PICNIC 08 – YOUNG Seminar: Virtual Spaces

On: September 25, 2008
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About Alessandro Valente
MA student New Media Amsterdam Werkzaam bij vakantie aanbiedingen site TravelBird.


25 September



Virtual spaces

The motto of this seminar is that bringing computer simulations and games into the classroom will have a positive effect on the learning abilities of students. For a new media academic this can’t be very shocking news. Modern Simulations are powerful tools that bring an alternative to the traditional linear ways how we present and understand things. Simulations and games can model systems that are otherwise too complex to deal with and give a firsthand experience to their dynamics. Also kids love games and seem to have the intuition to learn how to work with simulation tools far faster than adults. Frasca, 2001

In the world of education this doesn’t seem to be common knowledge. The implementation of simulations and games into the education curriculum is very poor, almost nonexistent. A reason could be that they just don’t know how to implement these new tools into the current basic education curriculum. Hopefully these seminars can inspire some minds to take the necessary steps to implement these tools into our education system.

Here three of these seminars will be discussed. They all deal with the theme virtual worlds and their deployment in education.

First speaker: David Nieborg

The first speaker of Picnic Young is David Nieborg who doesn’t really represents an idea or a product, but gives us his vision on the future of social and creative uses of virtual spaces. The main question Nieborg poses is what these virtual spaces can do for us and for the future of children. Nieborg starts off by showing the audience an old video (1998) about the former Dutch prime-minister who receives help with the use of the internet from a young girl. When presenting some numbers on the game and internet use of children (97% of US children play games) it becomes obvious this new medium should be looked at in more detail. While trying to answer this question, Nieborg addresses some of the point of the current new media debate. One main argument he makes is about the so called convergence culture; about the way we can order a pizza while playing World of Warcraft. Or the way Japanese World of Warcraft-players meet up to dress as their favorite characters offline. This to Nieborg is the convergence future, mixing the physical world with the virtual; here we see the blurring of boundaries between the online and offline world. This blurring of boundaries is misconceived in the Dutch media, where the discussion is often centered on the consequences of children playing violent games and therefore bringing these ideas to the real word , for example school massacres by children. But children do know this difference between the virtual and the real world according to Nieborg. And this current negative discourse is distracting the attention from the more interesting blurring of boundaries, such as friends meeting up to dress as their World of Warcraft character. While Nieborg addresses some more interesting focus points -the discussion of private vs. public, the idea of the social networking sites- his talk quite disappointing ends with the discussion of Second Life. This well known virtual world does ,as Nieborg poses, combine some of the main elements of the future of new media. For example the entrance of the ABN Amro Bank online mixed the virtual and shows that Second Life can actually be financially interesting. But the answer to the first question the audience poses is even more interesting. When asked if the entrance to Second Life was increasing or decreasing, Nieborg told it was actually decreasing. And by the end of his talk this answer sums up the overall idea of his speech; it touched on some interesting discourses on the new media, but it did not answer his suggestions on the future use of the new media. But introducing such new application or programmers is indeed something for the rest of the speakers.

Second speaker: Josephine Dorado (USA), Zoomlab

While Dorado starts off by showing some of her virtual art work, she mainly focuses her presentation on the idea of virtual play spaces. The project she uses as her main example at this conference is Kidzconnect. With Kidzconnect the social networking element of the web 2.0 is used to create cultural exchange. Through programmes such as Second Life children from different real spaces come together in one virtual space; here the cultural exchange takes place. Kidzconnect last cultural exchange program connected children in New York with Dutch children who used their avatars to exchange cultural information and therefore enhance their cultural awareness. The way the children use this virtual world of Second Life again combines the real space and space. One kid put a picture of some graffiti in his ‘real’ neighborhood on the wall of his house is Second Life. This combination of the real and the virtual in one singular space is of great importance to Dorado, who for example has put images of actual dancers on her avatars to create a more layered experience.

When the presentation’s last slide states that ‘Even if you’re just affecting one kid you are affecting our future.’ we notice that the presentation and the idea of Kidzconnect is a personal project to make the world a better place. The idea of Kidzconnect is very ideological and the idea of social exchange through social networking is absolutely interesting. Maybe the more ideological part of the presentation should have been swapped for a more practical component and some more practical tactics to continue with this idea of social exchange instead of losing the idea of Kidzconnect to some ideological statements that stand no ground and have no further value.

Third presentation: By representatives of the ‘Waag society

The third presentation introduces the project Self city from the ´waag society´. Self city is a game environment made within Second life, developed for kids who are socially impaired. The social skills of these kids are so poor that they can’t function well in groups and therefore can’t participate in regular education programs. According to psychology theory this is mainly because they are not able to adapt their social behavior to the different scenarios and settings of their daily lives. Normaly people develop different ‘I positions’ they use in a strategic manner to deal with social situations. Someone behaves different at work dealing with his boss then at a bar with his buddies. These kids however don’t know how to change their ‘I position’ according to the given situation and therefore get in to trouble all the time. Simulating different social situations with role playing games, can help these kids train these skills they lack. But playing these role playing games is a group effort, that requires the social capabilities they lack. In the virtual world of Selfcity however, these teens can login together with their teachers, all with their own avatar, and be part of a virtual group without experiencing it as a ‘real’ group. The virtual world is setup as an MMRPG where the player gets assignments that in order to complete them, require him to deal with challenging social situations caused by interacting with other avatars controlled by teachers or other students. To help the players through these situations they are accompanied by a virtual buddy, in the form of an animal avatar that follows the player everywhere he goes. In a conflict situation this virtual pet acts up as the players conscious and gives advice as how the player can alter his behavior to he reaches his goal. This way the player learns with the help of his trusted buddy how to modify his social behavior according to the different scenarios he needs to go through to reach his in-game goals. From here the information of this seminar becomes less clear. According to the speaker further techniques are necessary to help the player bring his newly trained skills from the virtual world to the actual world. This technique’s aim is to blur the boundaries between the game space and the actual space for the players. This is done by a bracelet with a video screen where the animated computer image of the player’s virtual pet can be downloaded to. This way the players can bring their virtual pet with them in the real world. For now the bracelet is mostly just a physical and iconic reminder of the advice they received from their buddy when confronted with difficult social situations in the game. The aim for the future is that this portable virtual buddy will even be able to give its advice to its owner in the real world. The bracelet could monitor certain body symptoms like heart rate and body heat to react on with audiovisual messages for the wearer. The question why this blurring of boundaries is a preferable or effective way for these kids to deal with their new virtual identity was never raised nor answered in the seminar.

This was an interesting presentation that shows us how computer simulations and games can model social situations for their users to interact and experiment with their dynamics. A learning experience traditional linear ways of explaining could never give. But als leaves us whit some unanswered questions about the relations between virtual behavior and its effects on someone´s behavior in the real world.

Heleen Kerkman and Alessandro Valente (2008)

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