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.

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.

Students love photography

Gridjumper has a great post on the Photo Hunt Group in Second Life. On Monday mornings and Wednesday nights this group visits a preselected location together, and spends an hour taking photographs. They then gather to select their favorite image; no cropping, no photo manipulation, just the shot.   This is a way of improving the photography skills of photographers, teaching them how to get the best out of in-world lighting and camera controls. It also promotes speculation on the differing perspectives individuals bring to the same scene.

Watch the birdie

Watch the birdie

A photo hunt would be a wonderful idea for a collaborative class appraisal of an event or exhibit, but it does pose logistical problems.  Although the cost of uploading an image for display in SL is only about three cents, most students don’t have any Lindens, and considering the possible number of photos, many instructors won’t want to underwrite the cost.

I do use photoshoots in my class, but what I’ve done up to now is to provide the group with a set of provocative questions and require a given number of photographs. Answers and photos are e-mailed to me through the SL photo tool.  This means that I must choose representative photos for the class, and this can’t be done immediately, so I usually do it as a follow-up in the next class. But for instant review of class work, there must be a better way.

It’s possible to organize a Flickr pool and show class work on a media-on-a-prim viewer, but students will have to join Flickr, and this requires a Yahoo account. Most of my students use Gmail, and I think that’s pretty common.  My students resent requests to join things they feel are superfluous, no matter how politely I ask.  They’ve already tangled with the SL learning curve, and they get grumpy.

It would be easier for them to just use Snapzilla.  The signup is simpler and it’s not hard for me to set up a group account.  This would provide me with a lot more flexibility in how I use pictures in class, and all students would have to do is e-mail the pictures to the group address.

So that’s my plan for next term, and I’ll let you know how it works out. If you’ve got a better idea, I’d appreciate hearing about it.

ADDENDUM:  Kate Miranda reminds me that with Gmail accounts, students can sign up for Google Picassa and Google +, share photos on Google+ or embed Picassa slideshows in a website.  Sounds like a better solution.

Two classrooms, one presentation format

basement classroom (ugh)

I’ve been lucky to have two really great classes this term, with some wonderful students. However, the locations for these classes couldn’t have been more different. My science fiction class was held over the lunch hour in a hot and windowless basement room, where forty sleepy students smuggled in sandwiches and coffee. My Women’s Studies class met in Second Life in the evenings, a dozen or so students seated in a wooded seaside area, keeping a lively conversation going even though they were tired after a long day’s work.  Members of the Second Life class who couldn’t participate during class time contributed through blogs.

student presentation in SLI don’t need to tell you which space I preferred to teach in, but what’s interesting to me is how similar classroom management was in both spaces.  The high point of both classes was the student presentation; students in both classes were asked to a ten-minute presentation.  They weren’t required to use PowerPoint, although they were given some instructions on what NOT to do with a PowerPoint presentation (20 words per slide, 15 slides maximum, no reading slides, don’t forget to finish with a discussion question).* The Second Life PowerPoint was prepared  the old-fashioned way; the PowerPoint was saved as .png images and uploaded as textures, which were then loaded into a standard slide projector, which the student controlled.

Almost unanimously, my students chose to use PowerPoint, and most were highly successful presentations. There were some minor differences; students in my physical class usually waited politely for the speaker to finish before they asked a question, while students in my virtual class often did a running commentary in text chat when a presentation interested them.  Students in my physical class often mentioned their nervousness at speaking in front of a large class, while my virtual students commented on the relaxed nature of a virtual presentation.

In both the physical and the virtual class, however, the short PowerPoint proved to be an effective kick-off point for discussion; sometimes we would go back over a particular slide in the question period, and students could challenge a point, or make suggestions for improving the presentation.  The Powerpoints were also useful for revision; if the student gave permission, their PowerPoint could be linked to the relevant page in the learning management system, while in Second Life the student could just leave their presentation in a convenient area for review.  In Second Life, this worked well for the asynchronous students (bloggers), who could visit the classroom later on to see the presentations.

As far as I’m concerned, social exchange is what makes a class, and presentations are a good way to encourage this.  I’m always a bit baffled by the “Death by PowerPoint” people, some of whom seem to believe that these kinds of discussion aids shouldn’t be used.  I’ve found PowerPoint very useful in both physical and virtual spaces, but maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  With the summer stretching ahead, it seems like a good time to explore other possibilities.  Any suggestions?

* Update, June 2013: Since I wrote this, I’ve found I get better presentations when I make it 10 slides, 10 words, 10 minutes, the last slide is a direct quote from the reading under discussion.


Lightbird is the new art installation on Minerva, part of the AAUW Community Events series. The students have loved it, especially after they were told not to expect a “lesson” from the art. They simply explore it, and report their reflections.  I do notice, however, that as the exhibit involves animating the avatar to sit on an egg, students have had a tendency to reflect on reproduction and freedom.

Maya Paris: Lightbird exhibit on Minerva

Maya Paris: Lightbird exhibit on Minerva

To begin, you have the option of wearing a bird mask and wings, which does get you into the mood of the thing.  You should also change the time of day to sunset or midnight (I prefer midnight).  To do this, go to >>world  >>environment settings.  Then, click on the sign at the entrance for your free mask and wings, follow the instructions on the notecard, and just participate in the art.

You may feel a little silly, sitting on an egg with a beak on your nose, but that’s part of the fun; you have to let go of your self-image a little before you can freely participate.  You can also fly high in the air and dance with dandelion clocks.  There are a lot of sounds to listen to, words fly by, and the whole thing is very provocative.

Maya Paris’ exhibit will continue on Minerva until June 20.  All are welcome; if this is the first time you have visited, see the help page.  If you’re an experienced virtual worlds explorer, just click the link:

Dancing in the dark with a dandelion

Dancing in the dark with a dandelion

Visit to FleepGrid

The Hypergrid Adventurer’s Club is a great way of exploring the metaverse; they get together weekly to poke around new places outside of Second Life.  I still don’t have the basics of hypergridding, so it’s really nice to have more seasoned explorers along to help me out.

Last trip we visited FleepGrid, Fleep Tuque’s private grid.   Fleep works for the University of Cincinnati, and she’s the most clever avatar I know; she runs FleepGrid on an old Pentium 4 she had in her basement.  In her basement!

Fleep is also a very talented content creator.  Her orientation area is stunning.  But what I really liked was this illustration of the differences between virtual worlds.

On a pedagogical level, this illustration demonstrates the value of a 3D world for learning: when you can actually walk around inside the thing, you learn about it pretty fast.  We are built to understand things in 3D. But even looking at this picture gives you a lot of information about the new directions virtual worlds are taking.  The signs were easy to read, but they don’t show up in the picture, so I’ll transcribe them here:


Second life is like the New York City of the Metaverse, full of people, culture and events, but it’s a WALLED GARDEN.  You can’t travel to other places, you can’t back up your creations or take them with you to other places, and it’s very expensive to rent or buy land there.


Opensim grids and standalones are like smaller towns, villages and houses popping up all over the Metaverse; land is either free or much cheaper than the big city, you can travel to and from Hypergrid-enabled locations, take your avatar and things with you, and backup your stuff.

Some grids like Avination, InWorldz, and SpotOn3D are WALLED GARDENS, just like Second LIfe.

I’m not keen on walled gardens myself, and I think they are only going to become more of an issue as time goes by.

It was a fun and informative visit.  If you’d like to try exploring the Hypergrid on your own, you can always use John (Pathfinder) Lester’s list of sites, or if hypergridding is a bit intimidating for you, just join Open Sim and use Firestorm or the Imprudence Viewer to tootle around in your avatar for a while.

Happy trails.