Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Virtual Worlds, Culture and Technology


Virtual Lindellhallen, HUMlab Island, Second Life.


What are Virtual Worlds?
The concept of virtual worlds has been used in narrative fiction for a long time. Elements of virtual worlds have existed for a long time in literature, theater, performance arts, story telling, interactive cinema, architecture and town planning. For a more developed history of virtual worlds see an earlier blog post. In the contexts we are discussing today virtual worlds are online three (sometimes two) dimensional shared presistent spaces. A virtual world is a computer-based simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars. These avatars are usually depicted as textual, two-dimensional, or three-dimensional graphical representations, although other forms are possible (auditory and touch sensations for example). Some, but not all, virtual worlds allow for multiple users. Virtual online worlds go by a number of names:

Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs)
Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (commonly abbreviated MMORPG) is a genre of computer role-playing games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world.
Although modern MMORPGs sometimes differ dramatically from their antecedents, many of them share some basic characteristics. These include several common themes: some form of progression, social interaction within the game, in-game culture, system architecture, and character customization. Characters can often be customized quite extensively, both in the technical and visual aspects, with new choices often added over time by the developers. Many games also offer some form of modding in order to allow for even greater flexibility of choice.
Character abilities are often very specific due to this. Depending on the particular game, the specialties might be as basic as simply having a greater affinity in one statistic, gaining certain bonuses of in-game resources related in-game race, job, etc. MMOG or simply MMO are variations on the MMORPG theme.


Memorial Gathering in WW2 Online


Multi User Virtual Environment (MUVE)
MUVE (plural MUVEs) refers to online, multi-user virtual environments, sometimes called virtual worlds. While this term has been used previously to refer to a generational change in MUDs, MOOs, and MMORPGs, it is most widely used to describe MMOGs that are not necessarily game-specific. The term was first used in Chip Morningstar's 1990 paper The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat. A number of the most popular and well-known MUVEs are:

Croquet Project
Neverwinter Nights
OpenSimulator
Project Wonderland
Second Life
There

Modern MUVEs have 3D isometric/third-person graphics, are accessed over the Internet, allow for some dozens of simultaneous users to interact, and represent a persistent virtual world.


A crowd in Second Life




Avatars
The avatar is the central point for life in a virtual world. An avatar (अवतार, from the Sanskrit word for "descent") is a computer user's representation of himself/herself or alter ego, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities, or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. It is an “object” representing the embodiment of the user. The term "avatar" can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.
The research on avatars across academic and industry settings is broad and extensive.





People and Their Avatars, from the book, Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators by Robbie Cooper.


For the purposes of cultural study and analysis what is perhaps most interesting about virtual worlds is that they are social. Millions of people meet in online virtual worlds and share ideas, virtual objects, art, secrets, passions, work and languages. How these people meet and communicate is a fascinating area of knowledge. Questions that are relevant here include, What does it mean to 'meet' someone in a virtual world?, How does a person represent or construct a self in a virtual world?, How can terms such as author, player, user, reader, identity, viewer, narrative, participant, sender and receiver can be used in relation to virtual worlds?

Culture and Virtual Worlds
Wherever there is social activity there is most likely to be cultures. Virtual worlds are useful when it comes to cultural studies and criticism for a number of reasons. While we must always be aware that we are dealing with highly mediated spaces (that are in themselves cultural artifacts) in engaging with virtual worlds, they are at the same time sites of highly complex human interactions, with all its accompanying strategies of representations, depictions, simulations, communications and architectures. An example of this is the BBC documentary:


Watch Wonderland: Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love

Carolyn is a 37 year-old mother of four in the midst of a passionate affair that is tearing her family apart. She's spending up to 18 hours a day with her lover, and her husband is in despair. But the extraordinary thing about this affair is that Carolyn's lover is a man she has never met. Because he's not a human being. This is a film about those who've become so disillusioned with their real life that they've sidelined it in favor of a virtual life. It's about people who've cheated on their life partners and risked losing everything, for the promise of a life that's so far only been experienced in the pixels of a computer screen and the dream world of their own fantasies. Deals with adult themes.


The reality of virtual worlds is apparent in the Wonderland documentary. People's lives are changed and challenged by what occurs through the mediation of Second Life. In a similar way, culture is enacted and produced through the use of virtual worlds´.

Research
As a research object Virtual Worlds can be approached from many different angles. As games, as social fields of experience and representation, as New Media artifacts, as interactive design tools. The list is potentially very very long. Here are some recent research ventures into the world of Virtual Worlds:

Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Traces by Bruno Latour
Imagination no longer comes as cheaply as it did in the past. The slightest move in the virtual landscape has to be paid for in lines of code. If you want your avatar to wear a new golden helmet or jump in the air, gangs of underpaid software engineers somewhere in Bangalore have to get out of bed to work on your demands. The fancies of our brains have shifted so little from the real to the virtual that tens of thousands of children in China are earning a living by causing avatars to graduate to higher levels in various digital games before reselling them for a good prize to boys in America who like to play those games but have not the time nor patience to earn enough “points” for their aliases. When Segolène Royal, the French presidential candidate, bought a piece of real estate on Second Life to start a campaign headquarters there she paid for it in hard cash.

We'll all be citizens of virtual worlds By Victor Keegan (The Guardian)
Most people still look askance if you admit to using virtual worlds where you move around with an avatar or 3D version of yourself. It recalls the technophobic reactions in the early days of the Internet. But attitudes may now change for two reasons. First, children are piling into their own virtual worlds, so their parents can get a glimpse of what it is all about. And second, a huger user base is being created, one that is accustomed to virtual worlds and is ready to trade up to more sophisticated ones as they grow older.

Gender Swapping and Socializing in Cyberspace: An Exploratory Study
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are one of the most interesting innovations in the area of online computer gaming. Given the relative lack of research in the area, the main aims of the study were to examine (a) the impact of online gaming (e.g., typical playing behavior) in the lives of online gamers, (b) the effect of online socializing in the lives of gamers, and (c) why people engage in gender swapping. A self-selecting sample of 119 online gamers ranging from 18 to 69 years of age (M = 28.5 years) completed a questionnaire. The results showed that just over one in five gamers (21%) said they preferred socializing online to offline. Significantly more male gamers than female gamers said that they found it easier to converse online than offline. It was also found that 57% of gamers had engaged in gender swapping, and it is suggested that the online female persona has a number of positive social attributes in a male-oriented environment.

Avatars and the Invisible Omniscience: The panoptical model within virtual worlds.
(PDF)

This Exegesis and accompanying artworks are the culmination of research conducted into the existence of surveillance in virtual worlds. A panoptical model has been used as a probe, and its premise tested through extension into these communal spaces. Issues such as data security, personal and corporate privacy have been investigated, as has the use of art as a propositional mode.
In producing this Exegesis, I have drawn on existing and new theoretical arguments and observations that have aided the development of research outcomes. These include a discussion of action research as a methodology and questionnaire outcomes designed to assist in understanding player perceptions and concerns.
A series of artworks was completed as part of the research to assist in understanding the nature of virtual surveillance. They have been used as a method to provoke and examine outcomes, and as an experiential interface for viewers of the research. The artworks investigate a series of surveillance perspectives including parental gaze, machine surveillance and self-surveillance.

Sex Lies and Reality (Myths and Truths of Virtual Worlds)
The way the article(s) talk about the issue, the difference is not really on the virtual world itself, but how the mainstream perceives the virtual world. Maria João Lima, writing for the online Portuguese magazine “Meios & Publicidade“, expands on this point: the media is still attached to fabricated myths and stereotypes that label and tag virtual worlds as the place where freaks and borderlines spend their time because they’ve got no other thing to do. This image is still very strong and sells newspapers. However, media agencies are here to help brands and their corporations to sell their own services and goods, and they have to follow their customers — and these are communicating inside virtual worlds. It’s time to dispel the myths, look at what really happens in virtual worlds, and exploit this medium for better communication with the customers.

Meeting in the Ether
Virtual worlds, shared graphical spaces on the Internet, are an exciting new medium of human presence for the 21st Century. This article explores the origins, evolution and future of the virtual world medium from their humble beginnings in multi-player games to their use in education, business, science and engineering. Our focus will be on the development of social virtual worlds including environments such as Habitat, Active Worlds and Second Life.

Evaluating Cultural Learning in Virtual Environments. PhD thesis, University of Melbourne by Eric Champion

30 Days in ActiveWorlds – Community,Design and Terrorism in a Virtual World. Chapter 8 in the Social Life of Avatars.
The idea behind ‘30 Days in ActiveWorlds’ was to fully document the development of a virtual environment from beginning to end, as a plot of virgin virtual land which, it was hoped, would develop into a community and a fully-fledged new virtual world. The aim was not to create a dialog of life in the virtual environment, such as the well-documented “My Tiny Life” by Julian Dibbell [1] or “The Cybergypsies” by Indra Sinha [2], yet the events that unfolded over the 30 Day period led to just such a documentation, and with it my conclusions about not only community and design in a virtual environment, but also views on the increasingly blurred boundaries between what is real and what is virtual.

My Virtual Life
A journey into a place in cyberspace where thousands of people have imaginary lives. Some even make a good living. Big advertisers are taking notice

The key to studying virtual worlds, like computer games, is participation. You have to be in it to understand it. So my final bit of advice it that if you are interested in studying virtual worlds more, join one. Make an avatar, look around, meet others, create a project. Good luck. It is a wonderful metaverse out there.

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