The title for my Assignment Living as an Avatar in Second Life: Simulacra and Simulation in action came to me at the point of writing about it. The more I reflect on it the more I think how strange, out-of-this-world, this experience has been/is being. I feel a little like Alice in Wonderland finding myself in a parallel universe which just occasionally seems like the one I ‘know’.
Second Life is a virtual reality world where some of its (very creative) members have created locations within which others can create their own stories. I’ve found this a very different experience from reading a book or watching a film. On the whole I’m aware of manipulating my Avatar but sometimes (and it is only sometimes) I become my Avatar and find myself behaving in, and approaching, situations as I might have done in ‘real’ life. I shouldn’t be surprised really because I have had similar experiences in role plays but I certainly didn’t expect it to happen with a virtual character that I especially chose to not look like me!
I’ve therefore been a subject in my own experiment, which includes what happens to someone’s brain when they engage in this digital world. Something does happen and I’m guessing it’s in a different part of the brain from where reading and looking occur; maybe there’s a linkage that produces an altered state of consciousness. In this sense I could say I am adding personal evidence towards Marshall McLuhan’s earlier belief that this new digital world would change people’s brains, as did the invention of printing) and the information reported by Marc Prensky (2001) that students were thinking and processing information in a different way from their predecessors who he termed ‘digital natives’. This can be positive or negative; concerns are often expressed about the effect on children’s brains if they engage at too young an age for long lengths of time with their computers as explained here . Whilst their brains are still very malleable, though, mine is surely more set in its ways so less susceptible to the effect of altered states of consciousness, even though I sometimes enjoy the experience of entering into them.
Technical and Visual Skills
For this assignment my tutor suggested I create a video with voiceover. I chose to put together several clips from videos I had created in-world with the aim of depicting the entry and responses of a new Avatar in Second Life. I’ve created videos before, as can be seen in other parts of my learning blog, but there was a new challenge in using different tools for separate actions at the same time – videoing whilst manouvering my Avatar. It was also the first time I have merged video clips to such an extent. I think I did reasonably well with this and learned how to merge clips together, with fades where appropriate, so that they would synchronise. One clip is too long (where I am running) and can benefit from being shortened slightly. I also attempted something new in using two different sound tracks – one from in-world sounds and the other being my voiceover. If I had given myself a longer lead-in time for video editing I could have had more practice with the recorder. A fellow student, has been very helpful in giving me feedback and tips on ways to improve so I feel encouraged to persevere and improve the sound quality of my current voice-over, use fades of sound more effectively, as well as do further practice with my H4n Zoom recorder.
I think my choice of an additional presentation in the form of an illustrated digital diary was a good one and the theme I chose was appropriate. I’m pleased I sought, and took account of, feedback advice from other students and put more of my own thoughts and responses into the written parts. I will write more on this below.
Quality of Outcome
My original mind map for assignment 5 was very useful as an aid to establish different aspects/themes emerging from my earlier work during Assignment 4. I think I communicated my ideas and experiences clearly and read and researched appropriately. My reflections on the concepts of Marshal McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, David Chandler’s views on the latter and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave providing a sound platform for the experiential aspects. “The Uncanny Valley” was a new concept to me but it certainly fits Second Life in terms of many of the created landscapes there and, of course, many of the Avatars. Having read on this I was even more determined that my own Avatar would look more human and hopefully gain more interest from viewers.
At present, keeping to a digital presentation seems to fit the subject best and I intend to improve/extend my technical skills before formal assessment.
Demonstration of Creativity
I have definitely used my imagination, which has been strongly exercised. I took risks in choosing to allow aspects of myself to be revealed, slowly at first and then more obviously – with encouragement from peers. I’m pleased with the way in which I’ve been able to synthesise my research and reading with an experiential approach and to have had some fun doing it. I haven’t found the right description yet but there’s something in my head about being a digital ethnographer. I hope that my personal voice has been much in evidence within my approach to the assignment.
Whilst I did experiment with earlier, layered forms of 3D, I haven’t as yet used the Second Life 3D modelling software which is said to be more simple than Adobe software whilst being a good introduction to it. Instead I’ve concentrated on learning how to control the camera, how to actually ‘unpack’ 3D objects which were already in my inventory or the set of furniture I purchased and, most importantly how to move my Avatar. However, as a respite, I have recently downloaded Adobe Fuse and created two 3D characters which are older appearance-wise and ready to be animated when I have more time. Still not as old as me though – why not take the opportunity to have a younger virtual body, without surgery or other treatments as I’ve enjoyed the experiences of flying and running.
I will also continue with learning Adobe Premiere Pro so that I can create more sophisticated videos.
My increasing involvement in Second Life has emerged fairly slowly due to my determination to limit the time spent there and the need to give enough time to reflection. I believe I have behaved as a ‘digital settler’ and, in terms of ethnography, as a ‘participant observer’. As a ‘settler’ I armed myself with tools for living, as it were, through prior reading and grounding in personal/physical reality through my choice of name, something which felt important to me. I would say that, overall, I used the tools of a personal experiential action cycle – sessions in-world, followed by reflection away from my computer and then decisions on what to do next. Unexpected occurrences such as my reaction to seeing cows and interactions with two other Avatars added a more spontaneous and personal flavour which added both increased richness of experience and closer links with prior reading.
There is much more I can do within Second Life, especially having seen what other ‘residents’ do in terms of building their own locations; exhibiting art; giving poetry readings etc. The timing hasn’t allowed that so far but it’s there as a possibility if I wish to continue it.
I have evidenced my learning throughout the process and clearly indicated this in my blog. I know I have a tendency to get too carried away with reading/research but the original mind map supported me in finding the right balance so that the research and experiential aspects worked in tandem through the developing process of action and research and I was further able to bring my own personal experience into the mix.
More widely, in thinking of tools, technology and trends. I gained a lot from looking at the work of Alan Warburton and David Claerbout, as contemporary artists in addition to their thinking on the uses of digital technology, and Marc Prensky on its effects on users. David Claerbout compared the evolvement of photography with that of the music industry in moving from the purely technical to “seeing the world the way it wants to be seen by us”. I found Warburton’s writing a positive confirmation on my growing view that, after all, digital technology is a just a tool like any other. As he points out technology of one form or another has been part of who we humans are for millennia. The important aspect is how we use these new tools and this is emphasised by Prensky who accepts the negative potential whilst suggesting we look at its positive aspects in terms of ‘empowerment’ – being able to do new and powerful things “in service of things that are useful both to them and to the world” rather than “just doing old things in new ways” .
Having referred to personal voice earlier, there is another aspect that might be worth further exploration. Fellow students encouraged me to be more obvious in relating my Second Life experiences to myself. It seems to me that this could be almost like meeting a person and wanting to know more about them; looking for what’s beneath. Thinking on this recently I have been wondering about ‘death of the author’. Myself, as author, has been quite to the forefront despite my Avatar layer, plus more of my layers have been revealed through this exercise – even to me. The Johari Window comes to mind. I’m wondering now how far this has affected the viewer of my work in creating their own narrative and identification with the work.