Downes down on SL

Yesterday I attended the Eduserv symposium on Virtual Worlds. Had a great time chatting to people – and discussing what we are doing (or think we are doing) in Second Life.

By far the most provocative of the talks was from Stephen Downes (who publishes the OLDaily blog) who, it quickly transpired, is not a fan of Second Life. (Excellent picture here).

A number of his most significant complaints were related to the ownership and centralisation of SL – although these were answered in part by Paul Hollins in the audience and Jim Purbrick of Linden Lab pointing out that the server is moving to open source. (I guess we still have to wait and see how that pans out.)

He argued that Second Life is a game, despite many people (not just educators) arguing the opposite. The example he used was of avatars turning up with fancy wings to impress people. Because of fashion, Second Life is a game apparently. This is not at all convincing I think – unless we want to make the argument that real life is a game too (after all, its not just in Second Life that people use fashion and belongings as a means to impress).

Many people who study games like to distinguish between play and games. I don’t go deeply into this area myself, but because people can play in Second Life does not make it a game any more than the ability to play in real life makes that a game. Actually, if there is a game that is fundamental to Second Life, I’d probably say that it is capitalism – the desire to earn Linden Dollars, despite being able to accumulate tons of them for the price of a cup of coffee (Stephen alluded to this himself by saying that buying Lindens was cheating). Is capitalism a game? But perhaps even this is a mistaken gamer-view of Second Life? The result of seeing a number in the top right of the screen and assuming it represents your score.

But I think his main point to the audience of educators was that there is nothing new in Second Life for the point of view of educators. He backed this up by discussing MUDs and MOOs, and examples from Active Worlds and the like. In fact, in talks I’ve given on Second Life, I almost always put it in historical perspective – starting with Adventure, then MUD then MOOs. But there are important differences – and areas where it might not be something that is new in a revolutionary sense, but certainly is in an evolutionary one – building on what has gone before. Some of what I see as differences I list below, and I welcome comments, corrections and additions.

Ability to create custom content:

  • MOO: Must play game to reach wizard level first (or be very good friends with an admin). Must learn reasonably complex programming language to be able to add any significant content to the world – forming a barrier to entry for many. (Disclosure: I was a very mediocre wizard on a MOO that ran at Strathclyde University in the early 90′s).
  • Academic MOO’s: I’m definitely less well experienced in this area than Stephen is – but from the examples that I have seen, tutors develop educational content in the MOO. Students explore/play the MOO, hopefully learning as they go. Students do not generally get to make lasting changes to the environment as they go.
  • Active Worlds: Even simple modelling requires scripting. Generally also requires that you own (or have admin permissions) for the world in question.
  • Second Life: Every user has the ability to create and script objects. Building is pretty much as simple as it could reasonably be, and while not every resident does build, many do. Programming with the scripting language is C like (for good and bad!), inherently object-oriented and state-based.
    Some tutors build permanent instructional displays (similar to MOO example above, but 3D and graphical). Some base teaching on students as creators. Some do both.

I think the lowered barriers to entry for content creation do make Second Life at least somewhat different to what came before. I think it makes Second Life an environment that more natively supports constructionist learning than its predecessors. Though I have to agree completely with Stephen that this does not necessarily mean that development ends with Second Life.

Another difference that is important actually has less to do with Second Life itself, and more to do with how technologies have been adopted since the mid-90′s. Computers are now commonplace household items. Internet access is now commonplace. 3D virtual worlds overall (single player and multi-player games through to VR sims) are now part of the mainstream of popular culture. And this itself means that even if the barriers to entry for constructionist learning had not changed, we would still be dealing with something new – the mass availability of virtual worlds and their potential use in education. I think at least some of the interest in Second Life is on the back of these changes. Had online multi-player persistent game worlds been more mainstream a decade ago, then perhaps Active Worlds might have succeeded in capturing the imagination of educators the way the Second Life has now.

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