Are we human or are we avatars?

A very special component of working and learning in 3D Multi User Virtual Environments (MUVES) like Second Life (SL) is the avatar involving a  creation of our own ’double’, an experience which is both disorienting and exhilarating! In SL there are choices about how the avatar looks and responds to others and the environment.

Behind every avatar is a living, breathing, learning human being. After basic skills such as movement and camera controls are tackled, immersion and dialogue becomes simpler, more enjoyable and effective. After this initial induction into SL, there is a powerful stage of experience of personal development, where there is a suspension of disbelief and the avatar is immersed in the experience. One way of describing this is that the experience transcends being a ‘puppet’ to that of extension of self.

When these type of experiences occur freely in SL, individuals may engage in activity or experiences that they would not undertake in Real Life (RL). If such an experience can be made purposeful and designed for learning, it seems to me we have tools at our disposal the like of which no educators have ever had before.

Some people work hard to represent their avatars as (usually slightly improved) but recognisable versions of their RL selves.  Others are intrigued by the opportunity to ‘become’ something completely differently. (Almost all avatars want to exploit SL’s capacity of allowing them to fly!)  Teleporting (moving instantly anywhere in the virtual world) also appeals in our traffic-ridden RL. 

Many of the hopes and predictions for the future for 3D MUVES centre on identity experimentation, self-revelation and role play and the creative variation of social norms around gender, ethnicity, social class, and group values and goals. Areas to exploit in the future include the intrinsic nature of playfulness, exploration, immersion and naturalistic learning. It looks like the role of avatar identity and its role in learning and teaching is likely to exercise numbers of researchers if 3D MUVES continue to increase in popularity and diversity.

Is your avatar going to be part of it?

Gilly Salmon/Genevieve Simons

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