Simulation and Critique in Second Life: Reading the Space for Wholes

I have been out of Second Life more than in it since returning to formal research after the summer break. However, my mind is still very much engaged with SL. I am planning some building for the HUMlab island, have tested out the new voice chat application (not so impressed but maybe I made mistakes), been watching the blogosphere dialogues and thinking about a paper that I owe for a course on technologically mediated communication that will be about Second Life.
Today I saw a video on SL and education, and here it is:

I agree with much that is claimed in this video but I think there are some problems. Simulation does offer the possibility of decentring subjectivity to create empathy and provide for practice based experiences in alternate settings. One example I can think of from HUMlab is the theatre project which allowed students to build virtual stage sets in Active Worlds to give them an idea of how it works to do it in RL. But I wonder if simulation can teach critical method in subjects such as history and art? According to the video, made by students at Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive Technologies, students can walk around a Van Gogh painting or (perhaps closely related) “get a sense of what it feels like to experience schizophrenia” with SL. Such simulative experiences have some value as a means of expanding the mental worlds of students. But I wonder about the students developing a distance from their subject in order to develop critical thinking. Such critique I see as an important part of education. Being able to ask questions is about being able to understand problems. It is necessary to detach from any simulation, be it creative fiction or a military sim, in order to question and understand its values, reality claims and manifestations of power. Unless education is to become just remembering things the ability to ask questions and disassemble subjects is very important.

The late Wolfgang Iser wrote in The Implied Reader (1975), “If reducing the unknown is a process of self-discovery, the question arises as to whether this process can ever have an end. The search for oneself forbids the setting of any one particular aim whose fulfilment would mean total knowledge – in other words, the process of self-discovery depends on there being unknown quantities that must be reduced.” (128) The realist emphasis of SL, that is so well captured in the Bloomsburg student’s video, creates the impression that the unknown is simply overcome by continued engagement with SL. Rather than exploring the possibilities or presence of metaphor in SL, the students are asked “How else could students experience a period of history as when they are immersed in a virtual replica of it?” Well, does anyone really experience a period of history, rather don’t we create history? I wonder also, to quote from the video, that by claiming “immersive education gives participants a sense of being there” we are not just creating another “there” and calling it “there” (if you get what I mean). While not wanting to dismiss SL as a learning tool, as I think it most definitely is and can be, I think we should recognise its strengths and work with them. Second Life is a 3D represented space with multimedia capabilities, which large groups of people from all around the world can communicate in without huge costs. Just that we can share a simultaneous space with the world, listen to music and chat in it is a thing of great potential beyond trying to immerse ‘ourselves’ in such features as visual splendour.