Gaming & Virtual World Technologies

Just Ask the Avatar in the Front Row

Colleges and universities head into virtual worlds, and student learning and psychology are changed forever.

Gaming & Virtual World Technologies MITCH GITELMAN’S PRETTY EXCITED ABOUT MICROSOFT’S SHADOWRUN. It’s a “first-person shooter” game that’s team-based, he says: It’s played online with friends, using either Windows Vista or Xbox 360, and transports the players into a virtual future. In fact, Shadowrun takes place in 2030—when magic returns to the world—and includes elves, dwarves, orks, trolls, and humans, all sporting a variety of weapons and ammunition. The game is due out in spring 2007, and Gitelman can’t wait; he is, after all, its lead designer.

Still, being studio manager of FASA Studio (one of the Microsoft game studios) isn’t what it used to be. For one thing, Gitelman’s previous team was intimate, at 35 people. Now it’s over 100 strong, including artists, game developers, game designers, program managers, testers, and audio specialists. For another, the games themselves are becoming increasingly complex. Gitelman says that the video resolution has tripled in the past several years, and where it used to take a week to conceptualize and reproduce a character, it now takes four weeks. The whole process, from beginning to end, takes about three years.

“My assignment,” says the game inventor, “is to produce a triple-A-quality game. This is a hit-driven business, so each game has to be designed to be a blockbuster. And in order to create content that looks more and more like a movie, it takes more and more people.” Consumer expectation has risen accordingly, he notes.

Attracting (and Channeling) the Players

Yet just who are those consumers? Typically, says Gitelman, they’re “hard-core gamers”— those individuals who buy games at least once a month and who want to move from a game’s start to finish in about 10 hours. Not surprisingly, many of the consumers are college students who sometimes have LAN parties (spontaneous gatherings of people and computers, networked for the purpose of multiplayer computer games) in their dorms.

Mike Allington knows a good deal about LAN parties. He’s the assistant director of student and classroom technology support at Creighton University (NE), a Jesuit institution of about 6,700 students. For the past few years, Creighton has hosted GameFest, a 12-hour marathon of high-tech, interactive gaming sessions among Creighton students, using the school’s hardware and infrastructure. Allington says that he had the epiphany about GameFest while he was in the shower, and his thought process went something like this: a) IT needs students to work for us; b) Gaming appeals to students even more than drinking does; c) Maybe we could bring students together for gaming and, in the process, recruit them as IT support staff!

It was a eureka moment. About 300 students showed up at the first GameFest; the most recent event drew 1,000. Allington and his crew set up about 50 PCs, 24 Macs, 10 plasma TVs, half a dozen additional TVs, 10 Xboxes, five projectors, and a few PlayStations. A variety of games were offered, but since starting out with first-person shooter and sports games, says Allington, he and his crew have added somewhat more pacific activities, like Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) and RollerCoaster Tycoon. Everything at the events, including refreshments, is free, says the support pro: Sponsors such as Gateway, Apple, IBM, and Gamers (a local gaming company) defray the cost.

Contrary to the perception that the gaming craze may be injurious to college students, Allington believes the video gaming “encourages students to build relationships throughout the campus.” He adds that the university’s academic curricula also are becoming infused with the new gaming technologies. There’s even an “eFellows” program on campus, he reports; it’s training “old-school” faculty members to get up-to-speed on ways to use gaming tools to engage students.

Mike Allington

Creighton U’s Allington believes video gaming not only encourages students to build relationships throughout the campus, but also is an ideal way to recruit students as IT support staff.

The questions now are progressive: Can gaming do more than entertain? Can it facilitate learning? Can it facilitate learning more effectively than classroom lecture and discussion?

Gaming as Pedagogy

Interestingly, there’s some evidence that the answer to all of the above questions is “Yes.” What’s more, pundits say we may only be at the genesis of gaming’s potential as a pedagogical tool in middle and higher education. At this juncture, it’s wise to look at gaming-as-teaching models, wherever they exist.

That brings us to Jerry Bush, a program manager for Cisco Systems in San Jose, CA. Bush is responsible for the Cisco Certified Network Associate program, which has certified more than half a million people around the globe. To put it simply, he develops and manages learning games that supplement training programs at Cisco. His games are used mainly at the Cisco academies, which comprise 400,000 students annually, and are affiliated with universities and high schools. The academies provide students with IT skills and deliver webbased content, online assessment, student performance tracking, hands-on labs, instructor training and support, and preparation for industry standard certifications. Bush’s most recent goal: to get his students to learn the binary numbering system—by playing a game. He says he learned the system himself as he was designing the game: At some point during the process, he recalls, he found that he was “thinking in binary.” He reports that individuals who then played the game worked through about 50 problems in five minutes, and had fun while they were doing it. The players disclosed that they recognized patterns they wouldn’t have discerned the old-fashioned way— that is, via paper-and-pencil homework problems. So far, 35,000 Cisco students, and others in 100 countries, have played Bush’s game. Is it the best way to learn? Bush makes a compelling point: “Maybe it’s not better, but it’s more motivating,” he asserts.

In contrast to Gitelman’s three-year odyssey to develop a blockbuster shooter game for the commercial market, designing a game for the Cisco academies takes Bush about two to six months—as long as he has the three major contributors he needs: a learning expert, a subject-matter expert, and a game expert. The concept, says Bush, is simple: “You have to solve a problem, and the game is part of the solution.” The challenge for pedagogy as a whole, then, is to combine the immersion of Gitelman’s Shadowrun with the lure and accessibility of Allington’s Game- Fest, plus the very real academic benefit of Bush’s binary game.

Going Virtual

Many believe the answer lies in the virtual world: a landscape in which the players exist “inside” of the game, socializing with others in the same virtual game environment, expressing themselves and, thus, learning.

Take, for instance, Second Life, a 3D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by (at latest count) 5.2 million individuals from around the globe, with 60,000 residents added daily. Anyone who downloads the software can participate in Second Life—even a university.

At Ohio University in Athens, OH, Bill Sams is executive in residence and project manager for the institution’s outreach and regional campuses, and that includes the Second Life campus of Ohio University Without Boundaries. Although students can meet fellow learners there, view art installations, and take classes, they can’t get there by car, plane, or boat; only via the virtual world Second Life. But Sams points out that those partaking are not merely participants in the virtual world; the unique aspect of Second Life is that the users can “own” their part of the world. Linden Lab may be the developer of Second Life, but its members can buy into it, setting up islands, cities, or even campuses like Ohio University Without Boundaries.

“It gives you a sense of place,” says Sams, adding, “The possibilities are literally limitless right now.” What’s more, limitless doesn’t entail limitless funds: OU shelled out a mere $1,500 to set up its first island, and another $200 for service fees. Then it was up to the university to offer whatever it liked, and charge whatever it wanted for visitors to attend classes on the boundless campus. Those taking Second Life courses for credit must be enrolled as OU students; otherwise, the courses are free to the public. Sams con- fides, “There is so much potential! We are only just discovering what we can do.”

A New Psychology

As director of the Aesthetic Technology Lab at Ohio University, Katherine Milton is more than aware of the possibilities. Milton teaches experimental media to about a dozen OU seniors and graduate students. On Wednesdays, they all meet in class, but on Mondays, they meet in Second Life—and it is absolutely amazing what this group can do.

When her students head to their Second Life campus, they travel there as “avatars,” or graphic representations of themselves. They can choose to make their avatars resemble their real-life selves, or they can create avatars that express what they wish they looked like—a hot movie or rock star, or a politician, for instance. Once created, the avatars can traverse the virtual campus just as they would their actual campus. But, if they prefer, they can take flight instead of walk. And when they spy another avatar, they can communicate instantly, merely by typing a message— something this generation of texters has little trouble doing at the speed of light.

Recently, Milton took her class online to view an exhibit of artwork by Philip Mallory Jones. In real life, each paper image is 13 inches by 20 inches. In Second Life, though, each image takes up an entire wall, leaving avatars awed at the effect. “It’s a whole different way to use museum space,” says Milton. It’s also a lot less expensive to set up an exhibition in a virtual environment, she admits. Not only that, but the Second Life software allows users to switch modes so that things can be viewed as their avatars would view them: Whereas normally, the online visitor would be seeing the back of the avatar’s head as it gazes at the image, switching modes allows the user to view whatever the avatar sees, just as if the user had jumped into the avatar’s shoes. Milton points out that this kind of virtual learning is new psychologically, as well as new pedagogically: All the rituals are different, she insists. For instance, not everyone walks into class together, and not everyone gets ready to leave together.

Virtualizing Ethnography

Nina Caporale, one of Milton’s students, is acutely aware of both the new artistic dynamics and the new sociodynamics of Second Life. A graduate student in fine arts, she’s been combining her experience in digital photography and video with sculpture installations—both real and virtual. She’s also experimenting with “scripting” the objects on the site in order to expand their “behavioral” repertoires, so the objects can move about and even respond to commands. But it’s the nature of the interaction of the avatars that interests Caporale most.

“When you’re playing a fantasy role,” she says, “you reveal a lot more about yourself. Right now, the most interesting thing to me, personally, is revealing to myself the variety of ways I socialize.” For example, because there are fewer reasons to be inhibited in Second Life, people in their avatar roles are less cautious about broaching potentially sensitive subjects. Caporale thinks that some of those attitudes and behaviors have seeped into her “first” life; her real life. She’s become less timid in some of her “real-people” interactions, she admits, since she became involved in Second Life.

Gaming & Virtual World Technologies

SECOND LIFE STUDENTS walk through subject matter the way museum-goers move through exhibits.

Paul Shovlin is another Ohio University educator who holds classes in Second Life, teaching a required class in junior composition called “Rhetoric and Writing.” Shovlin facilitates discussions with students about their choices for avatars. He asks them how they might relate to him as a teacher, were he to appear to them in a Darth Vader costume; then he expands the discussion to what it means to his students to represent themselves in different ways. They discuss the meaning of “visual literacy”: being able to think critically about images and integrate the images into communication. They discuss how the Second Life medium affects discourse and how the “pseudoanonymity” affects discussions. Shovlin maintains that Second Life is “a great site for ethnography,” because students associate with so many different types of organizations and people. Beyond that, he thinks it’s important for his students to be exposed to these types of virtual environments: “As students are expected, sooner or later, to operate in these environments, it’s our jobs as educators to give them the experience and analytical tools necessary to be successful in them.”

There’s More to Life Than Second

Still, not everyone is a fan of Second Life—at least not yet. John Stinson, the retired dean of Ohio University’s business school, has been involved in online teaching for 15 years and now teaches a class, “Managing in the Innovation Age,” during the winter quarter. He meets with his students in real life and then in Second Life, trying to determine whether Second Life is indeed a practical pedagogical delivery mechanism. He claims he’s been frustrated by technical problems and by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of his students, but he hasn’t given up on the virtual environment. “It has a great deal of potential,” he says; “it’s just not quite ready for prime time.”

There.com (Makena Technologies) may be a bit better prepared for prime time. Director of Product Management Betsy Book says the site, which boasts about 750,000 members worldwide, is “an immersive 3D environment, so it can take a little getting used to.” But of all the virtual worlds, Book claims, There is the most user-friendly, and even New York Law School holds classes within it.

Like Second Life, she points out, There isn’t a fantasy world; it has no set narrative structure. Unlike Second Life, however, There utilizes voice-enabling software, so that users can actually talk and listen to their fellow avatars. A onetime charge ($9.95) gives users access to the voice-chat technology. Membership is free, but costs are involved if users want to do things like buy homes, vehicles, or extra clothing for their avatars. And much of There is social: Members own and decorate their homes, participate in community events, and socialize with their online friends. But it’s not too social: There maintains a strict “no nudity/no violence/no cursing” policy.

Frank Whiting, dean of the University of There (the site’s learning component), says that peer pressure and consensus regulate behaviors: “If you start cursing, people will just put you on ‘ignore,’ and soon you’ll have no one to talk to.” There also uses a profanity filter to screen inappropriate language from text chat communications; the site enforces tough PG-13 content standards (penalties range up to immediate removal from the site and disabling of the offending user’s account). The University of There holds classes throughout the year (Plains Indian lore, theater arts, design, you-name-it). People sign up for the classes, and professionals volunteer to teach them, because “they ‘get’ the visionary nature of having educational projects in virtual space,” says Book. “Educators can reach people in different geographical areas, and it’s a great way to reach young people.”

JustThinkTink, a student avatar, agrees: “I find it very motivating because, once mastered, the virtual learning has both virtual and real-life applications.”

Whiting, a retired Air Force officer who now teaches computer science at Shasta College in northern California, and who has been involved in the gaming community for years, brims with enthusiasm for the site: “You can sit down in a room, face-to-face with people, and talk with them; see their mouths, faces, and bodies move. What we’re doing now is about as close to magic as you’re going to get.” Whiting thinks that this is the beginning of a paradigm shift that’s going to alter the way people shop, live, work, and play. “Wait till someone realizes that you can drop a 2007 car model into a virtual world and let people drive it around,” he says. “Then, think about how much companies pay for a 30-second advertisement in the Super Bowl…”

Currently, New York Law School cosponsors an offshoot of There.com: the State of Play Academy, or SOPA, an entire academy built in a virtual world. Users can take courses in patent law, copyright law, virtual world law, and municipal WiFi policy, among others. The classes are scheduled at a wide variety of times; law professors, journalists, and technologists line up to teach them.

David Johnson joined the Law School’s faculty in spring 2004 as a visiting professor. He’s a faculty member of the school’s Institute for Information Law and Policy, where he directs the Certificate of Mastery in Digital Law Practice Technology program. Johnson reports that a number of NYLS professors who teach both online and traditional courses via various methods all concur that the level of interactivity and participation by students in online courses is noticeably higher than it is for the very same courses taught in an offline or real-world setting. That perception is right in keeping with his experience at SOPA, he adds, “aided in part by the availability of both an IM and a voice channel, so that everyone can talk at the same time without disrupting the flow of the main conversation.” What’s more, he says, those NYLS professors who have given exams to classes taking the same course (some online and some offline) report that the online groups do better on the exams: same courses, same exams. “Not surprising, really,” says Johnson, “given the higher level of interactivity in class.”

Because there are fewer reasons to be inhibited in Second Life, people in their avatar roles are less cautious about broaching potentially sensitive subjects.

Lauren Gelman, the dean of SOPA, is also the associate director of Stanford Law School’s (CA) Center for Internet and Society. “We’re trying to democratize legal education,” she explains, adding that because the SOPA classes are free, and because they can be accessed by anyone with the relevant software, there are very few limits on who can gain knowledge formerly restricted to curricula at traditional law schools. And importantly, the virtual classes have a different character than their predecessors. “These classes become conversations, where the participants are just as involved as the teacher,” says Gelman. In SOPA, the classes meet not in a classroom, but, typically, in a virtual library or coffeehouse, on a virtual couch, or by a virtual tree.

“Relaxed” and “easy” are the most common descriptions of There.com, says Gelman, who relates that the avatars often reflect at least one revealing aspect of their owners’ personalities. One wears a zoot suit, sports an Afro, and flies in and out of classes; another appears in khaki pants, a buttondown shirt, and a goatee. While students learn, “they have the freedom to be playful,” she stresses. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

::WEBEXTRA :: Discover a brave new world of advanced teaching technologies :: Learn more about educational games at the Campus Technology 2007 session, “Playing the Course: Gaming in the Curriculum,” in Washington, DC, July 30-Aug. 2.

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