May 20, 2010

Online Support for Amputees

This is a short video about how the military is using Second Life to help manage the social and psychological needs of amputees --- including finding ways to let them be with their families virtually during recovery.

I really enjoyed seeing a soldier read to his daughter via Second Life. Reminded me of the days when I traveled a LOT for work and read to my daughter over the telephone ... using a book at each location.

So what does this mean for education? Perhaps that social workers and psychology majors should start getting used to tele-therapy options.

Not that I think they will replace all face-to-face interactions. (Why, whenever we talk about adding a virtual or computer-based tool, do people assume that we intend to use it to replace co-presence interactions??) But it may allow us to bridge distances in situations where being together is not practical. Think about specialized care consultations that could save on travel time - or even become possible where economies of scale would not allow a specialist to be consulted locally. Or where abusive spouses could talk to family members without any risk of physical harm. Or where families who are scattered due to military service or work requirements could be together.

Being virtually co-present is different than talking on the telephone. You can do things together in a game or a virtual world beyond just talking, providing the common experiences so necessary to maintain or (re)develop relationships. But unless tomorrow's leaders, teachers, and therapists have experience with these media, they won't have any idea of how to navigate the differences successfully.

We should be exposing our students to these developing tools now and working with them to help them succeed in whatever media is available to them as they live and work in a world of mixed interaction modalities.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:09 AM

March 17, 2010

Can Gaming Make a Better World?

An interesting talk about how WoW and other games are impacting our world --- and what they are making gamers good at can be found at TED - look for Jane McGonigal's talk "Gaming can make a better world".

As a gamer who is also interested in using virtual worlds and video games as educational tools, I naturally like to hear ways in which games are helping society instead of signaling its tragic end.

Take a few minutes (about 20 of them) to listen to her argument and tell us what you think! In particular, at the end, she talks about some of the games she is creating that actually may train players to think strategically about real world problems and make real, lasting life changes.

Posted by bjohnson at 4:47 PM

February 27, 2010

Play Responsibly

These days, whenever I blog or speak about the value of video games as educational tools, I almost feel like I should a bumper sticker like those you see on the delivery trucks of alcohol distributors: "Play Responsibly!"

Yes, we all know that some people (adults are as vulnerable to this as kids) spend too much time playing computer games. Do I really have to say it? I do not advocate that anyone spend too much time playing video or computer games. I similarly do not advocate that anyone spend too much time watching TV, reading, running, or hiking in the woods (don't scoff...I have relatives who can't hold a job because of hunting, fishing and trapping addictions - somehow we never hear about those in the media!).

Unfortunately, "too much" is something that people need to define for their particular situation. I can't give you a number, which frustrates parents who ask me how much time their kid should be spending playing games. The answer they are looking for is really, "less than what he is spending now" ... that negotiation needs to be taking place between the kid and his (or sometimes her) parents or guardians.

My general rule of thumb, especially for parents or worried spouses is this ... figure that it is a hobby or a sport. How much time is reasonable for someone to spend - for instance - on reading fiction for pleasure or stamp collecting or something sedentary like that? Use that as your guideline and suggest other, more acceptable uses of time.

A note to parents: if you look at some of the more popular games ... World of Warcraft is one ... you CAN set time limits for how long a child is in the game. Use these tools if necessary in conjunction with discussion and modeling of appropriate behavior. If you have a hobby, use it to discuss the appropriate balance between getting the necessary stuff done ... and having some fun too. Kids need to learn how to balance fun and necessity, so look at this as an opportunity to teach some important life skills. It's not easy, but it is essential for all of us to learn to play responsibly.

Posted by bjohnson at 2:42 PM

December 1, 2009

Currently playing: World of Warcraft

Yeap. After experimenting with Second Life (again) for 9 months, I'm shifting my leisure activity back to a polished game while I await the release next year of the Star Wars MMOG.

Yes, I research in WoW at times. More often, however, I still play it for fun.

Why? It runs smoothly and looks great. I know that the art style is not for everyone. It is a little more cartoon-like than, say, Guild Wars or Lineage. But there are still many times when I move into an area and just look around, appreciating the hard work some artist put into designing even out of the way, infrequently visited areas. It's lovely, and is a special break in the middle of winter in the northern US. For people who live in urban areas, I imagine this aspect is even more compelling.

The game has many dimensions and appeals to many levels of game play from casual to hard-core. Depending upon my mood, I can run around an unspoiled wilderness to explore, fish, and gather herbs or engage in a major battle to free a fortress with a hundred other close friends and allies. This explains some the game's huge popularity, and a reason why my family all plays it together. Anyone can legitimately participate in the game and can pick the activities and level of difficulty that suits them.

You can even decide, strangely for a multiplayer game, how socially you want to play. My husband generally plays by himself, happily completing quests and depressurizing from his very social and stressful job. Where my daughter and I tend to be more social players, actively contributing to our guild's progression through the hard, end-game battles.

And, it is simultaneously, a place where I can go to challenge myself to master skills I'm not good at (a hunter who cannot kite or jump-shot ....oy!) while also ensuring that I can accomplish something and mark it off my "to-do" list even if the rest of the day has been a bust.

So, it is a game I come back to again and again for recreation between bouts of playing other games for work. A rough life, I know. But someone has to play the other games to explain them to you!

Posted by bjohnson at 7:37 AM

November 17, 2009

World of Warcraft Pro and Con

Catch this article about the uses and abuses of the fantasy MMOG World of Warcraft:

Posted by bjohnson at 9:41 AM

August 26, 2009

Maslow's Hierarchy in Second Life

I'll be the first to admit that I struggle to find ways that Second Life may be used to convey and construct knowledge in ways that justify the cost of learning to navigate the world let alone learn to build in it.

So, when I find installations such as Maslow's Hierarchy, a build described in The Educator's Second Life, I am very glad to see creations that go beyond mere content distribution and move into creation of an experience for the visitor.

This installation is a walk through of the levels of Maslow's classic model ... literally. The learner starts at a basic ground level point (meeting physical needs) and literally walks an obstacle course to get to the self-actualization level in the sky. The course is not difficult, although I did find myself confused at one point since the path is not always clear, and the middle levels seem to blend into one another. Still, the idea of rising in virtual space as one ascends the pyramid hammers home the concept.

Fortunately, this installation goes beyond what many such educational builds do. Instead of just handing out note cards, the build does encourage some interactive participation ... such as building a shelter out of Lego-like blocks and beating a drum with others in a Native American circle. By the time the participant reaches the top of the course, he or she is exposed to numerous tools used by educators to aid students in self understanding and reflection.

It is worth visiting this place, to begin to understand that the classroom can be stretched and expanded ... an that the online course can contain experiences like this, which are not exact duplicates of what one might do in a physical classroom, but that can be used to increase understanding and retention beyond what can be achieved with mere words.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:40 AM

September 23, 2008

Second Life: Distance Education and IT Fluency Among Girls

Shameless plug for my presentation at SLedCC '08 following ....

This was our team's report on the Tech Savvy Girls project's first year in Teen Second Life. The full paper should be published (eventually) in the conference proceedings. Meanwhile, interested parties can read it here or check out the slide show at Slideshare.

In short, the girls gained IT fluency throughout the year. Most encouraging was the way they learned and appreciated copyright protection on digital media because they, as creators, had to draw boundaries. Critical questions arose over how much material could be taken from others, recombined, and called one's own - which is especially difficult when collaborating with other team members.

The year was not without its challenges, but we made the most of those as learning opportunities. Two of the most successful girls had some of the greatest struggles with the technology itself. But they learned about bandwidth, RAM, FPS, etc. through those challenges and eventually became tech support for families and friends. No matter what they will eventually do in life, they know they can master technology in their lives.

Finally, while it may not be obvious in the paper, I have to point out that the people involved in this project were not physically co-located. The girls and one mentor were together much of the time, but not exclusively, while the other two mentors physically existed in different states. Outside of club meeting times (only two hours per week), all other work time was done virtually, at a distance, in Second Life.

Posted by bjohnson at 7:09 AM

September 20, 2008

Second Life for Critical Thinking

One of the fanastic sessions I was able to attend at SLedCC '08 was done by Dr. Bo Brinkman of Miami University entitled: Using Second Life and Linden Lab as Case Studies to Problemetize the Creation of New Technologies. What follows are my notes from the session. I have not yet found an online copy of the conference proceedings.

Dr. Brinkman teaches undergraduate Computer Science courses. One course he teaches is about the societal impact of technology in which he challenges computer science and engineering students to think critically about technology solutions. A challenge to reaching this objective is that his students grew up with technology and so have trouble reflecting upon the disruption (positive and negative) caused my introduction of new technology.

To help students take a more critical stance, he uses Second Life as a technological phenomenon that is not fully mature. It is a program or platform that is at the initial development end of the adoption spectrum. As such, it is something that is not proven to be valued and necessary - not a household appliance or entrenched communication medium. And it is causing some disruption at various levels in peoples lives and society.

Second Life, in fact, is creating cognitive dissonance throughout industrialized society. It is challenging ideas of what is property, the contexts in which earning money is legitimate, what is communication, what is real, etc. In Second Life, we have fewer traditional ways of enforcing acceptable behavior - in fact, we often find that "acceptable behavior" is a contested concept.

As such, Second Life was very successful in creating cognitive dissonance with his class (better than with videogames). It helped students challenge folk wisdom (which he calls "myth") and understandings. Since most students don't have emotional ties to it, they can look at it more critically than they would at something they trust such as Facebook. Once they HAVE developed a critical stance, it can be turned also to things that they trust such as Facebook, MySpace, etc.

His method:
- post a common myth or misconception or point of controversy and have them discuss
- check to see if it is really true
- critical writing: pick a point of controversy and have them analyse a point of view on it
- take a point discussed regarding SL and extrapolate to similar first life situations

Critical thinking is one of those difficult points that we often desire to instill in students of all ages, but I hear it frequently mentioned at the university level. Think of what reflective, critical learning can be done in the area of business, ethics, epistemology, law, etc. in a world in which the "residents" are from many cultures throughout the world. It is a fertile ground for questioning one's point of view - and that of society.

Posted by bjohnson at 3:02 PM

September 9, 2008

SLedCC '08

I'm just back from SLedCC 2008 in Tampa, Florida, and I promise that I will type up my notes from the sessions and post them here. I promise.

The most exciting thing about SLedCC (the Second Life Education Community Conference) was the fact that we made up half of the encompassing SLCC conference this year. Half of the presentations, at least. I'm not sure how many attendees self-identify as educators, but we rather prominently filled the conference with ways in which we are using Second Life as a serious tool. I met quite a few educators and researchers who are doing very exciting things with this virtual environment, and I can't wait to share some of them with you.

Posted by bjohnson at 7:43 AM

November 24, 2007

Definition: Avatar

Originally, the word "avatar" referred to the physical incarnation of a god.

In the game world, the word is used in a nearly opposite sense, indicating the digital representation in a virtual world or game of a physical person. In both uses, an avatar is the manifestation in one world of a being that exists also in another world - and often in different forms - spiritual, digital, or physical - depending upon the capacity of the world to hold such a being.

The term is most often used in reference to a representation of a player in a virtual world or an online, multi-player game (an MMORPG, MMOG, or MMO). These avatars are often customizable (to minor or great degree), and the player usually must provide a name for the avatar upon creation, causing some investment of the player into the characteristics and fate of their avatar.

This investment of a player into his or her avatar's characteristics is seen by some theorists to be greater than what players invest in generic characters, usually found in single player games and has sparked a number of research studies into online identity. See, for instance, the third chapter of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, in which Gee describes the three identities involved in online gaming and their positive ramifications for educational practice.


Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Posted by bjohnson at 12:37 PM

October 31, 2007

Definition of Virtual Worlds

What is a virtual world? In truth, there is no single, authoritative definition. Wikipedia presents a useable start, however: “a computer-based simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars. This habitation usually is represented in the form of two or three-dimensional graphical representations of humanoids (or other graphical or text-based avatars). Some, but not all, virtual worlds allow for multiple users? ("Virtual World," n.d.).

Not all virtual worlds have graphical interfaces. LambdaMOO, one of the most famous text-based online worlds still exists with many loyal residents (Rex, 2007). Die-hard residents of MOOs, MUSHs, and MUDs, enjoy them for a variety of reasons. In many cases, they are less taxing on computer hardware and bandwidth since they only require text transmission. They also, as aficionados insist, allow for greater literary expression and use of imagination by the reader participant.

Note that virtual worlds may include or incorporate games and game-like elements (such as keeping score), but this feature is not essential. In fact, some theorists explicitly separate virtual worlds from games, preferring to reserve the terms virtual world or virtual environment for spaces where that do not incorporate scoring or similar extrinsic motivators. The line between a game, a simulation, and a virtual world/environment can be quite blurry.

Virtual worlds also do not necessarily need to exist on the web nor do they need to involve multiple users, although these are increasingly assumed in current use of the term. Any computer-based simulated environment can be considered a virtual world,

Virtual worlds usually are modeled, albeit loosely, on the physical world. They incorporate spatial relationships and a sense of place or location. They usually involve physical restrictions (such as gravity, solidity of objects, apparent velocity, use of the visual spectrum, and so on) although they implement very simplified versions of physical laws and often feature specific instances of breaking these laws (such as the ability of avatars to fly unassisted in Second Life).

A very good introduction to virtual worlds and related environments has been created by Virtual Environments Info Group, which includes a comparison chart of many of the current, commonly used worlds ("Virtual Environments, Virtual Worlds, Social MMOGs, MUVEs, DVEs, MMOs," 2007). There are two drawbacks to this site: it does not mention a few worlds (inevitable given the rapid expansion of the field) and that it does not cover the world-like uses made of many popular multi-player games.

Worlds not covered by the Virtual Environments Group include:
• Entropia (

As time permits, I will fill in the gaps and review new virtual worlds. Some of them are annoyingly only available for Windows XP, which hampers the process.
Multiplayer online games (MMOs) can often be used as virtual worlds apart from their game features. For instance, before Sony Online Entertainment revamped Star Wars Galaxies, many residents ignored the game’s score and progression system, focusing instead on their community and online personalities (Kohler, 2005). This further blurs the divisions between games that take place in a created reality (i.e. virtual world) and the open-ended worlds that may or may not include games.


Kohler, C. (2005, December 13). Star Wars Fans Flee Net Galaxy. Wired.
Rex, F. (2007). LambdaMOO (with LambdaMoo Map) An Introduction. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from
Virtual Environments, Virtual Worlds, Social MMOGs, MUVEs, DVEs, MMOs. (2007). Retrieved October 30, 2007, from
Virtual World. (n.d.). Wikipedia Retrieved October 30, 2007, from

Posted by bjohnson at 12:04 PM

September 21, 2007

You Can't Go Home Until 2008

Sony's virtual world, Home, won't be released until 2008, according to reports coming out of the Tokyo Game Show .

For educators, this is more of an FYI than a warning to redo your lesson plans. Unlike Second Life, to which any new virtual world is compared, Home has little if any capacity for user created content. At the far end of the consumerist model, players can buy virtual items and interact with a variety of them. Sony dangles video games and music as enticements into their world. But the ability to create your own simulations, models, or other educational materials appears to be non-existent, putting Home on a different level than user-created virtual worlds such as Second Life or Active Worlds (the PC only offering). While you could still use it as a simplified, self-contained world in which to test basic principles from economics, sociology, communications, and so on, the ability to place recognizable educational content limits the range of possibilities.

On the other hand, the building restriction does have certain advantages for the educational market. Limited end-user creation will severely limit a lot of activities that draw criticism to Linden Lab's Second Life such as cyber sex animations, avatar assault, automated creation scripts that overload sections of the grid, virtual gambling (or is it real gambling?), and so on.

Another advantage to Home is that it plays on a console rather than a general purpose computer. Second Life continues to be plagued by not only a lack of robustness but also incompatibility with a wide range of standard video cards and the Vista operating system. Choice in platform configuration can play havoc with stability of any program, but Second Life has experienced more than its share. Putting a virtual world on a console eliminates most of this potential area of conflict. And it also puts the virtual world in affordability range for more families. Families in lower SES brackets are more likely to buy a popular console on which their favored games will play than a general purpose computer sufficiently powerful to run a high end virtual world such as Second Life or Activeworlds.

On the whole, Sony may be making the right moves to bring people Home.

Posted by bjohnson at 6:54 AM

July 30, 2007

Virtual Worlds News

Yes, there is a blog about virtual worlds, probably more than one, but this is the latest I've found: Virtual Worlds News.

Notice also that they have a tie in to a conference approaching in October.

Posted by bjohnson at 9:38 AM

December 23, 2006

Online Game Developers Conference 2007

Delve into the reality of virtual online worlds at the Online Game Developers Conference.

My advisor is submitting a proposal to talk about cross-functional teams, which is on the usage side of the topic, so I am hoping that similar talks will address the uses - particularily educational - of online games and worlds.

For more information, check the ODGC website periodically. At the moment, they do not have anyone other than the keynote speaker listed (a woman, btw, which is unusual given the stereotype of male developers....), but I assume the agenda and speakers will be listed by March.

Posted by bjohnson at 8:30 AM

December 10, 2006

History of Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds and online multiplayer games have been around in some fashion or other since the mid-1970s. One man (and friends) now boldly choose to document this history at Virtual Worlds Timeline

This project will be interesting to follow as it gets off the ground. Documenting historical events in virtual space presents unique challenges of data collection, access and quality as well as examining the biases inherent in people's perspectives.

For anyone interested in historical research in a new medium, a chance to test theories of practice if I ever saw one, this is something to watch!

Posted by bjohnson at 8:04 AM

October 16, 2006

News Desk Opens in Second Life

On Wednesday, the first news bureau of an existing, real life newspaper will open in the virtual world Second Life. Reuters will join current Second Life news sources such as New World Notes, the Second Opinion, and the Metaverse Messenger.

Second Life, alone of all the virtual worlds, seems to be attracting a number of these mashups of virtual and real world interests. News, business, academics, and even non-profit organizations are establishing virtual locations in a land of bits. And apparently, paying employees to do so.

What does it mean for modern society and business to work and play in a world that you can't touch? How will it change our view of reality - and of people? In a world whose size new rivals a small city in terms of population but with growing cultural diversity (think a small version of New York City or London or Paris), how do we establish social norms?

Thoughts, anyone?

Posted by bjohnson at 7:48 AM

May 18, 2006

Relationships in Virtual Worlds

File this one under the category "The more things change, the more they stay the same"....

My daughter (a teenager) wrote me to ask for money recently.

She was away from home and had - no surprise - overspent a bit. Just stuff she needed for survival, really, but prices are often higher than expected in a new place, and so she was nearly broke with more necessary expenses staring her in the face.

In her defense, she pointed out that she wasn't wasting money. She was buying food and tools she needed. And she was learning a trade - two, in fact. But the cash wasn't coming in as quickly as she'd been expecting in her new location, so could I spare a bit to help her out. She'd even agree to pay me back. Or trade me something for it. In fact, she offered to let me come to her shop and pick out anything I wanted. Anything.

Now, that was a pretty generous and responsible offer. She has a nice shop, and I've often envied her items for sale but never purchased anything.

We did the usual dickering over "how much do you need" until I finally just sent her half of what I had, which ended up being 5 silver pieces and 26 copper....

"Huh?" I can hear people say as they read that last line.

Yeap. 5 silver and 26 copper. Which is not a huge sum of money anywhere, especially where we were - in World of Warcraft. I don't know what that works out to in US dollars since I haven't seen any official or unofficial exchange rate posted for this virtual world, unlike those of Lineage, Second Life, or Gaia Online. But it really doesn't matter. The important thing was the relationship between mother and daughter gamers playing peers in a virtual world, but often finding ourselves replaying - and sometimes evolving - our relationship as parent and child even in an alternate world.

Virtual worlds and the games played in them often get a bum rap from social observers and educators as being escapist and isolating. A place for social misfits who live on Cheetos and Mountain Dew and who have no social life outside of their world of pixels. An easy way for people to avoid the messiness of real relationships or a trap for those who tend toward addictive behavior and who abandon reality in favor of an alter-ego.

To some extent - with some people - this negative impression is well-deserved. However, I would question that virtual worlds, computer games, or video games are any more (or less) isolating than the television set, which has become the center of many people's evening life. As authors such as Putnam have observed, American society has already shifted a great deal away from engaging in structured or unstructured face-to-face social activities. We are often alone when engaging in leisure activities for a variety of reasons, including convenience and the challenges of scheduling things into our too-full days.

I am often struck by the observation that what we do as part of the gaming "community" is really very similar to what others around us do, with only a minor focus shift. My daughter and I talk about events that take place in Gaia or in WoW in a fashion similar to how people around us talk about their favorite TV shows. LAN parties replace the Sunday afternoon sports gatherings (after all, how often can you stand to see the Vikings or Twins lose?). Online meetings to discuss the direction the guild will take next follow similar paths of social interaction as do the club discussions about the next soccer or hockey season - with the same 5% taking an active, leadership role whether online or not.

Slowly, social research is taking place and finding - in general - that online communities mirror face-to-face ones in structure and in fulfilling a social need. For a beginning list of resources, you can check Constance Steinkuehler's MMOG research page to get a taste of the beginnings of social research into online cultures. But more needs to be done - following methods used to investigate any other culture - so that we develop an understanding based on research and observation rather than our own fears about how things that are different are to be suspect.

It is my tentative hypothesis that, the more we look into these worlds of pixels and our own imaginations that we will find that we recreate face to face society within the virtual one. With its good points and its not so good ones. And that includes how we form relationships and interact with one another.

As Joel Greenberg notes in his blog, Friends Talking (, "if you feel dizzy thinking about Second Life and virtual worlds, stick with it. It soon becomes familiar because ultimately, it's about people." And about the relationships between them.

Posted by bjohnson at 9:58 AM