An Academic's Sojourn Through Communication
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I spent two years working on a post-doc research fellowship for the Virtual Worlds Research Group at Roskilde University in Denmark. During my time there, I conducted an experiment on how people make sense of two types of virtual worlds and compared these sense-makings to those while engaging with films and console-based video games. The methodology of the study has been published at the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, and analyses of the results will be found in upcoming issues of Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research and Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.
What has not yet been published are the stories constructed from how people communicated their sense-making of these engagings. The people were interviewed on their experiences using Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology: the interviewing technique generated in-depth recollections of their experiences, such that the person’s experiential timeline — the moment-by-moment of their engagings — was evident. Using their own words, I reconstructed their moment-by-moment experience to create a narrative of their engagings.
So far, these stories have only been publicly revealed to the small collective at the ECREA Digital Media Technologies Revisited sub-conference in Berlin of November 2009. Only four stories were finalized and presented: two men’s experiences with different films, Elektra and The Incredible Hulk, and the social virtual world Second Life. This blog post is the second time only that their stories of making sense of Second Life will be presented to the world.
First, there was Nicolaj, as 31 year old man, and how he viewed the virtual world.
“There is no storyline in this at all
“I start out creating an avatar, and it strikes me as odd I get no information about how to move about. And you actually have a sheet of paper with instructions beside the computer. So the only instructions I get for playing this thing are on this piece of paper? There are no instructions in the game itself?
“The graphics are rather lousy. Some of the outfits, the pieces that I choose for my avatar, don’t fit at all. I choose a cape that latches itself onto a shoulder.
“You are pretty much the only help I have. Without you I would be completely not able to figure out where to go. You show me a way to teleport by entering the name of the place where I want to go. But to do that I would actually have to know the place I want to go to. Obviously that’s not a big help when you’re starting out.
“But I go in and I walk around and look at a few things.
“There is a tutorial, in the dojo, which apparently is dependent on other people in the game. One of the people that I am supposed to learn from shoots me all to hell and teleports me to another part of the world.
“In this new place I see a few people talking and interacting with each other. Once I get close to them, I hear, or I see, their chat, their conversation. But I’m thinking, these people don’t know each other. They are sitting in different countries, talking to each other. I know of much better ways of chatting with people from across the world. I don’t see the point of going into an online community like this that limits you to a single avatar at a single place in a virtual world, when in a chatroom I can just go into a page where people are talking in Alaska or Japan or wherever. It seems to me that this set-up with the avatar and the online community, it limits your access to the online community a lot. I don’t see the point.
“Then he shows up. This guy with a bat, who follows me around, hitting me, while the bat spews out blood. I mean, come on. This is just confirming my low opinion of online communities like this.
“Back at the island I started from, I look at a museum, a superhero museum that has very good still graphics on the walls, but those are pretty much the only good graphics in the entire program.
“The graphics and the gameplay are very bad, so it doesn’t really function as a computer game. It seems that it’s an online community that tries to be a computer game. And it might be my expectation of it being a computer game that is destroying my opinion of it. In my mind an online community is not gonna top a computer game. The only online community that I want would be more like Facebook, where I have the people that I know. Second Life should decide whether it’s an online community or a computer game, because I don’t see it working as a mixture of both.
“And now I can’t find the off switch. I can’t figure out how to leave. This is pretty much the last in a long line of disappointments about this experience. I don’t see the point in continuing it, because, in my mind the whole purpose of an online community is to be able to talk to more people. I can actually interact with more people by walking down the street, because there are more people in the actual world than in Second Life. An online community should give me the opportunity to interact with more people than normally. An avatar reduces that to almost nothing.
“It’s not the program for me. It’s not something that I’ll be participating in, in the future. I don’t have to wonder if they might be making better ones. I’ll just stick to what I know. I have tried other online communities where people show just as much lack of social skill as in there. It just confirmed that I won’t be trying it again.
“I would erase this experience so I wouldn’t remember how lousy it was. I wouldn’t erase Second Life. Since it’s still active there are obviously people who actually like it. But it’s an experience I could do without.”
* * *
And then there is Flemming, a 25 year old male, and his more positive experience with the virtual world.
“I’m in the world, and I have to buy some clothes in the Clothing Bazaar. Because I can configure my avatar on the fly during the game, that gives me the idea that I don’t have to this, that it doesn’t matter. If I felt that I need to be very unique in this world, then I can just go and do that. So I move through it quickly, leaving it to figure out during the game.
“From experiences with third person games, I know how to walk. What is not incredibly well implemented here are the mouse and keyboard controls. I think I can change them, but I don’t want to right now. But the idea of having free mouselook and not free mouselook? Usually when you play these first person games where you see the character from behind, then you have always free mouselook. This confuses me a bit.
“Also, when I focus in on the actual avatar, I have to be very precise with actually hitting his head with my left mouse button and then scrolling to get my avatar in the center. This is a bit frustrating. Because if I just click on a wall or something, just to the left, just to the right, then I would zoom through that and I would just look at a big blank spot. It kind of pulls me away from this unique experience.
“And having this file hierarchy with the menus. I don’t know what it means to copy an item. What does it mean to detach? What does it mean to attach? It’s kind of weird – you have these physical items, but they are also digital files. It should be more like Diablo or something else, where you can just grab an item that’s graphically an icon of something and put on the character and then you can see where he actually holds it. It’s just too primitive to say attach to right kneecap and then you have a menu that’s four miles long because you can place it in all these kinds of places on the body. Why don’t you just destroy the menu and just click and drag it to the right category?
“Pretty rough around the edges.
“Like now, when I try to wear this funky anime hair. It just floats on top of my skull! You said, “well, maybe it’s a bug.” So I buy it again, attach it once more, and now it works. There are these small, unpolished things, that if they were removed, then I think it would be a much better overall experience.
“But for now I’ll just ignore this. I guess if I need help, I can just ask the other characters in the game how to do stuff. So I’m not too worried about this. It doesn’t affect me right now.
“I head out of the Costume Bazaar, and I accidentally transport to the museum. I didn’t know the importance of the landmarks, and I didn’t remember that it was important that I could teleport around in the game. There are things in the museum I recognize that makes me go there and get an overview of what is actually in the X-Men world, what’s in the Avengers world, and stuff like that. Just a quick glance at that. But it is quite annoying that I have to take a particular link in the museum and open up a .pdf page. That’s not why I’m going to the museum of superheroes. I’d like some information in the game more than visiting the web; I can do that anytime. But in Second Life it’s a unique experience.
“What is also a little annoying is the idea of the text on posters where tips and stuff are given. The idea of having two-dimensional text in 3-D, with such a low resolution, means it’s just difficult to actually read, and then you have the character standing in the way. I’m moving my head to look around the character! But I think that that probably won’t work. Guess that says something about how I’m thinking that I’m actually a character in the game!
“In my past experience in Second Life, a couple years ago, people had bought a lot of property, but they hadn’t built anything on it. I would be flying around and all of a sudden I would stop in mid-air. I couldn’t enter an area because someone had bought the property. That was really, really frustrating, crazy annoying. Now, wandering around, I feel like I can explore everything. It’s cool!
“And I can fly! And it’s kind of superhero like! When you take off and you fly, it actually animates the avatar taking off. It’s not just lifting the character from the ground and moving it around, it’s actually like flying. And for some weird reason then I actually feel like I am flying in the game. And that is a wow idea. Hey, I can actually do stuff that I can’t normally do, which is an exceptionally well thought out idea in a virtual world. Nobody wants to play in a virtual world where he can do all the stuff that he does in the real world. That leads to asking why am I here? Here this is much more freeing, exploring things.
“After the museum I go to the gym, where I buy some superpowers. But I don’t know what they do other than more configuration to the avatar. They look cool, but they are pretty much in the way. I head upstairs to the posing studio; the poses are quite entertaining. I go to the training equipment, which is just weird, unnecessary, I think. It’s fun to see the avatar actually doing the exercises, but it is kind of meaningless, watching a digital version of your self doing exercises. I don’t know what is actually going to happen if I sit down and do lunges for one hour. Would I get better upper thighs? After awhile I guess that is probably not going to happen, so I move on.
“Now I’m at the Dojo, where I meet this Sensei Serenity character. I wonder, is this a non-player character or an actual person? It’s actually very weird because I don’t know if I should engage in dialog, because if it is just a NPC or a bot, then I don’t know if I have to click on the character because usually when you make some bot you have different choices in the menu. You can’t just type “well, I got up in the morning, had a piece of toast” and then expect the automated NPC to react to that. But as we talk, I think maybe if this is a real character, then he/she is copy pasting all this information into a chat and that could be why it is just speaking very fast. Then she reacts slowly to some of the things that I am saying and I realize what is going on – it is a real person.
“We can actually play, fight and stuff, in the dojo. It’s fun! And the idea that you can fly around in the dojo helps a lot — makes it move a lot faster and gives people a superior advantage, which works very well. I have a blast fighting and shooting, and dying a lot. It’s really fun to see that you can actually play minigames in the actual game. I like that. And I am surprised at how precise the actual fighting dojo is with the other players. It’s much the same as playing a first person shooter.
“But there are rough edges. When I try to play the shooting game, the mouse, or the cursor, it breaks. This is annoying. But it is expected. Just quickly relaunch and I am back. That is quick and nice, and I am surprised at that, too. I was just about to say “okay, now I have to quit, if I’m not where I left the game”, but I am back in the exact same spot. So that is awfully nice.
“The graphic user interface is much the same as in City of Heroes. But in City of Heroes it really mattered. I don’t feel that it matters at all in Second Life. I am told how to shoot and how to engage in different combat styles. When I was swirling a lightsaber that didn’t work at all, at least I get quick feedback and agreement that this is difficult, so I’ll just pull out my gun and shoot you. I can get those answers from a real live human being, and that really helps.
“The other people make me play more. I know the Sensei Serenity is the helping character, to help people actually making it work, but I think there are two or three other people in the same area that I can go ask. Knowing that helps me try more, use a lot of different weapons, go other places.
“I’m also very aware that I’m engaging in dialog with other people, so I know I can’t just be an asshole, that there’s just a proper way of being towards other people. When you know it’s a non-player character you just click on something and “yeah, yeah, go away”, but not here, you can actually spend a lot more time talking. It makes me want to end the conversation or the action with the other players in a proper manner. Saying goodbye, this was fun, see you later. Not just logging off, bye-bye, I’ll never see you again.
“I’d never been a fan of Second Life. I always thought it was stupid. The idea of having a virtual world where you could do anything, it’s just stupid, I would rather just play a game. So the first time I went into it, a couple years ago, and again this time, I was actually positively surprised that it was actually fun. I can see why some people would go around there, chatting with others.
“I don’t know why, but I can see myself trying to explore the island and this world a little more. The amount of possibilities, the actual detail that is given to Metrotopia, this island, it is fascinating. I am very amazed. I could have probably spent an hour or two there to find out what was there besides the museum and the dojo.
“But I would only go back in with some friends. I don’t think I would do it by myself, just because I was bored. If I had some friends with me, just like I did last time when visiting the Second Life, and we sat down at the computer some night and I was really bored, it could be fun playing these games, all these things at superhero island, as well. I think that is not an impossibility at all.”
* * *
More stories like these from this study will be forthcoming — as well as stories from other studies, such as men consuming media meant for women, or women dealing with addiction to digital games. At this time I don’t offer any insight or analysis, only the stories. Sometimes, stories are the best way to communicate.