Making the virtual transition

I recently had an enjoyable discussion about Second Life with someone who I can only describe as a ‘deep thinker’. For me, a deep thinker is someone who leaves slow-burning embers of intellectual curiosity upon which to cogitate, and that subsequently engage my usual goldfish-worthy attention span.

DT was explaining how, in an environment such as Second Life, users will reach a point where they stop questioning the unreality – albeit virtual – of interaction, movement and appearance. And this transition to acceptance is usually very sudden.

(This brought to mind another comment I’d mentally filed, from a learning technologist at a different institution as it happens: “There’s nothing that Second Life offers that I can’t achieve in real life.”)

So through your SL avatar, you can fly, breathe underwater and of course you cannot hurt yourself. You can even choose to appear in outlandish human forms or as a non-human. And not surprisingly, these are things upon which newbies initially concentrate.

But what happens at the point at which these things are no longer so fascinating and become merely functional?

For me, an analogy would be learning to drive. At the beginning, driving is made up of a number of separate actions, each of which require (or at least seem to) an independent thought process. Take pulling off from a parked position, which requires the following (presented in no particular order):  engaging the clutch, slipping into gear, checking the mirrors, indicating, turning the wheel, pressing the accelerator, etc.

There comes a point for most people (my sister, thankfully no longer driving, being one the exceptions) when this series of movements becomes one action, thereby requiring one thought process. So before you know it, the student driver who not long ago nervously ‘kangaroo-ed’ around the estate is today thrashing a Skoda down the M1 to London. Operating the car is merely a functional means of getting to that club in the West End.

In my experience, this transition is also very rapid.

In SL, once this transition happens and the experience is completely immersive for the user – when the unusual environment is no longer being questioned – learning can take place. And then the opportunities offered by the learning environment of MUVEs such as Second Life really become apparent.

I realise I am saying nothing new. And I’ve avoided introducing terms such as routines and sub-routines. But DT encouraged me to think a bit harder – never a bad thing – and of course I realised I’d  seen this sudden transition in action in the Media Zoo.

And to SL sceptics, I’d say this: make sure the transition happens first, and then make the judgement.

Simon Kear

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