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Should staff and students learning in second life have accurate human avatars?

When attending classes in Second Life, staff and students should have age and gender accurate human...

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Rebecca Galley
2 February 2010

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When attending classes in Second Life, should staff and students have age and gender accurate human avatars, and be dressed appropriately for the equivalent physical world event?





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Gráinne Conole
9:00am 3 February 2010

Such a great topic for debate! Clearly the boundaries between real and virtual identities are blurring. Technologies have long been held up as ways of creating alternative identities, of being free from sexual or cultural restraints. Second life and similar tools take this a step further but this also brings with it complications. You are still 'present' in SL, others will percieve you by how you look and what you say. So haven't clarity of who you are and how you want to be preceived is incredibly important.

To answet the question? No I don't think its necessary, although personally I do find sitting next to a giant chicken a tad disconcerting ;-) But whatever you choose you have to be clear that will have an impact on others and you have to be happy that you are being portrayed in that way...

Richard Elen
9:38am 3 February 2010

I don't think there's a blanket answer to this. I can imagine certain types of work where it would provide a useful point of reference if staff tend towards accurate representations, and my personal suspicion is that in a learning virtual environment, corresponding gender representation is a good idea. And although we can choose our own names in many OpenSim environments, we can't normally in Second Life: in many cases keeping the name the same as in RL would be a great help, even if other parameters could be varied.

However, one could argue that part of the benefit of virtual environments of this type is that they allow an immense freedom of personal expression. That may be more effective for students than for staff (and there need to be defined guidelines here) but there is a place for staff to "dress up" for example, just as in real life.

In particular, period dress can be an important part of some environments. If you've ever dressed in period costume for a class to draw their attention to scientific knowledge in a past era, you'll know what I mean. This extends into virtual environments in different ways. Here are two examples.

In Dr Shelley Hales and Dr Nic Earle's representation of the Pompeii Court in the Sydenham Crystal Palace in SL, both turn up in Victorian costume but they don't expect visitors to do so - one of the points they are making is about the comparison of Victorian and 21stC immersive environments and part of that involves clothing of the different periods and the clash of cultures.

In the Frideswide region of SL, in the representation of the Western Front as part of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive project in-world, visitors are actively encouraged to wear one of the free outfits (private or nurse) available at the camp at the start of the visit. This is an extremely immersive experience and being present in other dress (or seeing others doing so) would distract significantly from the effect. One can equally suggest that turning up with a non-human avatar would be even more distracting.

Thus my suggestion would be to consider each case individually and not to expect to apply blanket rules in this area. Broadly, one could suggest that the more the educational event tends towards art and self-expression, the more flexible avatar appearance guidelines can be; but the more the event is an immersive one in which a real or imaginary environment is being experienced, the more it may be necessary to derive firmer guidelines.

I am very much in favour of involving students in procedural issues if appropriate. It's very effective to get students to work together to propose behavioural guidelines at the start of a course, for example, as not only are such guidelines better self-policed than enforced, but the group identity-building aspects of such a process can be extremely valuable. In the same way, working with students to encourage them to define and agree guidelines for avatar representation can not only be an effective method of developing guidelines for a specific environment; it also has its own intrinsic value apart from the practical benefits as far as operating effectively in the environment is concerned.

In addition, in encouraging and defining such group efforts, you will need to be able to communicate effectively to students what the virtual environment is attempting to achieve, which is a useful exercise in any event.

Gráinne Conole
8:40pm 3 February 2010

Hi Richard - your example of the use of Victoran costume is an interesting one and I can certainly see that in some instances use of the affordances of the medium in this way can be very constructive in a teaching context and add an element of 'authenticity'.

I agree that we need to treat cases differently and in this respect local 'ground rules'/norms might be needed. It's the same in RL isn't it? In some working contexts formal dress is needed, in others it isn't. Areas, whether real or virtual inhabited by people will take on a cultural context set of norms/practices if not overtly to begin with, certainly over time.


Juliette Culver
2:00pm 4 February 2010

My initial reaction was 'it doesn't matter as long as it's not distracting', but thinking about it more, I think I'd find it quite disconcerting if a teacher who I also met in real life was remarkably different in SL, whereas I'm not sure I'd have the same reaction with fellow students. I'm not sure why though!

SL is a more playful environment than real life, and the norms are different there so I don't think you can treat them as directly equivalent when it comes to dress and the like. I think that it would be odd not to make some adjustment to the culture there.

The historical examples are really interesting too - the context for those is obviously very different from elsewhere in SL.


Rebecca Galley
3:07pm 4 February 2010 (Edited 3:08pm 4 February 2010)

I think that class culture is important here. The risk of ground rules is that even if there were hundreds you'd never be able to cover everything off! I quite like the Safety, Learning, Respect headers (Merfyn Roberts) - broadly anything goes unless it impacts negitively on one of these. 

An avatar choice will never impact on Safety but could impact on Learning (ie be distracting as Grainne suggests with the Chicken example - lol) or on Respect ie if someone chose a ethnicity, disability, gender that was not their own and created a stereotypical identity around it. 

Juliette you make a good point too about meeting the person in RL - if I was never to meet the teacher/ student I would mind significantly less what they chose to look like. If SL is used in a blended context, I think it becomes more of an issue for me - why is that?

Mark Childs
2:05pm 5 February 2010

On the whole, I would say absolutely not. There are exceptions, those given by Richard above are excellent, others would be if one is visiting an inworld community and they have their own guidelines. Richard's examples are truly immersionist in that they prevent people from matching the physical, (unless they 'really are a WWI nurse). For many immersionism is the raison d'etre for being inworld. The augmentationist side of the debate is that experiences in virtual worlds are more authentic if they replicate the physical world,and that disguising who you really are is dishonest. Some of the more conservative students in my classes state this. But this needs to be resisted. Although ,most people will choose an avatar that resembles themselves (just slightly taller, thinner and younger), for others the space is an opportunity for self-expression, perhaps giving voice to a part of their personality they can't present in the physical world and we shouldn't deny them this. To equate matching the physical with "true" or "authentic" is a mistake. As an example, if someone were to insist that my avatar had to be a white middle aged male human, then I would probably refuse to teach the class.

Gráinne Conole
6:11pm 7 February 2010

Interesting points Mark. I think how you represent yourself in virtual worlds is part of the broader issue of how you manage your digital identity generally across different technological channels; how you look and "sound" immediately say something  about you to others. I am not sure that we take enough account of this - what traces are we leaving and how are they portrayed and by whom? is a question that we should all be  much more aware of.

Mark Childs
6:21am 8 February 2010

True - although I'd also argue that if part of this is a subconscious or intuitive process, then this can give an authentic representation of who we are ... (and stressing here that "authentic" does not mean accurately replicating our physical world appearance). As another response, how much do we ever really consider what our physical world appearance communicates to others? I dress fairly randomly, how much difference would it make if I wore a suit to work?

Gráinne Conole
7:35am 8 February 2010

Of course we all have different attitudes about how we dress and what we think its appropriate to wear when. I must admit I love being able to be fairly scruffy at work nowadays but do make an effort if giving a talk! I think the issue is that maybe people dont realise that they are making an impression through their digital trace and that this potentially has implications. Plus the medium can make that trace 'stronger' - words on a page have more impact that throw away verbal comments, a 'presence' in second life, etc. A silly remark on twitter ot facebook at 3 am might then be picked up 6 months down the line by a potentially employer...

8:52pm 9 February 2010

I'd say no...but within problem with non-human avs, opposite gender to RL avs, child avs etc, but wouldn't feel too happy about turning up to find naked avs (unless of course it was a naturist event), weapon wielding avs etc.

Liz Thackray
9:23am 2 March 2010

I would hate a situation where we tried to control the avatars used by our students. Part of being in a virtual world is freedom of expression and freedom to explore. From a personal perspective, I spent some considerable time getting my avatar right for me.  As those who know me inworld know, I have a non-human avatar - a rather smart raccoon in a tuxedo. My avatar has remained constant for nearly 3 years now - not even changing clothing.

When I first chose my avatar, I was clear that I did not want a human female avatar for two principle reasons: I did not want to replicate the real life me and I did not want yet another 'barbie' replica. Choosing an animal seemed to be a reasonable compromise solution. Over the three plus years I have been inworld, I have run into very few difficulties with my avatar and received only one adverse comment, when I was told I looked scary by somebody on a training course.

However, with changes in SL policies I am now finding I am not acceptable in some settings - some businesses and entertainment centres ban animal avatars simply for being animals.  That type of discrimination does not feel good.

I see no reason for expecting or wanting students and staff to have accurate human avatars.  I do sometimes think it would be helpful if the names of avatars had some link to real life identify - but perhaps that is to save me having to work out which avatar is which student.

Gráinne Conole
9:36am 2 March 2010

Great points Liz and I agree freedom of expression is an important part of being in SL and you do have a very smart avatar indeed! I didn't know that some areas ban animals - I am really surprised by that - what on earth is the justification for that?

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