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Friday, September 21, 2007

Life's What You Make It

I'm currently in London for a couple of days. Most people who visit London for such a brief period usually take some time to catch a theatre show or take advantage of the many shopping opportunities that exceed what's on offer where they live. I used to be like this but apparently not any more. This particular visit to London is taken up mostly with a whole day event on Second Life organized jointly by Eduserv and JISC's Center for Educational Technology and Interoperability at the London Knowledge Lab, which is part of the University of London's Institute of Education.

To tell the truth, I'm also visiting some friends who live in London while I'm here. I am sure that most of my readers would rather not read about any of that and read more about the Second Life conference. This is quite alright with me, since one of the things any serious Second Lifer needs to do is find a balance between their offline life and their online life. Oddly enough, I've had a strange experience with this. I say oddly enough because it seems that the more time I spend in Second Life the less time I find to write about it. A quick look at my blog entries since I first started exploring Second Life last spring shows that I've been wanting to write a decent entry about it but never really have. So, finally, this must be it.

The conference brought together many of the most important points of interest I've found in my own Second Life experiences. To give some context to any of my readers who are not at all familiar with Second Life I'll intertwine some comments about the presentations at the conference with my own interests and activities in SL.

Eduserv's Andy Powell gave a very interesting introduction on SL. Aside from discussing the rational for Eduserv funding, he gave a very comprehensive overview of what people expect and think about SL. He did this through specially designed t-shirts I believe that professional t-shirt enthusiasts Howard Besser would find this approach highly innovative and engaging. Andy Powell sees a relationship between second life t-shirts and the status line in Facebook. I find this connection quite intriguing since I'm familiar with both. Admittedly, the Facebook status is much simpler to update than text on a SL t-shirt, but for anyone who has used both the connection between the two is fairly evident.

The highlight of the day's proceedings for me was Hugh Denard's presentation entitled: Theatre, Performance, History and Creative Pedagogy: Theatron's Second Life. Based at King's College London, the Theatron project has drawn praise from all theatre and performance historians who have come across it. Originally started in 2001, this EU-funded project has created 3D models of 10 historically significant theatre buildings in Europe. These include the amphitheatre of Dionysus in ancient Greece, the Teatro Olymipico of Vicenza, Shakespeare's Globe, and Appia's revolutionary Helleraus Festspielhaus. In conjunction with Palatine, the Higher Education Academy's performing arts network, Theatron has now moved to SL giving five educational institutions the opportunity to explore some of these 3D models and all the auxiliary data gathered around them.

Theatron is a very impressive undertaking, both in and away from Second Life. Even people who are not scholars of theatre and performance can appreciate the pedagogical possibilities, to say nothing of the entertainment value, of this project. I'm sure I'll be writing more about it in the coming months (though not necessarily on my blog) since, to my knowledge, no one else is so heavily invested in SL through theatre and performance as the Theatron group. I am most interested in this aspect of SL as my own research and activity in SL involves an understanding of the history of online performance dating back to the text-based environments Dungeons and Dragons inspired environments that flourished in the early 1990s.

Over lunch I had a conversation with Brett Lucas, from the English Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy. Among other things we spoke about how anyone who wants to do anything significant in SL needs immerse themselves in this online world for more than one or two brief sessions. It is not possible to introduce SL or any other multiuser online world to non-users, say in a classroom, without dedicating several sessions to first have them familiarize themselves with the basic techniques of being in world. This is undoubtedly a hurdle for many who could be interested in exploring SL without wanting to invest the not-so-brief amount of time needed to get used to being in SL.

The other three presentations for the day dealt with other aspects of teaching and learning in Second Life. Diane Carr and Martin Oliver spoke about issue that anyone who attempts to do anything that's engaging, and not just education-related work, comes across. Issues of context, conventional behaviour and methods of conducting various activities are things that will come up time and time again in any attempt to understand the various uses of SL. Many of these issues will crop up again in the coming weeks with students taking my Psychology of Internet Behaviour module in Scarborough.

What attracts me to SL is not the thing itself. I'm interested in SL from a historical perspective. History is a term that usually evokes a not-so-recent past, but the history I speak about here is one of online performance, which only really goes back to the early 1990s activities I mentioned earlier. I see a natural continuum between text-based networked environments like IRC, MUDs an MOOs, and much of the activity that goes on in SL, but there are striking differences too.. In this lineage, SL is merely one of several 3D multiuser online role playing game, even if it only shares some formal qualities with World of Warcraft or The Sims.

Anyway, I don't want this blog entry to be much longer than the ones I usually write. Through it I hope to have opened a window into my fascination with SL for anyone who wonders why I'd want to dedicate any of my precious time to something like this. More to come soon...and next time I'll also produce my weekly podcast to see if I'm able to cope with both at the same time without bringing the podcast into SL.

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