Would You Like to Teach My Avatar? Learning in Second Life

Patrick Lichty

In the video Do You Want to Date My Avatar, the cast of the online sitcom The Guild[1] playfully show the differences between physical and virtual lives by highlighting fantastic/idealized virtual lives. This bifurcation between the everyday real and fantastic virtual is intrinsic to teaching in virtual worlds. By discussing a pedagogy of virtual worlds, and in particular, Second Life, one has to consider several aspects of their specific qualities in order to create a discursive context for their use in the classroom. Second Life (occasionally referred to here as “SL”) is a virtual online community in a 3D setting with open-ended sets of media delivery options and building tools. It is only one of a number of virtual worlds that are being used as teaching platforms, such as the open-source OpenSim[2] which is relatively similar. However, for this discussion they will be considered similar enough to be equivalent to SL. There has been a long history of online virtual spaces, such as MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), and MOOs (Bartle), and including other spaces like AlphaWorld[3] and OnLive Traveler.[4] Furthermore, many other “virtual worlds,” including multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft[5] are being used as educational platforms. However, I will stay with Second Life in order to retain a modicum of focus, and hope that the reader can remap the insights in this essay to their environment of choice. I would like to begin with the engagement of SL as tool for content delivery, then consider dissonances with student culture, and then muse on some of the strengths of SL as online spaces where work remains, or “persists” for future classes. From this I will also give an example of one particularly successful project we have used in the Department of Interactive Arts & Media at Columbia College Chicago’s Media Theory curriculum.[6]

So, what is SL? Second Life is a community-based online 3D virtual world created by Linden Labs in 2003. It consists of a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) where “residents” establish various communal, social, and cultural practices. These include the creation of educational, institutional, and commercial concerns, with “real world” sites like the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, Playboy Magazine, ZKM Karlsruhe (a center for electronic media in Germany) and IBM currently or previously being involved. Residents interact through avatars, or embodied virtual representations that congregate, engage in art and performance (as with the art groups Second Front[7] or Eva and Franco Mattes (Mattes  Synthetic Performances)) create architecture, teach, and so on.

One can argue that the history of virtual spaces can come from immersive environments like Lascaux and Bacchic mystery rooms (Grau 26). The spatial/embodied version of the electronic variety could be linked to Heilig’s Sensorama coin-operated virtual experiences (158) to Jaron Lanier’s “goggle and glove” paradigm (167), as seen in the VR arcade game, Dactyl Nightmare.[8] In the later 90s, we would see the CAVE’s 6-walled virtual reality space, as well as online virtual spaces like OnLive Traveller[9] and Superscape (CNET Staff) that are early cases of virtual architectural environments. What is important about spaces like Second Life is that work created in virtual worlds remains there unless deleted, where it can be edited/modified/ stored for the future. The ability to create modifiable “persistent” spaces and combine them with multiple streams of media delivery and real-time participant interaction create experiences that can represent accrued work and rich media delivery strategies.

In short, Second Life is an avatar-based, persistent multi-user virtual environment that allows users to create persistent content, share media and web content in common online spaces. Many institutions of higher learning are using this environment (Bowling Green State, Columbia College Chicago, and Ball State (SLurl)), and the uses have included virtual architecture, social investigations, collaborative design, virtual narrative and game design.

A compelling aspect of SL as teaching tool is its ability to deliver multiple media streams in different forms. In my essay, “Speaking the Multimedia Culture,” (Lichty, 1998) I made the argument that media culture has created a culture in which the masses have begun to multitask the way people process simultaneous streams of media, as well as think and speak in terms of them. This “(defines) narrative strategies . . . applied to an emerging culture of media simultaneity [that creates] a more immediate, visceral experiential framework.” At the time the presentation was delivered, the quote primarily referred to the Web, radio, and television, delivery of text, media, audio, and so on. But in virtual worlds, and especially in Second Life and OpenSim, these channels are literalized into a virtually embodied multimedia space. This is significant in that it represents an integration of the channels of delivery into one milieu, and this is further recursed in the Revision 2 version of the Second Life client’s ability to use web content to be used as the texture of a basic geometric shape, in Second life, called a primitive. These abilities take the idea of the multiple channels of a digital age and folding it into virtual space as just another set of channels among many. Therefore, my approach to a theory of media concurrence and implementing it in SL is congruent with engaging pedagogy as a form of embodied theory.

In practice, my particular department feels that critical engagement with media production is essential to intentionality and proper formation of message. In our program’s core curriculum, we have two mandatory freshman Media Theory classes, and elective/concentration courses in Virtual Worlds, Game Culture, and Digital Media Culture. This follows from a Heideggerian sense of intentionality rather than a purely technical/instrumentalized approach to teaching mediated communication. Having been introduced to the theoretical foundations and having inculcated them in critical thinking, the students are better prepared to have articulation of their own voices, although there is occasional youthful resistance.

There are challenges in student engagement in using Second Life as a pedagogical tool that are surprising given that the Millennial generation is one of social media and user-created content, like Deviantart.[10] The program I teach in at Columbia College Chicago is constituted by about two-thirds Game Design majors, and at times students in the department speak vociferously against the platform. This opposition may be only due to the propagation of attitudes of a few, but the issues relate to the open-endedness of the platform and the inconsistent formal quality of the user-created content. This is due in part to student acculturation to results-based learning, popularized by 2000’s techniques in test-based education. Second, although the student population is highly involved in user-created content, their expectations from an online service like SL are for highly crafted environments like in World of Warcraft. And their goal/results-based training is aimed at discrete quest-based tasks, which are discontinuous with the “sandbox” approach in SL.

How does one change the disconnection in expectations between genres (game vs. non-game virtual world) for the student? Teachers using virtual worlds need to discursively frame the function of the space in order to properly engage the student. Perhaps “selling” SL to a gaming population used to fast-paced platformers is a challenge, but a counter-challenge is to reply, “Well, if you think it is that terrible, let’s see how much better YOU can do!” The call-to-arms to the student is a wonderful opportunity to engage in a positive critical position or to craft critique based on better solutions. In addition, I also offer the opportunities of virtual socialization social spaces: art luminaries, famous writers, well-known curators, and many others often spend time in SL. Once the student understands the import of the “social” of the social media aspect of SL, their attitude becomes much warmer.

Second Life is also useful as a teaching tool for qualities of content persistence in a social medium, as content created on our departmental island can remain as long as we (i.e. the administrators) want. There is also the consideration that our department pays Linden Labs for Second Life server space, and will soon do so with no educational discount, as this has been discontinued. The best work from exhibitions, class exercises and embedded media can remain as exemplars across semesters and class sections. Although administrators need to balance retention between legacy content and currently generated work. This is largely up to the instructor, but if you think about keeping a portfolio of best student work from a series of classes, this is no different. What may be different is that the virtual world might be a “commons” where multiple classes share the same space, creating a heterogeneous space over time and section that could be inspiring to the student.

Social responsibility is also an issue that is foregrounded when using SL in the classroom, even if the spaces in question are virtual. Much work in Second Life is collaborative in nature, so the class forms micro-communities and adopts collective responsibility for them. Of interest to this context is also my contact with students who participate in the “troll” or “lulz” subculture (Schwartz 1) that engages in disruption of user experience as entertainment. This allows the framing of these cultural effects within the Media Theory curriculum as applied examples of online ethics and social ramifications through face-to-face interaction. This may have to do with the nature of the world itself, or perhaps with the tools and their interfaces. This brings me to changes that I would make to SL and virtual worlds. Changing SL as a tool would include radical revisions to its interface toolset for more intuitive interaction. This is not to say that a multi-user world that includes idiosyncratic 3D modeling tools, internet chat and character action controls is necessarily going to have simple interfaces, but it does create stratification my skill set. But in defense of my student body, one of the hallmarks of great environmental/user experience design for a game is a shallow learning curve for controls and navigation. Although Second Life is not a game as such, I do feel that Linden Labs’ interface design is subpar when compared to other embodied media-like games.

Many of the plusses and minuses of teaching in the SL environment have been discussed earlier, but perhaps an apt case study might be to consider an experience of conducting a class visit in SL. This study is an amalgamation of visits to Christiane Paul’s graduate seminar at the New School (Paul) and Susan Ryan’s New Media undergraduate class at Louisiana State (Ryan). These situations share common elements, with slight variations, exhibiting a consistent set of experiences.

All of these class visits included trips to large scale installations in Second Life, like the National Portrait Gallery of Australia (NPGA SLurl & website) or the Odyssey Art Simulator (SLurl), both of which were contexts to discuss virtual art and performance. The methodology worked well in that I could engage with these classes from my office at Columbia College Chicago and connect with them in an embodied fashion in these networked spaces. A drawback was that non-experienced users had some degree of technical difficulty, or the network itself was not working properly. This delayed the start of the lecture for about 15 minutes. Once the technical bugs were worked out, the lecture progressed fairly well. However, the continual usage of avatar “gestures,” or small audiovisual animations, were activated regularly by the attendees, giving rise to an unruly classroom, necessitating a call to order.

After getting the class into a coherent flow, the delivery of content is conversational, with the ability to deliver still and media content, creating an enjoyable experience. Of course, if the lecture is in a public area, Second Life is famous for “trolling,” or harassment by some users for entertainment purposes. Being ideologically in support of anarchistic social practices, I find it ironic that the 12-foot tall Hello Kitty avatar with the phallus gun and harassing comments is of any consequence. However, an academic class necessitates certain institutional expectations. The lecturer is then presented with a quandary: What to do? Does one shut down the lecture, react (which is the desired response and worst idea), ignore the troll, ban them from the region (if possible), or engage with similar tactics (i.e., setting the offender on fire and blasting them up to 15 km high) while explaining the phenomenon to the class? While ignoring is often the most appropriate measure, engaging tactically can be the most effective and satisfying, as it offers a chance to explain social practices and subcultures in online spaces and virtual worlds. What is clear from this study is that the effective educator in virtual worlds has to have technical competency with the tool, knowledge of social dynamics of the space, and understanding of local cultural specificities. If one is going to use Second Life as an educational space, one has to understand it as more than another classroom; it is an excursion into another world. This principle is explicated in our curriculum as an imaging exercise that introduces students to the environment as milieu.

One of the most successful applications of Second Life in the classroom is that of our “graphic novel” exercise. This occurs in the Media Theory track (Columbia Chicago Website) when we begin looking at serial narrative as applied to the construction of the “comic” as defined by Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics. In it, he defines comics as being “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence”(McCloud). So, since our students are not assumed to be illustrators at the time they take the first Media Theory class, they are introduced to Second Life to find content in making a short story in the style of a graphic novel. The narrative framework for this project is variable, from documenting a day’s experiences in SL, to creating a fictional tale, or using sentences cut from various stories and mixing them up (à la Burroughs and Gysin’s “cut-up” method (Jones et al. 345-7)). The idea is to take snapshots from SL and combine them with the text snippets through a DIY comic program like Comic Life to illustrate the class’s teachings of serialism, layout and visual direction.

Of these projects, my favorite is “Alcohol” by Josef Locastro, which mixes lexia cut from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (Adams) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (Gibson). The scene is set in the SL region called Insilico (SLurl), which is a cyberpunk region modeled very much after Gibson’s novels, or even Ridley Scott’s vision put forth in the movie Blade Runner (Scott). The plot involves a breathless tryst inside a neon-bathed bar called the “Blue Ant” with short passages I can only recognize as being ones relating to Gibson’s assassin anti-heroine, Molly Millions. However, its success derives from the glowing, lush images from Insilico, which are analogous to the visual style of graphic novels, along with Locastro’s arrangement of word and image in the framework of the assignment. The ability to find a “native” to collaborate to create appropriate imagery, thematically and visually, along with the student’s ability to stage these tableaux made this exercise particularly successful.

The use of Second Life as a pedagogical tool can be very rewarding, but also presents challenges. The tremendous possibilities offered by the environment are also confounded by the learning curve and the cultural challenges of the student body’s perception of online environments as juxtaposed to gaming. The potentials for meeting extraordinary people, for the delivery of unique content and for collaborative experiences constitute just some of the opportunities SL provides. For example, frequent lectures by scholars and external speakers inside virtual worlds give the student the opportunity to see a much wider amount of content. The potential for multiple classes/constituencies gives opportunities for classes from different schools to interact. And lastly, although this is not the end of the possibilities, there are communities of ESL language learning groups in-world (its-teachers.com).

SL offers all of the above, but there is an experiential and technical curve in acclimating to SL in a classroom environment. An important point to understand is that it is not merely a tool for content delivery or communication, but an alternatively embodied environment with its own challenges. But for the educator who can understand the specific technical, social, and cultural issues in working in virtual worlds, the results can be highly effective.

Works Cited

Adams, Douglas. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. New York, NY: Crown, 2004.


Alphaworld. Web. 21 January 2011. http://www.activeworlds.com/worlds/alphaworld/

Bartle, Richard. “Early MUD History.” Web. 21 January 2011. http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/mudhist.htm

“Superscape Launches VR Software for PCs.” Alphaworld. Web. 1 October 2010. http://news.cnet.com/Superscape-Launches-VR-Software-for-PCs/2100-1001_3-278111.html

“Columbia College Chicago Media Theory Curriculum Wiki.” Media Theory Curriculum. Web. 25 December 2010. http://iam.colum.edu.

“Cut-up Method.” The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America. Ed. Leroi Jones. New York, NY: Corinth Books, 1963.

Dactyl Nightmare entry @ arcade-history.com. Web. 15 September 2010. http://www.arcade-history.com/?n=dactyl-nightmare&page=detail&id=12493.

Deviantart Website. Web. 28 December 2010. http://www.deviantart.com,

Gibson, William. Neuromancer, New York, NY, Ace, 1984.

The Guild. “Do You Want to Date My Avatar.” Web. 23 December 2010. http://www.watchtheguild.com/the-guild/the-guild-music-video/.


Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Lichty, Patrick. Speaking the Multimedia Culture, State of the Arts: Production, Reception, and Teaching in the Digital World. University of Maryland, College Park. 8 October 1998. Plenary presentation.

Linden Lab Website. Web. 24 December 2010. http://lindenlab.com/.

Mattes, Eva and Franco. Synthetic Performances. Web. 15 September 2010. http://www.0100101110101101.org/home/performances/.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper, 1994.

National Portrait Gallery of Australia. Doppelganger Exhibit. Web. 28 December 2010.

Onlive Traveler, Community Site. Web. 25 September 2010. http://www.digitalspace.com/avatars/traveler.html

OpenSim. Web. 21 December 2010. http://opensimulator.org.

Paul, Christiane. “Media Studies: Ideas.” The New School. Web. December 23 2010.

Ryan, Susan. “Digital Art History, Fall 2010.” Louisiana State University. Web 23 December 2010. http://dahlsu.wordpress.com/

Schwartz, Mattathias. “The Trolls Among Us.” New York Times. 3 August 2008. Web. 13 October 2010.

Scott, Ridley. Blade Runner. Los Angeles: Warner Brothers, 1982.

Second Front. Web. 18 October 2010. http://www.secondfront.org.

SLurl, Ball State University Second Life region. 28 December 2010. http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Ball%20State%20University2/216/147/36.

SLurl, Bowling Green State University Second Life Region. Web. 28 December 2010.

SLurl, Columbia College Chicago Second Life Region. Web. 28 December 2010. http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/I%20AM%20Columbia/150/175/21.

SLurl, Insilico region (Blue Ant Bar). Web. 28 December 2010. http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/INSILICO/79/225/3612

SLurl, Odyssey Art Simulator Web. 28 December 2010. http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Odyssey/121/35/25.

SLurl, Portrait Island (National Portrait Gallery of Australia). Web. 28 December 2010. http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Portrait%20Island/246/151/32.

“Study and Teach in Second Life.” It’s Teachers. Web. 21 January 2011. http://www.its-teachers.com/destinations/second_life/second_life03.asp

The Guild. Web. 23 December 2010. http://www.watchtheguild.com.

World of Warcraft. Web. 23 December 2010. http://us.battle.net/wow/en/.

[1] See <http://www.watchtheguild.com/>.

[2] See <http://opensimulator.org/>.

[3] See <http://www.activeworlds.com/worlds/alphaworld/>.

[4] See <http://www.digitalspace.com/avatars/traveler.html/>.

[5] See <http://us.battle.net/wow/en/>.

[6] See <http://iam.colum.edu/>.

[7] See <http://www.secondfront.org/>.

[8] See <http://www.arcadehistory.com/>.

[9] See <http://www.digitalspace.com/avatars/traveler.html/>.

[10] See <http://www.deviantart.com/>.