[In the Media] Comparing Apples and Oranges in Virtual Worlds

Below is a post from the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning blog in which Barry Joseph writes about Comparing Apples and Oranges in Virtual Worlds.

Global Kids reflects on lessons learned from a massively multiworld simulcast of Kofi Annan’s receipt of the MacArthur Award for International Justice.

Not all virtual worlds are created equally, even those with the greatest potential to host educational content. On March 20th, Global Kids hosted the first massively multiworld simulcast across four virtual worlds, bringing a live speech by Kofi Annan after receiving the first ever MacArthur Foundation ‘s International Justice Award to Second Life, Teen Second Life, Whyville, and There.com, not to mention the web.

To see what I am talking about, please watch the brief video below:

The above statement and the accompanying video, however, erase the very important differences between these very different places that we conveniently label “virtual worlds.” But what choice did we have? As we begin to develop a more sophisticated way of publicly talking about the social impact of this emerging medium, it is important we learn better ways to distinguish between them than just 2D vs. 3D.

If we focus on just two of the venues, Teen Second Life (TSL) and Whyville, we can see that the outcomes were similar; in both locations a group of teens watched the live stream of Kofi Annan while participating in a reflective conversation led by adult facilitators. The experience, however, for both teen participants and the Global Kids staff members facilitating their conversation, could not have been more different.

While TSL residents could design and embody 3D designs of elaborate avatars, Whyvillians are limited to “face parts,” which is to say simple 2D images to stick on their head, somewhat akin to Colorforms.

When TSL residents arrived they walked, flew or teleported into our arena, stood around or sat their avatar in one of the chairs we provided on the Global Kids estate, waving their arms, applauding, or doing flips while watching the projected video on a virtual screen. When a Whyvillian entered the Greek Theater designed and managed by Whyville, they watched their avatar float across their screen and come to rest in an open seat and, other than occasionally jiggle around their seat, couldn’t budge. Meanwhile, on the same Web page used for viewing Whyville, the video stream was hosted, which could be watched not “within” but “alongside” the 2D space occupied by their avatar.

TSL residents participated in an open chat, with its own chat history for reference, and which offered the sort of basic options one would find in a text editor, like cut & paste. Whyvillians, however, are significantly constrained in their ability to communicate, with no chat history, no ability to cut and paste and, in fact, no ability to edit a sentence without using the backspace key.

Finally, while the TSL residents were equals with us adults at Global Kids, albeit from a technological perspective, the Whyvillians were far from equal. Adult moderators control who can walk around the stage area, can pose questions and polls, and can click on a Whyvillians to feature their comment in the center of the screen. In fact, many of these powers were not even available to Global Kids staff but were reserved by our partners at Numedeon, which administers Whyville.

So on the surface, TSL offer a much more sophisticated toolset for both self-expression and communication and offers greater powers to educators seeking to work in such spaces. Yet, nonetheless, as mentioned above, both outcomes were similar. How could this be?

In part, I think this is answered by the different age groups - Whyville serves the middle school crowd while TSL serves older teens. While those in high school might bristle at constraints, it was clear that Whyville’s toolset was designed to provide opportunities for teens to please the adult (e.g. featuring individual comments). And while Teen Second Life might offer more sophisticated tools, the learning curve is considerably steep, too steep for many teens, while Whyville’s web-based world can be easily accessed by even the oldest of computers on the slowest connections.

The lesson learned? On one hand we need to develop more sophisticated language to easily differentiate between different worlds in such areas, for example, as tools for self-expression, communication and adult facilitation. But doing so needs to be developed in parallel with research that can highlight the elements of virtual worlds that are most likely to develop informed and engaged global citizens.