topical media & game development
VU @ Second Life -- creating a (virtual) community of learners
resource(s) / lecture(s)
In this paper we report on our experiences in creating
presence for our university in the Second Life environment.
After a brief explanation of our motivation(s), we will describe
our approach, which resulted in creating a virtual campus acting both
as a portal for information, and, more importantly, as a meeting point,
offering the opportunity to create a virtual community of learners,
in line with the overall educational policy of
We will discuss the merits of Second Life as an educational platform,
and indicate relevant research perspectives.
To illustrate how the virtual meets the real, an impression will
be given of our encounters with the press.
Keywords and phrases: virtual worlds, community of learners, Second Life
Online virtual worlds have been present for more than 10 years,
for example, was introduced in 1995.
However, the recent substantial media attentention for Second Life
can be considered as an indication that
virtual worlds are no longer the domain of a selective group of
fanatic online gamers.
For example, the number of registered residents in Second Life increased from 1,8 million
at the beginning of December 2006 to over 4 million within a period of less than 3 months.
Big companies like Reebok, IBM, Philips, and ABN AMRO organize press meetings to announce
their presence in virtual worlds.
Even governments, municipalities, and NGO’s enter Second Life
with an eagerness that is comparable to the don't miss the boat feeling recognized at the early
days of the internet. Second Life has even been presented as hype.
On February 28th 2007, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (in English, our official name is VU University Amsterdam) announced its presence in Second Life
as the first Dutch university.
National and international companies are eager to have their regional
headquarters in Amsterdam.
The international reputation of Amsterdam with respect to its tolerance for
sex and soft drugs has apparently been no hindrance to that.
However, when we
announced our presence in Second Life as the first Dutch university,
news items appeared, in
Elsevier among others,
which mentioned the senate's (Tweede Kamer) concern with possible
irregularities in Second Life immediately after announcing
our university's presence in Second Life.
Why does a respectable university, like ours,
want to be present in Second Life?
And what are the prospects or benefits for an educational
institute with a strong research reputation
to be present in Second Life?
Is it publicity we are after, the momentary attention of the press,
taking profit of the (current) hype around
Second Life, or are there more sustainable reasons that make
such presence worthwhile, from both educational and research perspectives.
In the following, we will address these questions, and give an account
of the process that led to our presence in Second Life.
The structure of this paper is as follows.
First, we explain our motivation(s), and then
we will outline the actual building of our virtual campus.
We will discuss the potential of Second Life
as an educational platform, and after that we will indicate
relevant research perspectives.
Then we will give a comparative technical overview, and ponder on why
Second Life is so successful.
Finally, after briefly reporting on our experiences when going
live, and some speculative thoughts about future developments, we will present our conclusions.
CREATING PRESENCE IN A PARTICIPATORY CULTURE
In less than a decade after the publication of William Gibson's
novel Neuromancer, the metaverse
was realized, albeit in a primitive way, through the introduction
of VRML, introduced at the Int.
Web Conference of 1992. Cf. [Anders (1999)].
The German company blaxxun,
named after the virtual environment in Neil Stephenson's Snowcrash,
was one of the first to offer a 3D community platform,
soon to be followed by
already mentioned in the introduction,
which offered a more rich repertoire of avatar gestures as well as
limited in-game building facilities.
However, somehow 3D virtual communities never seemed
to realize their initial promises. Furthermore the adoption
of VRML as a 3D interface to the Web never really took off.
The history of Second Life is extensively descibed in the official Second Life guide, [Rymaszweski et al. (2007)].
Beginning 2004, almost out of the blue,
a high adoption and low churn rate, now counting, March 2007,
over 4 million inhabitants.
Considering the cost of ownership of land, which easily amounts to
200 euro per month rent after an initial investment of 1500 euro for a
single piece of land measuring 65,536 square meters,
the adoption of Second Life by individuals as well as companies such as ABN-AMRO,
Philips and institutions such as Harvard is surprising.
What is the secret of the success of Second Life?
We don't know!
But in comparison to other platforms for immersive worlds,
including MMORPGs such as
World of Warcraft
Second Life seems to offer an optimal combination of
avatar modification options,
gesture animations, in-game construction tools,
and facilities for communication and social networking, such as chatting and instant messaging.
Cf. [Utz (2003)].
Incorporating elements of community formation, commonly denoted
as Web 2.0, and exemplified in
the immersive appearance, perhaps also the built-in physics
and the inclusion of elementary economic principles,
seem to be the prime distinguishing factors
responsible for the success of Second Life.
In addition, the possibility of recording collaborative enacted stories, [Davenport (2000)],
using built-in machinima certainly
to its appeal.
Later on, after discussing Second Life from a more technical perspective, we will
speculate further on the possible reasons for the success and adoption of Second Life
as a platform for communication and immersive presence.
What has been characterized as a shift of culture,
from a media consumer culture to a participatory culture, [Jenkins (2006)],
where users also actively contribute content, is for our
institution one of the decisive reasons to create a presence
in Second Life, to build a virtual platform that may embody
our so-called community of learners,
where both staff and students cooperate in contributing content,
content related to our sciences, that is.
BUILDING A VIRTUAL CAMPUS
In December 2006, we discussed the idea of creating presence in
Our initial targets were
to build a first prototype,
to explore content creation in Second Life,
to create tutorials for further content creation, and to analyze
technical requirements and opportunities for deployment in education and research.
- build initial (throwaway) prototype
- explore content creation technology
- create tutorial(s) for content contribution
- analyse technological requirements
|Fig 1. VU Campus -- outside view|
Two and a half months later, we are online,
with a virtual campus, that contains a lecture room,
a telehub from which teleports are possible to other places in the
building, billboards containing snapshots of our university's website
from which the visitors can access the actual website,
as well as a botanical garden mimicking the VU Hortus,
and even a white-walled experimentation room suggesting a 'real' scientific
All building and scripting were done by a group of four students,
from all faculties involved, with a weekly walkthrough
in our 'builders-meeting' to re-assess our goals and
solve technical and design issues.
|Fig 2. VU Campus -- inside view|
The overall style is realistic, although not in all detail.
Most important was to create a visual impression of resemblance
and to offer the opportunity to present relevant infomation in
easily accessible, yet immersive, ways. Cf. [Bolter & Grusin (2000)], [Hoorn et al. (2003)].
Our virtual campus, see figs. 1 and 2, is meant to serve
as an information portal
and as a meeting ground, where students, staff and visitors
can meet and communicate,
as well as a place were teachers
and researchers can conduct experiments aimed
at discovering new ways of teaching and doing research.
SECOND LIFE AS AN EDUCATIONAL PLATFORM
The first idea that comes to mind, naturally, is to
use Second Life to offer courses online.
But, although we do have plans to give lectures (college)
on law, probably including the enactment of a particular case,
we do consider this approach as rather naive, and frankly we see
no reason to include what may be considered an outdated
paradigm of learning in our virtual campus, where there
might be more appealing alternatives.
Similarly, using the virtual laboratory for experiments
might not be the best way to offer courses, although,
again, we do intend to provide a model of a living cell,
allowing students to study the structure, functionality and behavior
of organic cells in virtual space.
Considering the success of our multi-disciplinary building team,
it seems more worthwhile to take the cooperative effort of
building as a model, and switch to a paradigm of learning
in which in-game exploration and building plays an important role.
It is no secret that many students enjoy gaming, and although
some might think that gaming is a waste of time,
many authors, including [Gee (2003)] and [Vorderer & Bryant (2006)], seem to think that gaming
and game-related efforts provide a form of active learning,
allowing the gamer to experience the world(s)
in a new way, to form new affiliations, and to prepare
for future learning in similar or even new domains.
- experiencing the world in new ways
- forming new affiliations
- preparation for future learning
More importantly, due to intense involvement
and the need to analyze game challenges, according to [Gee (2003)],
gaming even encourages critical learning,
that is to think about the domain in a meta-level
as a complex system of inter-related parts,
and the conventions that govern a particular domain,
which [Gee (2003)] characterizes as
situated cognition in a semiotic domain.
Without further explanation, we may note here that
semiotic domain means a world of meaning
that is due to social conventions and patterns of communication.
Cf. [Kress & Van Leeuwen (1996)].
Observing that both creativity and communication are vital
elements of higher education, we envisage to deploy Second Life
for a multi-disciplinary honors-track course that will
focus on the communication of scientific research, for
example the impact of climate change and the various ways we
can mitigate or adapt to the potential threats
of global warming.
In this way we can also contribute to the issue of
media literacy, or ``mediawijsheid''
as the Dutch Council of Culture calls it,
that is making students aware of the impact of the media
in presenting controversial issues.
In this respect we strongly believe that Second Life does not
necessarily lead to another screen-addiction giving access to dubious content,
but that it can actually be deployed in a constructive way as an opportunity
to stimulate and support active learning.
think about the domain at a meta-level
as a complex system of inter-related parts
situated cognition in semiotic domains
RESEARCH PERSPECTIVES -- VIRTUAL VERSUS REAL
Is decision-making in a virtual environment the same as or similar
to decision-making in the real world?
And what about investments, and starting a new company?
The Second Life economy, powered by Linden dollars
and governed by the Lindex-exchange, provides an
interesting platform to study decision-making behaviors,
for example with a group of students in a course about
Another way to establish a relation with reality
is to provide a virtual context to objects
existing in actual reality, such as cultural heritage, and for example
relate paintings to the world they depict, which must
necessarily be re-constructed in a virtual environment
as it no longer exists, [Rutledge et al. (2000)].
In previous work, we did study the construction and
deployment of humanoid intelligent agents, [Eliens et al (2006)],
and we looked at ways such agents could provide
an explanation in rich media contexts, [Eliens et al. (2003)], or
guidance in finding locations in large virtual worlds, [Ballegooij & Eliens (2001)].
Also did we explore whether virtual replicas of existing buildings,
in our case museums, was the best way to provide immersive access to
art-related information, [Eliens et al. (2007)], and actually we concluded
that it was not!
In one of such virtual replicas, in this case the atelier
of the Dutch artist Marinus Boezem, we studied
the effectiveness of the use of an intelligent humanoid
agent, and we found interesting relationships
between the appearance (looks) of the agent, and the
trustworthiness of its advice, [Hoorn et al. (2004)], [Van Vugt et al. (2006a)].
We extended our research efforts into appearances of virtual humans
and their effectiveness in virtual worlds like the Sims, [Van Vugt et al. (2006b)].
Furthermore, we studied differences between perceptions of fictitious (i.e. Hollywood)
characters versus existing (i.e. real world) characters, [ Konijn & Bushman (2007)].
Finally, we examined the role of
emotions in establishing effective communication between real and virtual humans, [Konijn & Van Vugt (2007)].
However, apart from studying patterns of communication,
and the way appearance and identity may influence communication (e.g. [Konijn & Nije Bijvank (2007)]),
it seems at this stage more interesting to explore
how to enhance communication in a shared virtual world
by actually deploying virtual objects, instead of relying
on chatting and textual information,
and to design tasks that require cooperation in an essential manner.
More generally, we would like to deploy Second Life
as a platform for serious games,
such as service management games, [Eliens & Chang (2007)],
and we believe that for corporate institutions this might
well be the real benefit Second Life has to offer!
Taking, however, a more critical look at Second Life
as a platform for serious games, it might appear to be lacking
in a number of respects, including (not the least
important) security, programmability and robustness.
As the failure of many of the early CSCW (Computer
Supported Cooperative Work) applications indicates, cf. [Churchill et al. (2001)],
to provide adequate support for collaboration is not easy,
since a manifold of issues have to be resolved, such as turn-taking, gaze detection, etcetera.
And in addition, for tasks that require strict timing,
such as musical improvisation, [Eliens et al. (1997)], synchronization and
time-lag have to be taken into account.
Taking these issues into account, we may wonder whether
we should adopt Second Life, or rather seek refuge with
an open source game engine such as Delta3D,
or a commercial game engine such as offered by the Steam-powered
Half Life 2 SDK, cf. [Eliens & Bhikharie (2006)], which might be more compliant
with the extensions required to provide adequate support for
serious cooperative games.
Interestingly, the Second Life client has recently been given
out to open source, and that would allow for many
client-side hacks, such as for example multi-modal
which in combination with
the server-side scripting capabilities may result
in powerful extensions.
At this stage, though,
it might well be the level of adoption that is decisive
in the choice of Second Life as a platform for serious
COMPARATIVE TECHNICAL OVERVIEW
From a technical perspective, Second Life offers an advanced game engine that visitors
and builders use (implicitly) in their activities.
Before discussing how Second Life compares to (a selection of) other game engines
and virtual environment frameworks, it is worthwhile to look at
an overview of the main functional components of a
which according to [Sherrod (2006)] encompass:
- rendering system -- 2D/3D graphics
- input system -- user interaction
- sound system -- ambient and re-active
- physics system -- for the blockbusters
- animation system -- motion of objects and characters
- artificial intelligence system -- for real challenge(s)
Although it is possible to build one's own game engine using OpenGL or DirectX,
or the XNA framework built on top of
(managed) DirectX, in most cases it is more profitable to use an existing game engine or 3D environment
framework, since it provides the developer with a load of already built-in functionality.
In the following table, we give a brief comparative technical overview of, respectively,
the Blaxxun Community Server (BlC), AlphaWorld (AW),
the open source Delta3D engine (