Second Life: Do You Need One? (Part 1)
- By Patricia Deubel
Second Life appears to be the biggest online community to hit the Internet in recent times. It's a 3D digital world, imagined, created, and owned by its residents, which number more than 7 million from more than 100 countries at the time of this writing. It's not a site that most K-12 educators would consider using, as Second Life requires residents in its main grid to be at least 18. A number of businesses, universities, libraries, museums, and a few educational organizations that cater to K-12 have joined Second Life, and at least one middle school, Suffern Middle School (NY). As a newbie, I wondered what the excitement is all about and decided to explore. What I found was that reading about Second Life and actually experiencing it are a world apart.
What's Second Life?
A more serious side of SL takes place in the section for business and education, where there are opportunities for collaboration, training, distance learning, media studies, simulation, and marketing. There is a full working economy with transactions carried out in Linden Dollars. So there's real money to be made in the Marketplace. People actually earn part or all of their real-life income from such businesses as party and wedding planning, tattooing, auto manufacturing, fashion and jewelry designing, real estate development, architectural design, bodyguarding, publishing, and private investigation. Major businesses like Adidas, American Apparel, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Warner Bros. have established their presence in Second Life with virtual office spaces to show off images of their products and hold virtual meetings. NASA has a presence; so does Major League Baseball with its virtual stadium.
SL offers a Teen Grid, Teen Second Life, only for teens aged 13 to 17 and Linden employees. It's also created by teens. Even educators can't freely visit anywhere in the Teen Grid. To work with teens, educators must purchase a private island and provide a background check for security, and then teens come to them. Teens, or companies that offer their development services, must also have completed background checks and approval to work in the Teen Grid.
Certain areas within SL are marked "Mature" because adult content is available. Between Teen Second Life and those mature areas, readers might wonder what prevents individuals from entering spaces where they don't belong. Linden Lab shares that concern and announced a plan in May 2007 to beta test an age and identification verification system.
There's so much in this virtual world that knowing how everything works is challenging. SL does come with tutorials, which new users really need. It has its own graphics tools, a programming language, and development support. You can create alone or collaborate with others and even make your creations respond to the laws of physics. You retain intellectual property rights over your creations. If you don't want to create your own content, there is a developer directory, which lists individuals and companies that hire out their services to create content for SL. Linden Lab does not create content.
Amareal Jewell joins SL
You need a high-end computer and graphics card and a broadband connection to appreciate what SL has to offer. A single basic account to join is free; however, additional basic accounts cost $9.95. A premium account enables you to own land and get an allowance in Linden Dollars to spend in the world. If you select this premium, expect to pay $9.95 per month or more. Owning land is like owning a website. It means you can build, display, and store your virtual creations, as well as host events and businesses.
The short video How to Live in Second Life will help you join, choose your virtual name, and then an avatar to represent yourself. The process sounded easy enough, but I did not have this video at the time so that I'd know what to expect. When I opened a basic account, it took several attempts to find a name not already used. You select your first name, but choose your last name from a list provided. After several attempts to find a unique name, I chose Amareal Jewell (say--Am a real), and a City Chic female from the list of basic avatars provided.
Next I downloaded the SL software. Unfortunately, when I ran SL the first few times, my avatar was grey and had no clothes on, and I never did get the City Chic female I selected. This was distressing because there was no way I wanted to continue exploring without an acceptable appearance, particularly when the first avatar I met was a guy looking up and down at me. It was curious how the immersive experience right from the beginning began to change my mental framework. I knew that right-clicking on my avatar would allow me to alter my appearance, but I kept getting the message "Can't change appearance until clothing and shape are loaded." Thinking I'd missed something, I logged out, then downloaded and unzipped a couple of template files I found, and logged in again. This time my avatar at least had skin color and a shirt. Eventually, I was able to change Amareal's skin tone and shirt color and get flaired pants, pointy shoes, and a new hairstyle. Whew! This took a while, and she still looks plain. I learned upfront that the learning curve was going to be steep.
I learned from Virtual Bacon (personal communication, June 8, 2007) that users sometimes experience a lag owing to lower bandwidth or extremely high SL useage at the time, which might have been the reason it was taking a long time to download my City Chic female. I just didn't know that at the time. Virtual Bacon (aka, John Jamison), the creator and owner of the SL island of imagiLEARNING, assured me that I would not have had to do anything extra. This usually happens to only relatively new avatars.
Amareal Gets the Basics
My experience of learning about SL, navigating, and communicating, was excessively frustrating. Most times I had no idea where I was, and I knew I'd need a few more tutorials, if I were not going to give up the exploration. Initially, the "in world" tutorials weren't doing me much good because I could not figure out how to access the content while exploring. I'm not saying they are not good. I just needed something to read before entering SL, so I'd understand new vocabulary, commands, and how to use such things as notecards, inventory, and gestures. I needed to see pictures and a few video how-tos. I felt somewhat consoled in that I was not alone in my frustration when I read Amy Gahran's post (2007) at Contentious.com.
I found The Complete Fool's Guide to Second Life by Foolish Frost helpful. There's a growing list of SL video tutorials, plus the Top 10 Second Life Tutorial Videos on YouTube, which helped to explain inventory and how to make gestures, for example. Inventory is anything you collect in SL that you can put on your avatar, use to build, or give away. There are many free items to collect, including a free house, which I now have.
My attempts at movement are still frustrating, as navigation is an acquired skill. You can use the arrow keys on the keyboard or screen to walk around, climb stairs, turn corners, and so on. You can also fly from place to place to get there quicker by clicking on a Fly icon--just expect to fall a lot and get wet when you miss your target. By left-clicking on your mouse and holding your avatar in the middle of the screen, you can rotate your avatar and move about. Tapping once on the Page-up key will make your avatar jump, which can be useful when trying to get to a nearby higher spot or over an object. The Page-down key allows your character to crouch, but there is no apparent useful purpose for this other than to show movement. There is also an option to navigate in "mouselook," which means you don't actually see your avatar on the screen anymore, but rather you view objects through the eyes of the avatar, as in first-person games. It's easy to get lost and when you do, there is a menu option to "Teleport to Home Location," which you can also set based on your preference. It will take a little exploration before you can decide where you'd like to call home.
If you know a SLURL (Second Life URL), you can just enter it in your browser and then teleport directly to that location, similar to the transporter in the Star Trek series. I used a SLURL to go shopping at American Apparel, and it was there that I found the doors to the store closed! Now what? I walked around trying to find an open door. Thankfully, I happened to see another avatar just walk in. I followed and thought, "What did he know that I didn't?" While exploring I discovered that you can purchase virtual apparel for your avatar, and there are signs to click on to take you to the American Apparel website, if you actually want to purchase the real item. When I tried to leave, the doors were closed again and no one was around. That's when I learned quite by accident how to "Touch" to open and close doors. A pie-shaped menu appears by right clicking on most anything. This menu is not unique and shows what you can do with whatever you click on (e.g., sit here, create, touch, edit, take, take off, friends, appearance).
There's also a search option, which I eventually tried to locate IBM, and then my old alma mater, Ohio University (OU). I was intrigued by how closely the OU site mirrored the actual campus.
Inside the student union were spaces to have meetings, sit down, watch a movie, and get a soda. Buildings were well marked. Inside the Art and Music Center you could see student work. YouTube also has a video introduction to OU's virtual campus.
Chat mode or instant messenger can be used to communicate, and some will even write in shout mode "HELLOOOOO!" if you don't answer, and that's being polite. Expect anything. Some are quite helpful, as I found when I visited IBM, which had a help desk manned by an avatar willing to chat about IBM's presence in SL. When you or another avatar enter text for chatting, you actually hear the rat-a-tat of keys and see the avatar with arms raised as though typing on an invisible keyboard. Users concerned about the limitations of chat mode might be interested in the beta testing that SL is doing on their new "Voice First Look Viewer." It's available now for download (Nicole, 2007) so that users can have voice options in SL.
Don't be too quick to judge the merits, or lack thereof, of a virtual world for education. It's a new alternative, by no means mature. Certainly, learning in SL or another virtual world would not be for everyone, but you do need to give it a try and examine its potential before you decide. Come back for part 2 and Amareal's adventure exploring learning opportunities in SL, and some concerns that have been voiced about virtual worlds.
Age and identity verification in Second Life (2007, May 4).
Nicole, K. (2007, Jun. 14). Second Life adds voice to live grid for all users.
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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University and an education consultant. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.
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