Virtual Harlem Rises Again

Dr. Bryan Carter of the University of Arizona spoke last night at San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Sciences in Second Life.  Bryan is a  specialist in African American literature of the 20th century, and he has a particular interest in the Harlem Renaissance. He’s worked on various incarnations of The Virtual Harlem Project for over fifteen years, and began building in Second Life in 2006. Not much later, I began bringing gaggles of Women’s Studies students on field trips, and sometimes we were lucky enough to have our trips coincide with a cultural event, a jazz concert or art exhibit that really gave depth to our work for the night.

I particularly remember our visit to Le Cactus, an art installation by Maya Paris, where students could put on costumes and animate their avatars to the music of Josephine Baker. Music and movement add so much to the learning experience, as Laurie Landry’s machinima demonstrates:

Unfortunately, as with many of the great sims, Virtual Harlem and its companion site, Virtual Montmartre, are no longer in Second Life. But Bryan hasn’t slowed down at all.  He’s moved Virtual Harlem and Virtual Montmartre to Open Sim, and he’s also started work on a much more detailed and realistic version in Unity3D.

It’s always encouraging to talk with Bryan, he is so enthusiastic, yet so level-headed. He reminded us all of the many advances that are going on right now in our field, and talked about possibilities outside of Second Life. I was particularly interested in his work with Arizona State students in  The Virtual WorldWide Web project. This project is in the alpha stage right now, but should open in beta in a couple of months; screenshots in the video below demonstrate the stunning quality of this work. Virtual WorldWide Web is also developing Curio, a 3D web browser that will make access to sites much easier.

ONE BILLION RISING: 24-hour event on Friday

All-day event on February 14,2014

One Billion Rising is a campaign to focus attention on the violence suffered by women all over the world.  In Second Life, there will be music, poetry, informational displays and artwork by well-known SL artists. It’s a very uplifting experience; I’ll be spending as much time as I can there on Friday. I like to meet and talk with people, and the exhibits can be very powerful.

If you haven’t ventured into Second Life before, there are some useful tips on getting started here:

Learn more about the campaign here:

The SL campaign is here:

To Build or Not To Build

We’re finishing up with the Distributed Open Collaborative Course on Women and Technology, and one of the last things I’ve done in this course is show visiting students how to build. I have to admit, it was a hoot, and I hope they had as good a time as I did. There are times when I wonder why I get paid for doing what I do.

Sandbox buildingStudents were working with ideas of labour and value, in connection with the excellent dialogue on Systems, one of my favorites from the course.  They had been assigned the task of making something and assessing its exchange value.  It seemed natural to bring them into Second Life and have them work there.

The students had done an orientation tour of Second Life, and had also participated in one of my Introduction to Women’s Studies classes, so they didn’t need to be shown how to orient themselves in the space. We did spend some time on finding the sandbox and getting students into the group that allowed them to build, but after that it was basically a case of me demonstrating something, and the students following along. Before long, we had an army of snowmen, a couple of dancing rabbits, and some very odd mushroom sculptures.

When the students had had time to explore the possibilities of building, I introduced an idea with an object, a musical candle that I made some years ago as a Second Life “seasons greeting” card. When clicked, the candle speaks a greeting and plays a tune. We had a fairly good discussion on the value of the candle within the economics of Second Life, while at the same time animating snowmen to send out jolly greetings.

Working with the students made me think of one of my earlier blog posts on the potential of “doodling” in Second Life. There is something about playing with concrete representations while working out abstract problems that is immensely satisfying to many of us. Somehow, the “play” of making things can make the ideas much more intense. I also think that the objects created within a “doodling” lesson would be powerful memory tools.


This experience has made me rethink the use of building in my classes. I used to have students finish the course with an “open house,” where they presented their powerpoint slides, and I encouraged them to decorate their presentations with appropriate objects. My favourite was a presentation on environmental racism, which was surrounded in smoke and oozed sludge and slime. However, with some really splendid exceptions, most of my class found the open house to be extra work at the end of an already crowded term, so I dropped it.

Perhaps I gave up on building too soon. There are ways to connect building to class discussion in a way that is not demanding, and in a classroom situation it is less important if the student doesn’t get it right the first time. It would be a good way to assess student involvement during class discussion, and it would be less difficult for the student if building were picked up as incidental learning during short lessons over the whole term, rather than facing the more stressful task of making something for guests at the end of term.

I’m going to give this a try.

A Feminist Game

In our Second Life discussion group this week we looked at the dialogue between Lisa Nakamura and Maria Fernandez on Feminism, Race and Technology.  Lisa Nakamura made the point that when we talk about technology we are usually thinking about the digital, and I’d agree with her that the online world is only one of the areas we need to examine; that’s certainly the point Judy Wacjman made in the first dialogue. However, the digital certainly has a powerful hold on us these days.  I was struck by Nakamura’s discussion of the Slate article on the ”feminist gamer dad” who hacked the game Donkey Kong, reversing gender roles so his daughter could play as a girl and rescue Mario.

The sexist, racist and homophobic content of video games has been a common topic of feminist discussion. The Slate article highlights Anna Sarkeesian’s video analysis of the “damsel in distress;” her analysis unpacks ideas of gender and autonomy in gaming.  Sarkeesian demonstrates the malleability of games; they are easily “reskinned,” turning heroines into heroes, sexualizing characters, and objectifying them as prizes to be won.  Sarkeesian is arguing that female agency must be included in these games, and that by contesting cultural attitudes, gaming could be made more welcoming to female players. However, like so much I’ve read on this topic; this analysis overlooks a much more fundamental problem in popular video games.

As a political movement that is firmly based in ideas of consensus and equality, feminism should focus on a form of public entertainment that is so firmly set in simplistic ideas of the individual and society.  The “hero’s quest” may be a staple of our culture, but it hardly reflects social reality, and it is in direct conflict with feminist ideas of collaboration and consensus.  The ultimate confrontation with the “Big Boss” is an unhelpful binary that oversimplifies human relations, reinforcing the idea that social ills are caused by an “evil overlord,” rather than by historical and socioeconomic events.

Although the narrative of the video game should concern us, the deep structure of these games is even more disturbing. Most games function through a series of culturally-coded tasks that are built into the game. Players must accept the cultural premises of these tasks to play in a space where success is won step by hierarchical step. These games are also extremely consumerist: player advancement is facilitated by winning money, weapons, and “power-ups.” It seems to me that the problematic archetypes and narrative of gaming are only the symptom of this deeper structure,  just as sexism, racism and homophobia are only surface manifestations of an underlying ideology of domination.

OK, so maybe I’m being too serious about all this. It’s just a game, after all, a fantasy rooted in folktales and mythology that were designed to encourage and educate the young. My kids have played these games, and they’re O.K.  So I’m not about to get my torch and pitchfork and lead a mob into my local videogame store. But I do think that at the very least we should consider what we, as feminists, are overlooking when we study these games.

A truly feminist game would be other than this.  I can’t say what it would be, because it hasn’t been invented yet, but perhaps it would connect with what Maria Fernandez said about habit.

. . . I wanted to get away from the notion that racism is something that people think or intend. I decided to concentrate on how racism was manifested in behavior. . .  I think, at least at the time I wrote the article, there was very little understanding of racism, and any connection  of it to the habitual.

Where the video games described by Sarkeesian are informed by, and in some ways reinforce, unhealthy ways of thinking, a game that intentionally played with thought patterns like racism, sexism and homophobia might make these mental habits more evident to players, and this could encourage the players themselves to dismantle them.

A feminist game would have to have a different kind of play.  First, it would have to jolt the player out of habitual ways of thinking by presenting something incongruous and destabilizing, something to tell the players that the old rules of social interaction no longer apply in the digital world they have just entered. There would be no “power-ups,” no hierarchical ladder to climb; the goals of the game would have to be set by the players themselves. There would be no “big boss” to defeat; perhaps instead there would be the possibility to build something wonderful. A truly feminist game would undermine all the habits of thinking players bring to the game. It would follow new rules of what it means to “play.”

unlearn_004I think that the site for such a game might lie in virtual worlds.  Although virtual worlds are modeled on reality and can provide breathtakingly realistic recreations of the actual world, play is an integral part of avatar life. It is true that there are dubious aspects to gender and identity play in virtual worlds, but roleplay also encourages a carnivalesque atmosphere where social norms can be questioned. The liberty of a virtual space makes it very hard to enforce hierarchical rule; players just go elsewhere. Above all, it is an extremely malleable space, and can be very difficult to navigate using learned patterns of thought. It is this playful attitude to established patterns that makes virtual worlds so compelling and so powerful, and it seems to me that if there is such a thing as a feminist “game,” it will be played here.

Squirrels and The Erotic

6oct discussion_001We are starting to get into a routine for our Minerva meetings. We used text chat, as one of us had a microphone problem. I think that’s the way we’ll probably continue, people seem to be comfortable with that. If someone has a long story to tell, they can use voice, and others can transcribe, for those who can’t hear.  I’ve also provided a virtual tool for people who would like to prepare something in advance.  You just enter your text, and it reads it line by line.  It’s easy to use, and I’ve provided instructions. Find it free in the classroom, just click the box for a copy:

I put up my notes on the Wilding/Russo video, and we used them to structure the conversation. These are still available in the classroom, and they’re cumulative. Once again, we took off on a few tangents –personally, I’m a big fan of tangents –but I think we made some interesting connections.

The first slide provoked a lot of discussion. Faith Wilding posed the question, “what is a machine?” She then read a clipping from the Boston Daily Herald in March of this year:

Egg donor needed: we are an Ivy League couple seeking the help of a special woman who is a healthy Caucasian with highest percentile ACT/SAT scores.  Tall, slender, dark to light blonde hair, blue eyes and under the age of 28. Please contact our representative. ($20,000-plus compensation, all expenses paid)

We talked about the unsettling racial and economic undertones of the quote. This reminded me of a video that I find useful in teaching these points, and I should have posted the link before I got carried away with the discussion, so here it is:

Silver Sling, by Tze Chun

Some of us found the generation gap brought out by the dialogue a little hard to reconcile. Wilding talked most about reproductive technologies, and Russo is more interested in sexuality and virtual communities. However, just before coming to the group, I had seen this story, which I think brings the two together.

The news story tells us that the big cheese at Google wants to invest in the informatization of reproductive technologies. Can this be good?  Repeat the mantra: technology doesn’t hurt people, people hurt people.

So that brought up the point that although there is a male culture of technology, thinking of technology as “male” is both dangerous and incorrect.  One member of the group said that there’s a lot of hysteria around technology these days, we should look at things calmly. Another pointed out that technology is changing at such a rapid pace that it’s pretty difficult not to start hyperventilating about it.  I think this will be an underlying theme for all our discussions.

I also notice that the group is beginning to discuss as avatars.  Avatars see things differently. This was particularly evident when we talked about Wilding and Russo’s ideas on play and the erotic.  We avatars are very playful, and erotic behavior is just part of our landscape. Does that make us more aware of the erotic, or does it desensitize us?   I mean, there are just so many hypersexualized squirrels in g-strings that you can bump into before you begin to find the whole thing ridiculous.

There are so many feminist papers waiting to be written in here that it makes my head spin.

More about the DOCC:

How to join us:

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Sunday was first session of our discussion group on femnism and technology, and we spent most of our time talking about the Ann Balsamo / Judy Wajcman dialogue, although we did go off on a few tangents.

Most of us are information workers, and there was a vigorous nodding of avatar heads when we discussed this quote from Wajcman:

 in creative industries, or whatever terms you use for these kinds of industries, that people are working extraordinarily long hours, they’re not unionized, they’re a perfect example of the blurring of private time and time for their employer, although they are self-employed and don’t think of it this way.  In old terms, we would think of it as very exploitative labour relations.

I liked Wajcman’s analysis of the importance of reputation and autonomy for these kinds of workers — I think that many people are willing to give up a lot to be working outside the control of large corporate structures, and I think we should be very careful in examining what that means. We talked about this for a while, and wanted to do more on skilled, unskilled and deskilled labour.

I liked a lot of what Wajcman said. She reminded us that there was a time when people asked questions like “why shouldn’t people who work in workplaces be part of running those workplaces?”  Why, indeed?

The dialogue ended on a positive note. As Ann Balsamo said, one robin doesn’t make a spring, and one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Although we are still dancing around the essentialist point that being female somehow grants us a better perspective on human relations, many agree that a critical mass of females in the upper echelons of power will change our culture.

What the dialogue didn’t bring up, and what I wish we had talked more about in our group, is why women, or anyone, would want to support such a toxic system by striving to succeed in it.  It reminds me of what Audre Lorde said shortly before her death: we race for the cure for cancer while we are drinking, eating, breathing, and bathing in carcinogens. Lorde was critiquing the breast cancer industry, but I think she identified a pattern that we see elsewhere. Can we really change the system by subscribing to it?

In the face of all the problems we have to deal with today, perhaps the breaking the glass ceiling is at least an achievable target. However, I wouldn’t want a focus on corporate success to distract us from other ways to effect change within the workplace.

Our discussion group meets in the virtual world Second Life on Sundays at 11am Pacific, 2pm Eastern, and 7pm GMT. Learn more about the group here. If you’d like to join us, send an IM to Ellie Brewster or e-mail elliebrewster (at)

Open Sim Community Conference, 2013

I went, and I had a great time.  I was completely blown away by the excellent presentations and level of professionalism at OSCC13. Everything worked like clockwork, and I saw many friends from Second Life.

I went with the idea that, if I could use virtual worlds technology in any way I wanted, I would use Second Life as my “parlour,” a place where I could entertain guests, showcase student work, and collaborate with other universities, but I would also use OpenSim, a much less expensive venue, as a workshop, a gated classroom, and a place for student experimentation. (If you’re confused about the difference between OpenSim and Second Life, see this post)

After OSCC13, however, I’m beginning to look at things a little differently.  Although Second Life is still the easiest way to welcome new people to the virtual worlds classroom, a solid webpage and a set of instructional videos would go a long way in making an OpenSim classroom more welcoming.  Second Life does shine in the number of established sims, many of which do regular events, and I do love bumping into people at these venues. However, OpenSim seems to be experiencing healthy growth and optimism.  As a conglomerate of grids and companies, OpenSim as a whole is also less vulnerable to the stupidities of corporate management, and many grids are particularly welcoming to education. Most important of all, Open Sim is far, far cheaper than Second Life.

I believe that for many educators the biggest point of resistance in adopting OpenSim is the problem of visiting other grids. In Second Life, an avatar can travel between any two points by simply clicking a teleport button, and I do this frequently with my students on their field trips. In OpenSim, visiting other grids seems more intimidating; for me, there’s always the vague, irrational fear that the next jump may be my avatar’s last. I don’t even want to imagine the chaos that would ensue if I lost a whole gaggle of students in there.

After the recent rousing success of OSCC13, however, there has been a renewed interest in exploring the hypergrid, and John Lester (Pathfinder) has proposed restarting the Hypergrid Adventurers Club, a group of hardy avatars who meet regularly to explore intriguing corners of OpenSim grids. I’ll be going along with them on their next trip, and I’ll let you know how it turns out.