Wednesday, June 1, 2011

1000 Avatars Book Released

So yesterday Gracie Kendal had a book release party for 1000 Avatars. One of my friends tipped me to the project months ago and Gracie ended up photographing the Virtual Worlds class. After striking up a conversation with her while she photographed me she asked if I would be interested in writing an essay on avatars for her book. I am delighted to say that I am a small part of this fascinating project with an essay entitled "Capturing a Moment of Becoming." She has had to move the installation a few times - it is currently housed at Cal State Northridge - you can find the link here: Gracie has information on the book on her blog here: SL, like any online community, is so fleeting it is great to see someone preserving part of that history. Plus Gracie's site is a wonderful place to hang out and just chat.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Compassion is a virtue, but I don’t have the time . . . but apparently Derridada does.

So – I’m on a research mission to understand what it means to live in a virtual space through an avatar. I send Derridada out like the Mars Rover to get information and send pictures back to me of what he finds. And so Derri meets people. He asks questions. He listens. Sometimes he listens to funny stories. Sometimes he listens to sad stories. Sometimes he meets people in SL who are working out complex issues that they are also trying to work out in RL. Sometimes he just banters back and forth as others make jokes, quote movies, talk about music, and talk about their day. What surprises me is that in all cases Derri listens. He makes new friends, becomes concerned if they are having a good day or not, shares information and seems to learn a bit more about himself – or at least more about the person driving him. And the question I keep coming back to is why does this little critter that I created and pilot and dress and think through seem to be so much more patient and so much more compassionate than I am? Why is it that this virtual image is capable of magnifying traits in SL that I work very hard on sublimating in RL? I wonder if I just had him stick to dancing if I would learn as much about myself. Hmmmmm.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What I have learned from my Avatars (so far)

I figure the first avatar I ever had – if it can be called that – was a tiny white rectangle of light. Granted I had limited control over what I could make this little thing do – mainly move up and down on the screen and alter the speed at which it moved in a futile attempt to bounce the tinier dot of light back across the screen. But – it responded to my commands and represented me inside the TV screen. I would inhabit a host of other similarly benign images from tanks to spaceships, missile towers, aliens, and race cars – but it wasn’t until Mario that I would have a fully 2 dimensional humanoid shape to jostle around the cybersphere. Even here though, there was little choice as to look or action, but it was great leap from the tiny bar of light.

My first “fleshed” out avatar came with Dungeons and Dragons. A group of us would play once or twice a year from the early to mid 80s. Like any well-oiled orc killing machine each of us had different roles to play. My character was a thief - largely distrusted by my companions and mainly into the adventure for personal gain. I had a few secrets worked out with the dungeon master if I ever needed to double cross anyone. I skulked in the shadows as part of a larger group, but was also separate. Although we “travelled” together, I pretty much kept to myself.

My next major avi was an un-named character in the Myst franchise. This was really the first digital body that would respond to my commands to walk or run, stop, and investigate. Like most people, I assume, I made the image look quite a bit like me, only perhaps a bit more rugged – a bit more of an adventurer. But the thing with Myst is that you explore the worlds alone – combing through the ruins of a once proud civilization. This means that – like my Thief – I was really the only one who saw my avatar since there is no socialization in an abandoned culture.

Recently – in preparation for the class on Virtual Worlds – I went into World of Warcraft to get a sense of the game. Looking over all of the character choices I opted for a Female Rogue Night Elf – something about the loner quality of this character appealed to me. Plus – it came with the added bonus of invisibility. Employing the stealth feature I could creep around largely unnoticed. I played the game for about 30 hours or so – long enough that I reached quests that were becoming harder and harder to complete on my own. Once the necessity of companions arose – I was out.

Derridada was my next avatar – a work in progress that continues to slowly evolve. It is also with this character that I think I am beginning to understand the nature of digital representation. When I first entered SL I decided that I really didn’t want to have a “human” skin tone – so I opted for green – which seemed to satisfy me for a while. Then came the steampunk wardrobe, tattoos, glasses, painted nails and many of the other elements that I use to define this character. A more recent addition was the gold metallic skin – which – as I understand – reads sometimes yellow, sometimes green – depending on who is looking and what kind of monitor they have. While I see avatars that have any number of unique and complex looks, I rarely see another one that looks like mine. I like that – it sets me apart. (I discuss this in more detail in Stinalina Dreamscape’s wonderful blog on “Endless Possibilities”

And it is this idea of being set apart that caused me to review my avatar choices. Setting aside the bars of light, spaceships, cars and aliens along with the Myst critter I realize that the Thief, the Night Elf and Derridada all share two major traits – they are loners – they are outsiders. The first two deliberately creeping around the edges of their environments, and the third, Derridada – a social creature that slinks to the edge of any dance club he wanders into. He is not a “joiner,” and I find that I do not change his clothes for “theme” nights at the clubs, nor do I tend to partake of the group dances but prefer to modify my dances based on each song. So – I think it is safe to say that – with my avatars at least - I like the margins and not the center.

Hmmmm (this is the sound of me wondering about stuff) I’m concerned that without consciously thinking about these choices these avatars reveal a great deal about who I am in RL. I do not like to be the center of attention and feel much more comfortable in the shadows. This sounds even odder when I reveal that I have spent a great deal of time on stage as a performer and even in my current profession (teacher) I find that I am often in front of a crowd. But – I do have a number of techniques to deflect this position and minimize my centeredness. I must admit though, that I am surprised by this avatar revelation. I mean - they are just avatar’s right – just fictional beings put together often in haste to get on with the game at hand.

But I can see that there is more to them – quite a bit more. They are – as I have said before – highly charged semiotic images in which every little detail speaks volumes. But not just things like clothes and accessories, but the animations we choose or the way we drive these critters says something – consciously or not – about who we are. For example, I have found that in SL I really like falling and I do it every chance I get. I like the flailing, the out of control feeling and the final thud as I hit the virtual earth. This is something that I really can't experience in RL and so I am drawn to it in SL. I’m sure some shrink somewhere could sort all of this out and tell me about the need for margins and the desire to be out of control– but in the meantime I remain fascinated that these representations we build in cyberspace can actually tell us a great deal about ourselves. I can only imagine what will happen when we can fully enter these spaces with our nervous systems plugged in.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I think SL is causing me to have an existential crisis

Let me preface this entry by saying that in RL I pride myself on being a “postmodernist” or “poststructuralist” or something like that. I preach simultaneity descended from the Futurists in which awareness is always stranded between multiple thoughts and things can be both right and wrong at the same time. I think that the only real truth is that there is no such thing as truth and that everything we say, do, or think is filtered through our language, culture, and education. When I first encountered this way of looking at the world right before grad school (the second time) I had a bit of a melt-down. I have grown more comfortable with these ideas over time, so much so that I like being challenged by students if for no other reason than it erodes my authority and points out that there are always other ways to look at things.

So it is with this mindset that I enter SL. This space should be a wonderland, a playground, a space of multiple truths simultaneously – the virtual and the real – but for some reason I am obsessed with the real behind the virtual. I don’t actually want to know this real, but I know it is there, nagging me with every interaction in this space. Knowing that each avatar I meet has a secret self stashed away behind the ones and zeros is both fascinating and a bit unnerving. I avoid things like the voice feature when I can because part of me doesn’t want something this specific in this imaginary space. And yet, I dwell on the unknown behind the visible. And yet I project a kind of reality onto the virtual without completely understanding it.

Ok – so some of this current thinking was generated from dancing. I know I obsess over the dancing – I like it, its fun, and I don’t do it in RL – so this is a kind of fantasy outlet. Plus I get to listen to music. Bla, bla, bla. So the other night I go to visit a friend of mine in SL. I met her at a club where one of the DJs I follow plays. She follows the same DJ. We chatted, IM’d and became SL friends. “She” is pleasant, friendly, always says “Hi” and often invites me to come hang out in the clubs where she works (I still find the concept of working in here odd – but I do get that the lindens earned offset SL costs). So – she was hosting the other night and I showed up to do my dance thing. About a half an hour in she asks me if I would like to dance. This is the first time I have been asked and while in RL I would most likely deflect this with a joke or tales of awful dancing in here I say “yes.” As the gender roles are relatively clear I click on the blue ball she the pink. And we dance. Or rather our avatars dance. But that is the problem – it doesn’t feel like the avis dancing it feels like us dancing. “Us” two people who have absolutely no idea who or what is behind the other avatar. The dances cycle though ballroom stuff and occasionally hit on a slow dance pose. I do not feel comfortable with this. Why? I have no idea – projecting a reality into this space? I don’t know. So I ask if we can switch balls. I click pink she blue. Now “she” is leading and I get to play along. She lifts me and dips me – it feels like a joke, like a dance deferred and somehow I am more comfortable with this.

What I find so vexing about this experience is that I do think of this person, or this avatar, or this representation in SL as a friend, only I have no idea why. I really don’t know the person behind the avatar at all. And yet, I feel like I know that avatar and I do enjoy their company. It is an odd connection, but one that seems somewhat familiar from RL. When I was a kid I had friends that I rode the bus with. I didn’t have classes with them, I didn’t hang out with them, and while I knew approximately where they lived, in most cases, I didn’t even know what their names were. And yet, I considered them my friend. I still do even though I have not seen them in decades. SL feels a bit like this. A friendship built out of proximity, filling time while we ride the bus.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I used to just sit around and listen to music but now . . .

As a kid and on into high school and college I used to just sit around and listen to music - sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. I used to have an amplifier that gave off this wonderful green glow that would illuminate the whole room and I can recall hours and hours of laying in bed with headphones listening to King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes, Talking Heads, Genesis. As I got older and the weighty responsibilities of adulthood got weightier and weightier I found that making time just to listen to music was harder and harder to do. Oh, I still have a soundtrack going 24/7 – but often times it is wallpaper – something there to fill the space while I do other things – workout at the gym, run, drive, read, work in my office. I find that even when I have the time to just sit and listen I feel like I should be doing something else – like I should be reading or writing a paper or balancing the checkbook, or making music or – I don’t know – something productive. One of the true joys I have discovered in SL is the space to just listen and feel like I am engaged in something somewhat productive. In clubs I rarely click on dance balls so I manage the dancing animations song by song – if I could actually make the avatar dance by manipulating the keys I would. Or – I have multiple conversations going, or play bass, or learn kung fu. Are these productive activities? Not really, but they seem to be productive enough to fool whatever guilt/work ethic I have into thinking that they are productive. Once fooled – I can inhabit a virtual space, relax and simply listen.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where to now?

At the start of the class I felt more than prepared to discuss the subject of virtual worlds. Now that the course is over I am not so certain. Perpetually discovering how much I still need to learn, my intention is to continue logging on to SL to gain a better understanding of the environment. Despite the similarity with chat rooms, IMs, FB, and other forms of mediatized communication it has aspects that I have not seen in any other medium. More performative than any of these forms, the sharing of cyberspace via an intentional avatar body creates a virtual environment that is part RL, part acting, and part technology. Yes – I am obsessed with the gaps between these areas – despite Tamar’s objections that I will forget about them the more familiar I become with SL - I am not convinced I want to forget about them. Once this space becomes naturalized, in which the constructed is seen as transparent – as happens with things like language, gender, and culture – then SL and RL blur into one zone. I need to keep in mind that there are both similarities and differences between the two. The next step is to review the observations here and shape them into something – what – I have no idea. In the meantime – it is nice to have Glitch back and I guess I’ll just keep on dancing.

Reflections on the course - rhizome as teaching zone: Complexity and the hive mentality in SL:

In developing a course on Generative Art (offered winter 2009) my colleague and I spent about a year discussing, researching, and debating the best way to approach this topic. Throughout this course I tracked my own engagement with the topic as well as the pros and cons of approaching the subject with a sequence of student projects. Much of our thinking on a pedagogical model built on open-ended questions was developed by teaching this course. When we decided to offer a class on Virtual Worlds we opted to employ the same rhizomatic model.

For those unfamiliar with this idea – in A Thousand Plateaus Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari discuss the rhizome as an alternative metaphor to traditional educational models. Unlike the “tree of knowledge” with roots and branches that grow ever upward, the rhizome spreads out horizontally and can be entered and negotiated from a variety of different locations. As they state, “any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” (7). For Deleuze and Guattari “tree logic” is built upon repetition, on tracing and reproduction of given forms of knowledge. The rhizome, on the other hand, involves mapping and not tracing. “What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real” (12) - so – not just theory, not just practice - praxis. An educational model driven by mapping “has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged ‘competence’” (12-13). Student engagement with this model transpires at the level of personalized understanding through an individual knowledge base and not via the collective assessment or test-driven model of alleged competence.

So – unlike a more traditional approach where as the teacher I might have a body of knowledge that I pass on to the students and then test them to see how much of what I know they now know - the rhrizomatic model functions within a relatively contained subject – such as gen art or virtual worlds - but in which the pathway though the subject is different for each student. Rather than begin with the standard introductory material, the students were exposed to the subject by wrestling with open-ended assignments designed to raise more questions than answers. In the case of the gen art course students presented their solution to the prompt “create a sound producing machine” the second day of class. We then collectively discussed the idea of the machine, of types of sound, and different aspects of each solution. With the recent Virtual Worlds course students were asked to create a Second Life account and design and outfit an avatar by the third class, a project that forced them to gain a greater understanding of this virtual world in a short time frame by exploring a variety of SL locations, avatar options, shops, and interacting with other avatars. These inaugural projects provided the framework and skill set focused on problem solving that were then refined over the course of the term.

The rhythm established for these courses was project, then reflection, and then the theory behind the project. Rather than simply imitate someone else’s solution or parrot the instructors’ understanding of the subject, this process allows the student to understand the material from the inside out, as a personal journey in which their discoveries, ideas, issues, and approaches are all validated. With an open-ended project there are no wrong or right answers, all responses are valid. One of the main appeals of this type of structure is that not only do students often surprise the instructors, classmates, and even themselves with answers to these questions, but they often exceed expectations. As opposed to models that might involve something as proscribed as a written assignment, where students may simply execute the minimum work required (the typical “how many pages does it have to be?” question), the projects, executed and displayed in a collective environment, generally cause students to not concern themselves with minimum standards, and often work to and, at times, beyond their perceived potential.

One of the other positive side effects of this teaching model is that it allows students the flexibility to pursue their own interests. One of my major discoveries this term was how vast SL is. Our initial intent was to use SL as a laboratory space for projects, but also have the students explore other virtual worlds – we made some classic games like Myst, Uru, and WOW available to them alongside classic other world and “cyberpunk” literature by William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Vernor Vinge, and Jorge Luis Borges. But nine and a half weeks of class time (minus a week for snow days) left precious little time to explore one world let alone many. In a way this worked to our advantage, since the concentration on one world through the eyes of 18 participants all moving in different directions (16 students and 2 instructors) allowed us to develop a complex understanding of this world in a relatively short time period. One of the off-shoots of the rhizome idea is the “hive” mentality – a collective mind that is far more powerful than a single mind – something that is difficult to achieve with a traditional pedagogical model.

Despite this approach to the course, one aspect of it did reflect a more traditional model. When offered to meet in SL rather than in the classroom all of the students opted to physically come to class. So – the space of the classroom became our lab with 18 people on 18 different computers occasionally sharing the same virtual space. This created an environment where clusters of students – some physically next to each other, some not, engaged in exploring this world as both individuals and members of a team.

The course moved from the avatar project, to taking the class on a field trip, to learning to build. Along the way there were scheduled conversations – we greatly appreciate SunQueen visiting us at such an early hour and answering our many questions – to unscheduled – I was delighted that my friend Bobo could join us for a few minutes. Partaking of Gracie Kendal’s 1000+ Avatar Project was a way to document the avatars, but also as a process of socialization as students interacted with Gracie and each other while waiting to have their pictures taken. It was interesting to note at this point in the term that the wild array of images present during the avatar assignment (zebras, hotdogs, hamburgers, pigfaces, etc) was much more contained during the “formal” portraits. As I commented in an earlier blog entry – when we traveled together at the start of the term we elicited comments about how odd we were, I am not sure that would be the case by the end of the class. Habituation? Fitting into a community? Boredom? I don’t know yet. But all of these steps led to the final projects – developed over the last few weeks of class. Bob and I did not prescribe a direction, but suggested that the areas of technological, conceptual, ethnographic, experiential, and reflective that emerged in our class discussions would provide useful avenues.

As happened with the final projects in the gen art class, we were blown away by the variety and complexity of these final projects. We had students explore such things as importing and exporting media (video, sound, and sculpties) from RL to SL and from SL to RL. There were students that explored the cultural or sociological aspects of this world by joining role playing communities, interacting with family members via SL, and arranging a series of “blind dates” in world. There were build projects in the form of an elaborate sound sculpture, the development of homes, and a giant game of dominoes. We had one student write a play about his experiences in SL, and others who documented their mischievous interactions with other avatars via still images and video. These projects provided the class as a whole with an image of SL – as a complex and multifaceted virtual world – that would have been impossible to establish had all of the students worked on the same type of project. My only regret is that we ran out of time to pull all of these varied pieces together. While we did have some time to reflect during the final exam, another class period or two would have been appreciated. It is with this type of reflection that we could speculate on the size and shape of the subject, as well as the individual pathways mapped by each student.

But, the explorations continue. When asked how many students would be back in SL after the class was over nearly all of the them said that they would. The one thing that I wish we had been able to address more fully is the interactive aspect of this space. Many of the students referred to SL in their blogs as “a game,” which in some respects it is, and yet it is also something else. We did spend some time comparing this world to chat, IM, email, Facebook, and chat-roulette (which I have not yet experienced but have been told by a number of people that it routinely consists of penis, penis, penis, someone to chat with, penis, penis, penis). But there is something markedly different about talking with someone you are sharing space with – cyberspace yes, but space nonetheless. Bob has commented that despite the filters and mediatization that goes on in SL there are really only a few neurons that separate one user from the next. I still see it as a distance, but perhaps more reflection will narrow that gap. My hope is when we offer this class again we can dig that much deeper into this delightfully complex world.