Second Life for Humanitarian Aid and Peacebuilding?

Strong Angell II on Second Life

I’ve written about serious games on this blog before as well as Second Life, but I never imagined how sophisticated the sims that could be developed for the game were until I saw the one that was created for Strong Angel III recently by a group called The Magicians.

Demonstrated on the last day of SA III, the sim was a powerful message that the visual realism and the in-game interactions between avatars and objects had already achieved a level of sophistication to make it useful to train staff from the state health department in California in the deployment of emergency medical clinics, which would distribute antibiotics in case of biological attack, help youth interact with each other, learn languages, deliberate the timbre of democracy (see video here).

Filled with artefacts from Greek history, both real and mythical, and amazingly detailed, the sim is an example of how realistic games such as Second Life can become in the hands of gifted developers who map real world objects virtually. Modelling objects for Second Life isn’t new, but The Magicians struck me as the only group that I know of who develop sims for Second Life that are used in real life for training and education.

There are drawbacks, for instance, the reliance of high end graphics hardware for the greatest realism in the sim (even my Core Duo MacBook Pro with a pretty decent graphics card struggles to run Second Life at high resolutions with all the advanced graphics options turned on) and the availability of broadband connectivity.

I spoke at Strong Angel III with Kimberly Rufer-Bach, Owner, Designer, & Producer of The Magicians and asked her to describe how she got involved in the development of serious sims for Second Life. Kimberly underscored the potential of Second Life as a training tool in a context where participants had access to the hardware and connectivity required to run SL, but also concurred that much needed to be done to made the sims available to a broader public who did not have access to either.

She made an interesting point in the course of our conversation – that although many perceived Second Life to be a game, it wasn’t really a game in and of itself, and that the modelling and scripting available for the development of sims were so powerful that it was really a platform upon which sims of any flavour – games to serious applications – could be designed to run on it.

Listen to the podcast here.

There are of course other examples of 3D worlds used for purposes such as education. This page in particular has a rather comprehensive list of them, but the key difference between these worlds and Second Life is the relative ease of access (over 250,000 registered users) and the stability of the underlying graphics and interaction engine, which makes sims and the objects in them act and behave in much the same manner as real world objects would do. Robin Good’s post here also makes some interesting points:

But what are the other advantages of collaborating or learning inside a 3D virtual immersive workspace?

1) The space is persistent. What you create, leave, or place somewhere remains there as in the physical world. If you leave your newly built gamma ray telescope in your front yard, or a specific book on your personal desk, that is where you will find it tomorrow.

2) Videoconferencing not required. Immersive 3D virtual worlds are inhabited by so-called avatars, that is virtual representations of human beings that act in your place inside the synthetic world. Avatars can be as elegant and good looking as you design them, they look always sharp, shaved and having had a full sleep no matter what you actually went through the night before. No need to do make-up and check the lights in your room before conferencing. Your avatar is always in great shape, plus it can be dressed, customized and characterized in an increasing number of ways (see Yahoo Messenger avatars to see another example of where we are directed with this).

3) Your learning experience inside a 3D virtual space can be arranged as a modeling scenario. The virtual space can be designed to fit your specific task needs with a flexibility and immediacy impossible in real life. You can have the best and most appropriate setting for each activity you want to carry out. Space and objects can be resized, moved and placed anywhere you like.

4) Exploration and discovery are enabled. Ideas, prototypes, simulated interactions can be explored and tested out with much greater confidence as the possible damage, risks, costs and time required are truly negligible.

5) Risk can be my guide. Dangerous and unorthodox exploration of new spaces, approaches, methods and tools is given maximum support in a virtual space where everything can be tried and no-one gets hurt. Though we are not used to think of school in these terms, think of applied arts, electricity, physics and even sports training. See the benefits?

6) Fantasy and imagination can be unleashed. Can you do so in your traditional classroom? How much opportunity have today students (2004) to venture into real imaginative spaces to explore and prototype new ideas, tools, artifacts and architectures?

7) Virtual 3D spaces allow the potential full recording of any activity, interaction, exchange. As a consequence such recordings enable the ability re-experience or re-use of past events for many different purposes. Recorded artifacts and the ability to manage them at a fine, granular level will greatly expand our abilities to learn from other people experiences, and to re-use them effectively to achieve our goals more rapidly. Time navigation will be possible in as much the virtual space keeps track of people, events, objects, and relationships among them.

8) Creed, skin color, look don’t count much in these virtual spaces and allow individuals to be credited for their true value and not for the dress or the look they have.

9) People who carry major physical handicaps appear as capable and beautiful as anyone else.

10) The ability to wear any type of body and to customize your own look gives many people the opportunity to express themselves as they truly feel and not as society forces them to.

When a highly respected institution such as the Harvard Law School starts to use Second Life in its classroom, it’s a clear message to the rest of us that the innovative and creative use new media, the internet and the web opens a world of potential for the development of sims and games that explore new ways to bring people together to talk with each other, learn and build trust.

A sim for peace negotiations anyone?

2 thoughts on “Second Life for Humanitarian Aid and Peacebuilding?

  1. Thanks for this post; I made it to Strong Angel’s SIM today and picked up a hexayurt from the Magicians for our next generation refugee care project. There are a handful of organizations inworld looking at peace studies; our Better World Island SIM is dedicated space for nonprofits who need space to hold workshops or events for education and outreach.

    A group called 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows has made their virtual home with us, along with PeaceGames (Chandi Chess), Camp Darfur, Gardens of Hope and a handful of grassroots aid projects. We are hosting two weeks of events, contests and outreach for Better World Building in late October and you’re welcome to stop by my home, ManorMeta, anytime.

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