how passionate the attendees were about understanding and contributing to the impact of virtual worlds.