Experiments in virtual reality

Over the weekend I tried to participate in two different virtual reality type websites. Unfortunately neither were quite the positive experiences I was hoping for.

First I tried out Google’s new avatar-driven chat rooms Lively. I spent two hours preparing my avatar (can’t go in naked, you know) and then trying to figure out how to get INTO a room. Once I got into a room, my computer slowed down so much that I was going crazy trying to mentally adjust. Instead of trying to chat with people, I started searching rooms. I visited the “Love Sweet Love” room, the “Dating Cafe” and then even took a virtual tour of the Google facilities in the “Lively: Google Room,” but I wasn’t impressed. Maybe it’s because it’s too new, but it felt clunky and not quite user-friendly. Maybe teens can deal with that, but tech-savvy adults might be annoyed by the quirks that it still has. I was disappointed that I didn’t feel “at home” after setting everything up and removed the program from my computer soon after giving up on it.

Second, I put my big girl panties on and looked into Second Life. I think my experience would have been more positive if my internet provider gave me more bandwidth and my computer went faster, but I made due with what I had. I carefully read the “Big Six” (community standards) and was almost scared that I’d make an accidental mistake and get myself kicked out before I even began – especially when my character first appeared naked! I was pleased to see these rules set out so clearly before being able to join, and wish that I had speed/bandwidth to see if they work!

Second Life’s “Big Six” are six behaviors that would result suspension from the site:

1. Intolerance – “The use of derogatory or demeaning language or images in reference to another Resident’s race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is never allowed in Second Life.”

2. Harassment – “Communicating or behaving in a manner which is offensively coarse, intimidating or threatening, constitutes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, or is otherwise likely to cause annoyance or alarm is Harassment.”

3. Assault – Most places you can be in Second Life are “Safe,” where you cannot shoot, push or shove another resident. I guess this also means there are areas that are “unsafe” where these actions are to be expected?

4. Disclosure – “Sharing personal information about a fellow Resident –including gender, religion, age, marital status, race, sexual preference, and real-world location beyond what is provided by the Resident in the First Life page of their Resident profile is a violation of that Resident’s privacy.”

5. Indecency – “Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M).” When my character showed up nude, I was worried that I’d be kicked off immediately as I couldn’t find an “M” anywhere on the page. Good thing it was the introduction page where other new characters continually showed up nude.

6. Disturbing the peace – “Every Resident has the right to live their Second Life.”

I was intrigued to see whether these rules were followed within the community. Maybe those readers who are frequent Second Life users can explain it a bit more to me; I’d really like to know more! Also, if there are other online virtual reality “games,” that are geared towards teenagers, I’d love to hear about those to see if I can’t experiment some more!

Better than class outdoors!

Brandon Hall Research announced in its newsletter that it held a meeting in Second Life. Benefits included a “novel environment” that energized and inspired creativity, being able to hold a meeting in a plesant setting (they chose outdoors with picnic tables), and seeing physical representations of those who they had only heard the voices of. Downsides include lack of practical meeting tools and inexperienced meeting goers finding it difficult to navigate.

Now that the weather is getting nicer where I live, students are starting to plead “can we have class outside?” I wish. I really do. But there is no way I could compete with the distractions of the sun, birds, and passers-by. Can you imagine having class in Second Life? Distractions could include:
1. Students changing outfits (or disrobing) in the middle of class.
2. Forget paper airplanes — students themselves would fly around
3. All avatars would look hot and sexy, distracting the teacher.
4. Sex everywhere. Boring lecture? No problem. Just hump the avatar next to you…

So, the idea needs work. The Brandon Hall group even admitted that someone jumped into a nearby hottub at the end of their meeting.

Virtual Today, Reality Tomorrow

The cover story of my alumni rag, The Stanford Magazine, gives us a sneak peek into how researchers there are investigating the effects of online interactions and subsequent IRL behaviors. Example: people who were assigned more attractive avatars on a mock online dating site were more likely to approach more attractive people in a real-life interaction later on. Conclusion? We looked good during the online encounter and therefore our confidence increased; that confidence continued into our physical world existence and behaviors. Crazy, huh?

Here’s something a little more creepy. Dr. Nick Yee, a researcher at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has noted that the virtual world of Second Life tends to be an exaggerated, stereotypical version of the one we currently live in. And the avatars tend to reflect “an overemphasis on looking stereotypically good.” The implications? Gender stereotypes and expectations of beauty are reinforced, not challenged. Uh-oh. I know I am guilty of this. My avatar in Second Life (a total noob, but she is out there once in a Blue Moon) is sexy and cute, and she could just as easily be the opposite. But it’s hard to do something like that. I don’t think I would enjoy walking around looking less than spectacular. That may say something — a lot — about who I am, but I am by no means alone. I want to look good and Second Life offers me that option.

This work piggybacks on previous research that states that youth tend to engage in online pretending more to create an ideal self — a slightly exaggerated version of who they already are — not to reinvent themselves. So, if they create an ideal self, will they become it? Stay tuned. There’s more work to be done.