‘Making Sense of Virtual Worlds and User Driven Innovation’ Day One

I am attending a three day research workshop held by the Virtual Worlds Research project at Roskilde University outside Copenhagen, Denmark. People present include Professor Edward Castranova, Department of Telecommunications, Indiana University, Co-director Jeremy Hunsinger Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, Virginia Tech, Professor Jay David Bolter Center for New Media Research and Education, Georgia Institute of Technology, Associate Professor Mia Consalvo School of Telecommunications, Ohio University, and Professor Sheldon Brown Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, University of California at San Diego. As well there are people from the gaming industry. digital design and software development.

I thought to summarize some of the events from day one of the workshop. Due to unexpected delays with trains from central Copenhagen the order of events and the number of participants early in the day was mixed up. Things settled down by lunch time.

In an unusual move we started the workshop with a reflection session as we were broken up into groups and met for introductions and short explanations for the motivations that brought us to ‘Making Sense of Virtual Worlds and User Driven Innovation’. I spent 15 mins speaking to Jeremy Hunsinger. It was at this point that I realized this workshop suited my interests. Jeremy and I spoke of humanities and technology, digital discourse, semiotics, and the elements of virtual worlds that are pretty much standard over the years. An interest for breaking through the walls of habit and finding means for innovation in virtual worlds was common to both of us.

We moved back to the main room for what was to be an introduction to the workshop. A series of skits were presented that both parodied and presented various stereotypes of academic and industry research in virtual worlds and user driven innovation. These were both amusing and interesting with the quality of the acting from the two actors (who turned out to be researchers with the Virtual Worlds Research project at Roskilde University. The first role play was a male gamer who played as a female avatar and had built a serious relationship with a male avatar. The conflicts with sharing his in-world life with his girlfriend formed the major part of the monologue. The second skit was a female artist who was moving into virtual worlds with concerns for usability and affordances for a young professional artist working across media forms in Second Life. At what point does art exist in the world and what are the variations on the Romantic vision of the lone artist and businesswoman in Second Life? The third monologue was from the character of the student and gamer beginning the PhD on virtual worlds. Ethics and the ‘doing something you love’ potential conflict. In doing the PhD in virtual worlds should one ask the group you play with or just study them? The final role play was a parody of the researcher coming to the field as a curious and enthusiastic beginner. The results presented to us was a confusing mass of questions and jargon. New terms overlapped each other, ending with questions about ‘how do you know who you are?’ We all have met this person and been her once or twice.

Following a break three short paper presentations were made. Lisbeth Frolunde gave a presentation on ‘Understanding Machinima Applying a Dialogic Approach’. Lisbeth provided a lot of material from her postdoc project. I have included many of the links from Lisbeth’ presentation here. Lisbeth seems to have completed the gathering of data for the project and is now working on the questions that drive the research. These include why some people making Machinima are turned on by the technology on the other end you have the story tellers and how do the two groups meet?

Denise Doyle from Wolverhampton School of Art and Design presented on her practice-led PhD research ‘Phenomenologies of Practice; a framework for the imagination in virtual world use’. Denise described Second Life as a “world that is living that is constantly changing” in its function as a persistent world. In listening to Denise I was reminded of the work of HUMlab postdoc fellow Ele Carpenter, as artists that occupy the conjunction or both art and practice and theory and distribution in the sense of exhibitions and curation. As well I learned of a new book from one of my favorite authors, Edward S. Casey. His book Imagining: A Phenomenological Study from 1976 is something I intend to read soon.

Edward Castronova then gave a very good presentation entitled ‘Studying Beehives Not Bees: Virtual Worlds and Social Science’. Edward is an economist working with games, both as industry and virtual community and society. His first interesting point was that the external economy of virtual worlds is twenty times bigger than internal economy. In regard to academic approaches to virtual worlds eyeballs in “serious applications” do not match in any way the numbers in “non-serious applications”. I would suggest that Farmville is one example of a non-serious application that is popular with users but not with academics. In his presentation Edward made a point that was returned to many times during the first day of the workshop. You have to pay attention to the users in virtual world applications. In other words “A world without people is not a world”.

Once we have established a working virtual world presence the next question is ‘Can we use virtual worlds to discover knowledge about the real world?” Edward replied with something I find erudite and insightful; that is “If it crosses boundary of history it will cross the boundary of virtual worlds.” For effective use of virtual worlds Edward recommends small cheap repeated experiments that can produce shared understandings. In doing this don’t forget the game, don’t ignore the user, pay attention to the social participation, and tone down the vision. The point is to have a good experiential goal and a project that comes up with that goal. As an aside, Edward sees a good future in middleware.

Following another short break it was Jeremy Hunsinger presenting on ‘Frames and Fields: An overview of the field and the Im/possibilities of innovation’. This was a keynote presentation so it was streamed over the web. I did not take so many notes and you can refer to the archive of the presentation as a video here. Jeremy did make several points which I found interesting. Affordances are defined by the cultural milieu from the contexts of the thing, and have certain normalizing aspects.

Following the presentation by Jeremy Hunsinger there was a ‘fishbowl’ session which was a panel discussing the main points of the presentation and an audience discussion. There was an opening debating on if the market will decide the future of virtual worlds. Innovation and use and how they work together were also parts of the discussion. Jeremy in reply made the interesting observation that human nature exists and it may well operate in a virtual environment.

I will make a summary of the main points of today’s workshop sessions tomorrow.

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