(Mini) Review: Virtual Worlds – Learning in a changing world

Australian educators Judy O’Connell and Dean Groom have collaborated on a tidy tome called Virtual Worlds – Learning in a Changing World. Aimed squarely at educators who haven’t had any extensive experience with virtual worlds, it provides a concise overview of the current state of play, its implications for educators, and a comprehensive set of links for people that want to explore further. It’s a virtual worlds primer for a cohort of professionals who dually need the most insight into the area and who are likely to drive the substantive momentum in the field in coming years. In that aim, this book achieves what it needs to in a way that a lot of other publications in the field could do well to emulate.

You can purchase the book for AU$19.95 from the ACER website. Or – fill in our reader survey and if your name is drawn we’ll send you a copy as your prize – just specify that’s the prize you want in the appropriate section of the survey.

Book Review: Online a lot of the time


Online a lot of the time
Ritual, Fetish, Sign

Author: Ken Hillis
Publisher: Duke University Press

When my editor sent me this book to read and review, the title and intriguing cover image prepared me for an engaging and witty romp through online usage, telepresence, identity and more littered with illustrative reminiscences. Something to be read, savoured and enjoyed.

In that, I was initially somewhat disappointed. The book is truly dense, more reminiscent of a thesis (or several), backed with copious notes and bibliography. The dichotomy between title/cover and contents amusingly reminded me of the old maxim about judging a book by its cover. Nevertheless, I stalled on my first attempt to tackle the book; and then again on the second attempt.

The third time around I’d adjusted my expectations, and Hillis’ treatise does actually contain everything that I’d been looking for, and quite a bit more.

You might be fooled into thinking that the book is about the Web, virtual environments, online chatrooms and so forth. It isn’t, really – at least not solely. It’s about us … people, humanity, society, groups and individuals. It’s about our psychology, narratives, fetishes, quirks, rituals, expressions and signs.

It’s about the one thing that makes the virtual environments, the Web, and the Internet important: people.

Are networked individuals always running after the truth that passes them by even as it remains right behind and within them, a part of it lingering, like a cosmetic, on the surface of their “soul”? Does ‘here” for them always already mean “everywhere else”? These are the questions that, ironically, tend to get dismissed as (implicitly the “wrong kind” of) metaphysics by those who argue for the experiential reality of digital telepresence. – From “The Political Trace”, Chapter 3: SIGNS

You might find the prose and style to be fearfully dense, with paragraphs often running for more than a page. This is no ‘For Dummies’ book. This is one for the serious thinker who wants to be treated like an adult, and not coddled or talked down to.

Words and images, operating within specific sociopolitical circumstances, differently represent the possibility and potential of experience without a subject. However, particularly given the digitization’s opening of typography to new forms of visual design, there are increasingly meaningful overlaps in the ongoing expectations we bring to typographic and image forms, even as they each help organize in different ways what we find meaningful and how we do so. Theorizing the increasingly leaky experiential boundary between words and images has important implications for how subjectivity is organized if we are at the historical conjunction where the Web must be taken seriously as not only beginning to renovate some of literature’s forms but also forms of social relations. – From “Graphical Chat’s Debt to Free Indirect Discourse”, Chapter 4: AVATARS BECOME /ME

While I may not ordinarily be able to compose a higher praise for a book than that it makes you think good and hard about its foundation and topics, perhaps there’s something to be said for at least some accessibility.

Whether the text contains any truly revolutionary thought on the subjects of virtual environments, avatars, identities and telepresence is a bit harder to say. It has given me so much to think on that it could be quite some time before I can reasonably answer that question.

Nevertheless, if you’re an avid, virtual-worlds thinker with a mature attitude and able to keep your head above water in the deepest portions of the English language vocabulary, this book is definitely for you.

Book Review: Total Engagement

Byron Reeves is a Stanford University Professor and Co-Director of the Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute. J. Leighton Read is a serial entrepreneur and CEO with an interest in the psychological aspects of gaming.

The premise of the book is the potential for games to become central in the workplace. It sounds a far-fetched premise initially, but that’s the power of the discussion put forward by the authors: they provide cogent, well-informed examples of how gaming within business could work. The focus is primarily MMOs, for a number of reasons, including:

1. They contain “the most counterstereotypical roster of players”, hence being the most worthwhile population from which to apply findings.

2. MMO players tend to have a higher level of engagement with their game and spend on average much more time per week than a solo gamer.

3. The dynamics of raids, quests etc tend to provide situations where teamwork and leadership can come to the fore.

After establishing its premise, the book goes on to provide some fascinating examples of work problems a gaming framework could solve, as well as some fairly detailed discussion around virtual teams, virtual leadership, virtual money and the link between play and work. There’s a useful summary at the end and a handful of tactics to actually start implementing some of the examples given. As the authors themselves say, one of the best tactics for any business is to harness the knowledge of the gamers in its midst.

Overall, this is a very engaging read with realistic, well thought out examples. For anyone interested in the applicability of virtual environments to the workplace, it’s a must-read. For the dedicated gamer who also happens to work for a large organisation, there’s also plenty of information to get you thinking about advocating for change.

The final world goes to one of the authors. Here’s a presentation from Byron Reeves on the topic of the book:

Byron Reeves – fbFund REV, 7/31/09 – Part 1 of 2 (Version 2), “Work Sucks – Games are great” from fbFund REV on Vimeo.

You can buy Total Engagement from our own bookshop, Amazon direct or a local online bookshop like Dymocks.

Review: Fantage

fantage front page

Fantage” is a contraction of the words “Fantastic Age”, with dual meanings: that the target audience is 7 – 14 year olds, which is presumably a pretty neat age to be, and that the virtual environment itself is fantastic.

I was not overly impressed by Fantage, having previously encountered “Super Secret“, though a good friend of mine, who is within the age range for which the environment is intended, found Fantage to be fun and interesting. Fantage has been around since 2007, and their 40+ servers are often packed to capacity; it would seem that despite my personal misgivings, it is a very popular place to go.

Registration

The registration process is quick and simple, getting you into the virtual environment with a minimum of fuss. You get to choose the gender of your avatar, and do a little customisation of hair and outfit. Choosing a user name with a number in it is typical – when I was online, every avatar except mine had a number in the user name.

Premium Membership

The Premium Membership price compares favourably with that of Club Penguin. A membership confers some advantages: you have much greater choice in what you can buy, you get access to luxury rooms to entertain guests in, and you are given 1000 stars when you first join. At USD$5.99 per month (less for more months paid for at a time), memberships cost little more than a pocket money allowance for that age.

Overall Look and Feel

“Eye candy” is the term that comes to mind in describing the overall look of Fantage. Eye-wateringly bright colours and pretty pastels coat the surface of all buildings, and exterior and interior landscapes. Everything that can be shiny has been made shiny. Everything is smoothed and simplified in shape, like a baby’s stuffed cube. It’s all a bit reminiscent of a child’s TV program, more than of a child’s painting or drawing. It all seems much more geared towards the tastes of girls rather than boys, though there were no shortage of male avatars present online each time I was there: everything is super cutesy.

Avatars are tiny; in anime or manga terms, super-deformed, with overly large heads, huge eyes, and tiny bodies. It makes for a very cute, though entirely unrealistic, appearance.

When the servers are heavily loaded, there is an amazingly large amount of lag. You can wait minutes to be able to move from one place to another, or have huge pauses in the middle of mini-games that make them unplayable.

Navigation and Movement

Navigation of the world of Fantage is accomplished via the world map. There are several places to access, including Uptown, Downtown, and the Carnival. You mouse over a location to bring up the title of the area and a listing of which games and places can be found there, and left click to travel there.

For the most part, movement in Fantage is by left mouse click; you just click on the location you want to travel to. Every avatar owns a skateboard, and floats from one location to another within each local map. Therefore, there’s also no walking animation: avatars never get off their skateboards. There are however animations for gestures, like waving, or jumping, for example.

Purchase of Goods

fantage starries

“Stars” are the currency of Fantage. Stars can be earned by playing mini-games; you also get an initial payout of stars when you begin a premium membership. Considering how difficult it can be to make hair and outfits for avatars of this size and shape, there’s a surprising range of goods available.

Hair, clothing, shoes, accessories, and skateboards, are available for purchase, as you might expect, however there are also extravagant costumes, phone accessories, and furniture on offer as well.

For the most part, you need to be a premium member to be able to purchase items. While each shop is packed full of things to look at, the only thing you can do once you have entered the store is to look at the store catalogue and interact with that.

Meeting People and having Friends

As with other “tween” oriented virtual environments, there’s not a whole lot of communication action to be seen. Possibly on the days when there are lots of people online, they are just IMing each other, instead of chatting out loud. I didn’t manage to have any contact with anyone else while I was online.

You get a buddy list which will hold up to 200 names.

Mini-Games

The mini-games have two purposes: to entertain, and to allow the player to earn stars to spend on items.

The mini-games are essentially casual, with low entry requirements. The rules are simple, and are usually encapsulated in a sentence or two of explanation. Most of the mini-games are single player, though there are at least a couple of multi-player games. The mini-games in Fantage cross a fair spectrum of game types, some requiring good hand-eye coordination, others needing good estimation skills, yet others requiring good pattern-matching skills.

Despite these benefits, I found the games to be unsatisfactory. The games failed to engage me, being either far too simple, or too difficult. The difficulty often did not ramp up well either, in games where the difficulty was variable. I found there to be an insufficient number of games; if you were drawn only to one type of game, likely there’d only be one or two available for you to choose from.

Missions

fantage missions

Missions lump together several mini-games not otherwise available into a theme-consistent whole with a storyline.

I didn’t find the mission itself to be all that attractive, but, despite some grammatical and punctuation errors, the interplay between yourself and some of the characters is decidedly amusing and entertaining.

Missions are probably the best part about Fantage.

The Sum-Up

Overall, Fantage is a pretty good environment, but not outstanding. It would be a nice, safe place for a child to start learning about virtual environments, however I think that most children would grow out of it quickly.

Book Review: Dark Siren

Author Clifford Wycliffe Australian author Clifford Wycliffe’s new novel, Dark Siren, has an undeniably provocative cover. Coupled with quotes from Lord Byron and David Vaile, the Executive Director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at UNSW Sydney, Australia, I approached this virtual world novel with some trepidation.

The action commences with the attempted apprehension, in Sydney, of a Ukranian fugitive and criminal Kyrylo. Things get a whole lot more complicated than that, as the chase and plot extends across the cities and wilds of Australia, and through the virtual world of Avataria, involving the Australian Federal Police, the AHTCC, the NSA and the FBI.

If you’re a Second Life user, you’ll recognize Avataria right away. Wycliffe’s representation of Avataria is almost perfectly identical to Second Life. Indeed, I got the feeling that the name was changed from Second Life to Avataria fairly late in the writing. In Chapter three, we have this brief exchange:

“You’ve obviously never played Avataria.”
Deborah smiled.“My first life’s complicated enough, thank you.”

A time-worn half-gag that doesn’t make as much sense with Avataria in place of Second Life.

With only a couple of relatively minor exceptions, very little happens in Avataria that cannot happen in Second Life, yet Wycliffe has spun quite a solid yarn around and through those elements. Enough that I started reflexively considering other Second Life users as the model for some of the novel’s characters as I went along.

Character portrayals are fairly solid, though one or two moments of interaction between our protagonists and other Avataria users might give you cause to wince, either with awkwardness or familiarity (or both). I once worked on a sting-operation with an AFP division that would later be spun out into the AHTCC, and the material on that side holds enough verisimilitude to carry the show.

It’s an adult book for sure. There’s strong sexual references, homosexuality and the BDSM scene – though none of it for gimmicks or shocks. It’s all well-integrated into the characters and the story.

I must confess, I very much liked it. By the third or fourth chapter, my skepticism had evaporated. By about three in the morning, I’d finished the novel, feeling a sense of closure and entertainment. A lot of it would make for good television, though users typing earnestly via Avataria might not make for a great screen spectacle.

It’s a pretty solid Australian crime-detective novel, involving a very realistic portrayal of Second Life, with a solid blend of high-tech crime, political skullduggery and human weakness. On the whole, I’d heartily recommend it to fans of the genre.

Note: we’ll be serialising a significant proportion of Dark Siren here at the Metaverse Journal over coming weeks – stay tuned.

Book Review: My Avatar, My Self

Waggoner_978-0-7864-4109-9

Firstly, it’s fair to warn you that I’m breaking one of my own reviewing rules here. I generally never write a review of something that I haven’t purchased. That’s a rule that I’m not in the habit of breaking, but it’s worth noting that I’m making an exception here today.

If you want the short version, you should go and buy Waggoner’s book if you have a serious interest in identity, identification, the interaction of people with diegetic and liminal spaces, and/or the core philosophies of human involvement, interactions and identity in virtual spaces and gameplay.

For those of you that are still here, Waggoner has put together a book that doubles as something of a thesis. Littered with references and notes, My Avatar, My Self is a dense and thoughtful read both on the nature of ourselves as well as on the nature of our virtual interactions and extensions.

I say dense, because virtually every paragraph gave me pause for consideration, sparking numerous, lengthy discussions, and causing my editor to wait and wait and wait, and wait some more for me to actually get back to him.

That’s the very definition of thought-provoking, right there. There’s a lot of meat within these covers.

Waggoner discusses the models of modernist identity theorists (who, alas, still aren’t really sure what Identity actually is), as well as contrasting that with the models of post-modern identity theorists (who also still aren’t sure what Identity).

Identity and the nature and definition of it is far from a done-deal, but practical interaction with avatars sheds a whole lot more light on things, and seems to support the post-modern theories rather better.

Debates between modern and postmodern identity theories continue. However, most theorists regardless of their camp seem to agree that communication media impact human identity construction. Even modern identity theorists such as Giddens recognize the importance of these external stimuli: “Mediated experience has long influenced both self-identity and the basic organization of social relations.” This statement is echoed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin almost a decade later: “[People] employ media as vehicles for defining personal identity”

Throughout, Waggoner focuses on single-user role-playing games primarily (Fallout 2/3, Morrowind, Oblivion), but this is no weakness in his approach. In doing so, Waggoner manages to test and demonstrate his points without considerable, intrusive or distracting noise or complications, as he monitors the interactions and reactions of four diverse subjects as they approach various games.

Throughout, Waggoner examines the motivations, identification, and responses of his four subjects, occasionally highlighting responses that a subject is seemingly unaware of, or unwilling to admit.

If you’re not afraid of some deep ideas about identity, expression, avatars, narrative, genres and spaces, nor of the language required to express these compactly, Waggoner’s My Avatar, My Self should find a place on your reading list.

And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go back and read it again.

(You can purchase this book from TMJ’s online bookstore, Amazon or direct from the publisher).

The Multiplicities of Internet Addiction – a book review

This book review appeared yesterday over on Metaverse Health, but given the book’s Australian author and it’s broad examination of online behaviour, I thought it was worth re-posting it here.

Johnson – The Multiplicities of Internet 2a1

Nicola Johnson from the University of Wollongong in Australia, recently released a book titled The Multiplicities of Internet Addiction – The Misrecognition of Leisure and Learning. It’s an engaging read, not least for the very objective look it takes at the concepts of internet addiction and framing the issue within the realities of a net-connected society that has changed immensely in the past twenty years or so.

Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice is the frame for the qualitative study of eight New Zealander teenagers and the illumination it provided on the perception of technology use amongst those who’ve know no different (digital insiders), those who haven’t (digital newcomers) and those who are plain not interested (digital outsiders). Additionally, there’s some fascinating discussion on how expertise is being developed by digital insiders and how this expertise is at best partially gained from the traditional educational institutions in place at present.

It’s the elaboration of the experiences of these eight teens that allow Johnson to weave in a great deal of the substantive research that’s occurred into the nature of addiction in regard to online activity. There’s no assertion of internet addiction as non-entity, just a much smaller subset of use than usually claimed. As contributing writer Feldspar Epstein has written previously in relation to heavy use of virtual worlds by people with disabilities:

Can you imagine telling someone with no legs to forsake their wheelchair? How about someone with a pain disorder? Are you going to tell people with crippling mental disorders that they are not allowed to take drugs to normalize and enable them? Are you going to tell deaf people they can’t use Teletype in place of the telephone?

Each of these technological advances were radical in their time; some of them were seen as being destructive, to society or to the individual. It’s hard to imagine any of these people being denied their enabling technologies in today’s first world society (one hopes). I hope to live in a future where my enabling computer habits are accepted.

Johnson’s assertions based on a thorough exploration of the literature, reveal a similar conclusion: internet addiction does exist, but when the preconceptions of digital newcomers and digital outsiders are removed from the equation, the prevalence of internet addiction seems pretty limited indeed. As Johnson concludes:

Digital outsiders (and some digital newcomers) find it unfathomable to understand the preoccupation that digital insiders have with their online lives. Because it is not what they did in times gone by, they find it difficult to understand the value, worth and social capital received by avid users in what appears to be an unhealthy obsession. As I have argued, these practices are not only misrecognized as obessions or addictions, but they are misunderstood.

This book’s research base means it’s more likely to be consumed and digested by those who are doing research or study in the area themselves. Which is a shame, as the discussion deserves wider recognition and debate. Work like this balances out some of the excesses on the mainstream media side of the equation. It’s only a lack of dissemination of this perspective that will ensure the sensationalism camp prevails for some time to come.

You can purchase this book from our online bookstore, Amazon direct or direct from the publisher.

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