Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Virtual Worlds and Real Classes

Today Joshua Fouts and Nedra Weinreich came to my class to talk about public rhetoric in Second Life. Fouts directs the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and Weinreich runs Social Marketing University and is known in the non-profit/public health for her blogging at Spare Change. Along with Nedra's avatar, we even managed to spend some time in-world, where students experienced a virtual Darfur refugee camp and a catastrophic tsunami. Fouts showed slides of a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina and a flag festooned memorial for the victims of the London bombings in Second Life.

I've written that Second Life in higher education ironically represents a step back to the pageantry and memory palaces of the medieval university, which -- although I'm a traditionalist in many things -- isn't always a good thing. I've also taken issue with the rhetoric of social marketing and public diplomacy in the past, particularly as it has been promulgated through computational media. But I thought that Fouts and Weinreich were great guests who facilitated discussion in the classroom about the messages of virtual environments and computer-mediated communication in situations of co-presence. Given that students had read Lev Manovich on "navigable space" last week and were reading Ian Bogost on "advertising logic" this week, their participation also made curricular sense.

As Fouts and Weinreich spoke about their own experiments, vulnerabilities, and even shopping sprees, I found out that students strongly identified with them, since they had also been dressing up their avatars and wandering around as flaneurs. The undergrads were even comfortable enough with the visitors to share their awkward Second Life experiences, which included suddenly being teleported to the middle of a busy dance floor. Later, one student described the mortification of unexpected avatar baldness. Of course, being English majors, some were dutifully reading all the tutorials first rather than flying around, but it sounded like a good proportion were already getting started on their field studies.

Fouts described how he first discovered Second Life through the Public Diplomacy through Games competition, when a sizable percentage of the entrants submitted games built in SL. As somone wanting to foster cultural exchanges, he thought the fact that 25% of residents were from outside the U.S., a number which has since grown to 83%. He claimed to have first experienced virtual worlds when USC's Doug Thomas recommended the cross-cultural play of Star Wars Galaxies as a place where violence wasn't required, and one could even choose to role-play as a chef, although Fouts ended up a colonel in the Imperial Army and a bounty hunter. Although he described arranging for assemblies of foreign service workers or activists on disability policy in SL, his emphasis was on using the environment cultural exchange. Fouts argued that virtual worlds could have a "soft power" impact that was comparable to that of jazz during the Cold War. Although Fouts described working as a journalist for the now defunct USIA, he claimed that being the son of a primatologist also informed his interest in virtual worlds.

Weinreich opened by acknowledging that many came to Second Life for virtual sex, online play, and the equivalent of online chat rather than for reception of serious messages. However, she argued that the next generation would be much more fully socialized in the practices of virtual worlds. She talked about how her own daughter had a complex Webkinz existence that included being able to provide for material comforts, down to the working toilet for the online counterpart of the stuffed animal from the company, and even a job making pizzas online.

Weinreich argued that many nonprofits and public heath agencies didn't understand what to do in a virtual world other than construct a building and fill it with standard posters and brochures. So she presented her own list of the possibilities, which included "skill building," "simulation," and "support groups." Weinreich even described meeting CDC spokesperson John Anderton at the agency's virtual health fair, where he was explaining E. coli risks from spinach . . . although she didn't mention to my students that he was in drag at the time. Weinreich also plugged mixed-reality events, such as the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, and pointed out that the Non-profit Commons, which has its own blog, holds regular get-togethers in Second Life.

Fouts had to answer at least one tough question from the crowd when a student brought up the much-discussed issue of "Is Second Life empty?" Fouts responded by saying that only 50,000 people were online at any one time in an area ten times the size of Washington D.C. He also argued that Americans were still overcoming forms of cultural resistance that citizens in Japan and other Asian countries no longer felt.

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Blogger Lupton said...

Your students are lucky to meet such accomplished scholar-activists, and to be able to discuss their work with them so openly.

3:51 PM  

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