This essay is a (slightly) revised version of a chapter included in Serious Educational Game Assessment, edited by Leonard Annetta and Stephen Bronack. The book was published in 2011 by Sense Publishers: Rotterdam. Full details of the book are available here.
This essay looks at a number of issues that arose during the Marinetta Ombro project, which was an attempt to create a comprehensive synthetic culture for exploratory pedagogical purposes, and which resulted in an online representation of the Mediterranean island of Rosario. This became a multiuser, online “world”, in which students learned, played and experimented.
Part of this process inevitably involved struggling to find ways to describe and analyse what we thought we were doing. A number of related questions dogged the project. Foremost among these were a series that asked: what do we think we are doing, and how do we know that we are doing it? Put another way, the kind of project that we were intending needed to be documented and assessed, and yet it was not obvious how suitable assessment criteria and strategies could be developed.
We did not intend to develop a “virtual world” for purposes of distance learning, but rather to develop a synthetic culture that could be used to feed background material into courses and, through this, tie disparate courses and different disciplines together. Our intention was that this culture (itself a learning object) would manifest itself in a number of ways, including online; and that this online manifestation would form the framework upon which a set of curricular activities could be erected.
For reasons described below it was neither practically possible, nor theoretically desirable, to use quantitative or statistical assessment tools, and we were therefore driven to ask ourselves what kind of research framework was, in fact, possible.
This, in turn, led us to try to tackle a problem that has been disturbing us for some time: the way that the self-serving term “virtual reality” has been allowed to fashion and shape much of the discussion that takes place around this topic, to the detriment of everyone except a small group of cheerleaders. This essay documents the conclusions we reached, and the routes we took to reach them; and relates these to a series of brief case studies of specific curricular activities that were built upon the Marinetta Ombro framework.
The ideas expressed here make much use of the works and thoughts of the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce, and the Canadian media-poet Marshall McLuhan, to make sense of the many-layered nature of this digital adventure. (I use the word “adventure” here because I know of no more specific word that conveys the combination of work, play, communication and exploration that exists simultaneously in the digital domain.)
This essay concludes by suggesting a way out of the problems we encountered: an analytical approach that is, I believe, more securely anchored, and more logically coherent, than the mish-mash of second-hand film theory and third-hand semiotics that has recently passed for “virtual theory”.
Marinetta Ombro: a brief history
The Marinetta Ombro project was begun by Camilla Lindeberg and me in January 2002, and it officially ended in June 2007. The primary purpose of the project was to develop a virtual culture that would form a mythos capable of being used both as a metaphorical platform for learning, and as an environment within which we could encourage students to enter into real producer/client relationships.
According to the initial documentation:
The Media Department at Arcada [a university of applied science in Helsinki, Finland] set out to develop a long-term project to consolidate the online media course. This project was intended to act as a laboratory within which students could test their ideas; improve their planning, design and programming skills; and then watch as their experiments had real and lasting effects. It was agreed that this project should be innovative, and capable of attracting international users. It was also decided that it should also exhibit commercial potential.
After lengthy discussion between staff and students it was determined that the project should take the form of a detailed and realistic synthetic world. This world would live somewhere on the world wide web; be designed to grow and develop in unpredictable ways; and be designed from the outset as an international partnership (Kelly, 2003, p1).
According to notes posted on the official Marinetta Ombro website in February 2003, the project was designed to “construct La Mentala Rosario, an online representation of the history, culture and commerce of the mediterranean island of Rosario. Its purpose was to explore the theoretical and practical pedagogical possibilities such a simulation might provide”.
We decided not to begin with a tabla rasa, but to adopt a set of arbitrary limitations. Therefore the initial starting point for the imagining of Rosario was literary: specifically an anonymous novella called Sexton Blake and the Time-Killer, published in Union Jack, issue 1,071, on 19 April 1924; and subsequently republished in Shadows of Sherlock Holmes, (Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 23 April 1998)
SextonBlake.co.uk describes Time-Killer as a story in which “Sexton Blake encounters a ghostly hound on London’s underground, is commissioned to find stolen microbes, searches for a lost Lord and a Trade Union Leader, and ends up on a very mysterious island”. This island is described in enough detail to provide a clear framework for further imaginings, but sketchily enough to leave a lot of room for serious playfulness.
From this starting point staff and students began to posit a culture; that is, they began to bring into existence the geography and history of Rosario, moving from a position of almost complete ignorance to a deep and sympathetic understanding of contemporary life on the island.
The process of building the culture has been described in detail elsewhere by both Camilla Lindeberg (2004) and me (2006); and also in several student theses, beginning with Finding “Reality” in Virtual Environments by Niklas Weckström (2004).
The first online version of the city of Marinetta was launched in 2003 using a French software called SCOL. A second version used a German games software called 3D GameStudio. The third version, which was in many ways the most successful, launched in December 2005, on a nine-sim island in Second Life.
From the outset we were as concerned with the form of the “world” as with its content, and we were dismayed at the kinds of discussions that students were finding on the web and in printed media.
Where is cyberspace?
From early student reports we realised the extent to which two terms had become familiar in journalism, academic writing, and research applications: “cyberspace” and “virtual reality”. The ways that both of these were used were, accidentally or deliberately, confusing and misleading.
The widespread adoption of the term “cyberspace” had the effect of imposing a set of spatial metaphors on an area of activity that is tangentially spatial at best. These metaphors, in turn, served to characterize the way that work in this area was approached, discussed and thought about. To take but one example, there was a site www.cybergeography.org, that cheerfully declared itself as “an atlas of maps and graphic representations of the geographies of the new electronic territories of the Internet, the World-Wide Web and other emerging Cyberspaces”.
I would argue that this claim is simply nonsensical, unless it is supported by detailed argument explaining why these new “electronic territories” are, in fact, territories, what kind of territories they really are, and what features they possess that can reasonably be said to be geographical. Which, of course, it isn’t.
The term “cyberspace” then, introduces uncalled-for ideas of distance, geography, neighbourhoods, frontiers, and more, into discussions that are actually concerned with the reception and interpretation of digital data. Its proponents imply that our use of the internet causes us to travel to a place that has the kind of intractable and non-negotiable reality that places have. Consciously or not, they imply that we ‘go’ to these places in a similar way to the way that we go to Legoland or Melbourne.
It is true that we might make games or educational environments that exhibit persistence by retaining information from one user session to the next, and also that we might begin engaging with an on-screen environment which predates our involvement. These points only address our status with regard to the digital environment, though. They say nothing about our ontological relationship to it, which remains a coming together of a creative imagination and a set of ongoing relations.
Neither virtual nor real
If cyberspace is not a place, then “virtual reality” is neither virtual nor real.
The use of the word “reality” implies that “the new electronic territories” are an object, or a collection of objects that “has the properties it has independently of any individual’s arbitrary wish or desire”. (Ketner, 1993, p.8 ). In practice, the on-screen experience is a process that has to be wilfully sustained by the user. Rather than an alternative reality, it is much closer to what William Gibson has referred to as a process of “consensual hallucination”.
At the start of a session, the user has to suspend disbelief, and then during the session has to work at keeping it suspended. At any time, deliberately or accidentally, the user can lose focus, or have focus snatched away from them; and thus be bounced out of imaginative communion with the on-screen world. The process of engagement requires the user to remain wilfully insensitive to all activity at the fringes of their senses: the sound of traffic outside the window, the sight of a fly in the room, the smell of cooking from the restaurant downstairs.
There is no similar set of manoeuvres required to remain in situ in reality. By definition you cannot be bounced out of communion with a geographical reality. However much you may wish live as a solipsist, you do not exist in Legoland or Melbourne by force of will, and you cannot beam out of there by withdrawing consent. Real objects, and real places containing real objects, have an existence that is outside our interaction with them. We work within the limitations that they impose upon us.
It might be argued at this point that nobody is claiming that what is shown on screen is real – only that it is virtually real. However, the word “virtual” is as bogus as the word reality. When we are told that “the victim was virtually dead” or that “the company was virtually bankrupt when the new CEO arrived” we understand two things from this. Firstly we understand “virtual” to be nearly synonymous with “almost”: the phrase means something very similar to the person was “almost dead”. Secondly we understand “virtual” to imply the real possibility of movement towards a final state. The person was “almost dead and in a condition that might become real death at any moment”. The company was “almost bankrupt and might have collapsed into actual bankruptcy in a matter of days”.
The phrase “virtual reality”, then, seems to imply that what we are seeing might not be reality now, but contains the possibility of motion necessary to move it into a final state of actual reality. There is no evidence whatsoever to show that this is anything other than wishful thinking. It is, at best, an optimistic fantasy and, at worst, a deliberate sleight of hand.
Pedantry and snake oil
It might be possible to acknowledge that these terms are unfortunate, and even that they have been deliberately misused, while denying that this is anything to be concerned about.
My contention is that there is something to be concerned about. These terms have not simply been used to describe an (allegedly) new phenomenon. They have also been used to direct attention and energy; to make certain activities appear self-evidently sensible, while marginalising others. By insisting on discussing digital activity in terms of geography and reality, “innovations” like Swatch Internet Time could be made to seem important, as a way, for example, of making the information superhighway navigable. If cyberspace is not a place, then Swatch Internet Time is (and always was) a badly flawed solution to a completely nonexistent problem.
When this was launched on October 23, 1998, Nicholas Negroponte, its chief architect and cheerleader, found the idea that there were “new electronic territories” to explore very useful for his purpose. He was happy to take the metaphor literally, and encourage others to do the same. He said: “Cyberspace has no seasons. The virtual world is absent of day and night… Internet Time is not geopolitical, it is global… For many people real time will be Internet Time”.
This kind of language strives to make it appear as though we are working with objects that are “out there”, that we have discovered somewhere new and unexplored, when in fact we are working with processes, with relations, that are negotiated communally, and whose every aspect is contingent. In terms that will be discussed later, it attempts to reduce a triadic relationship to a dyadic coupling, which is logically impossible.
Objects and Relationships
The processes that we have been exploring in the Marinetta Ombro project can be described as processes of immersion into a coherent set of patterns, intended to be imagined as a world. The purpose of these processes, or relations, can be described as learning through play, or perhaps as play through learning. The difference between process and place, between relation and object, though, is unbridgeable.
These relations have three characteristic facets that together can be labelled “engagement”: immersion, interaction and identification. Users become immersed in what is depicted on the screen to the extent that they can keep their attention focused there. Often the onscreen data enables them to interact with other users, while providing a mediating framework within which this interaction can be contextualized. Thirdly, users may identify with their own on-screen avatar, but more importantly, if their experience is successful, they will come to identify with the environment itself, with the laws, relations and events they find there.
The world of tools
The on-screen worlds that we create are not “realities”, for the reasons that I have described, but I believe that they may fairly be described as worlds, if we use that word in the limited (and metaphorical) sense implied by “the world of cinema mourned the death of Lauren Bacall”, or “he strode the world of golf like a colossus”. The use of “world” in this context has been suggested by Richard Bartle, among others.
Used like this, the word “world” means a club, a group with insiders and specified laws and codes of behaviour; a group however that serves a public function involving outsiders. In this, and only this, sense, it is appropriate to talk of on-screen worlds; to talk of “entering the world of” Ultima Online or Rebel Dawn, or Second Life.
We do not, and cannot, live in this sort of world. We do not eat and drink there; we do not have give birth or die there; we do not make friends or enemies there, except insofar as we can and do the same things when we use a tool like a telephone. An on-screen world is a tool for facilitating complex interactions between people, sometimes by providing them with a backdrop in front of which they can move and talk, and sometimes by providing them with created entities with whom they can practise or simulate interaction.
These worlds that we “enter” are sophisticated communications tools that bear a family resemblance to older tools like telephones. In McLuhan’s terms both offer a shifting figure and ground; both are cool media.
“There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool medium like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like the TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition”. High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition”. A cartoon is “low definition” simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meagre amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.” (McLuhan, 1988 , p. 31)
We are working with a low definition, cool medium, and our claim is that the worlds that constitute, or result from, this medium have an educational use and an entertainment value. From the beginning of the Marinetta Ombro project we realised that we needed to be able to justify this claim, and to resolve the doubts of those who have been seduced by the hype and disappointed by the reality.
If we are to be able to resolve these doubts, which is after all the underlying point of all scientific research (in other words, the enquiring activities of a scientific intelligence, “that is to say, by an intelligence capable of learning by experience”), we need a firm starting point for our investigation, a logical method for resolving doubt. As Ketner (1990) points out, “Logic is the fundamental academic discipline, basic to any academic subject which proposes to use an objective method” (p. 13 ).
I suggest we could do no better in this respect than to examine some of the concepts proposed by the American philospher, mathematician, and logician Charles Sanders Peirce. He was a pragmaticist, who believed that it was futile to look for an absolute starting point for our thinking. He believed that we “cannot start from any other condition than that in which we actually are … We really believe many things, and, therefore, philosophic doubts upon such matters must be mere pretence and can result in nothing but a show of demonstration of things really taken for granted”.
Peirce evolved a logical system, semeiotic, which was triadic in form. In line with his almost phenomenological belief that we have to start from where we actually are, semeiotic “conceptions can be viewed as abstractions from common-sense practices, and as such are by no means infallible or eternally valid.” (Bergman, 2000, p. 134 ) His work is described as triadic because he demonstrated that, while the conventional binary logic (yes-no, cause-effect) is adequate for describing brute, natural events, it is completely inadequate to describe any relations that involve purpose – that is, any events that involve or derive from human agency. Binary logic proceeds by writing intention or purpose out of the equation, which, from Peirce’s perspective, misses the whole point!
He argued that “John gives the book to Mary” is a single set of relations containing three elements. He demonstrated, mathematically and linguistically, that it cannot be reduced to sets of two, as proponents of sequential cause and effect would argue. “John holds out the book. Mary takes the book” is not the same as “John gives the book to Mary” precisely because the element of intention has been removed.
In terms of communication, we should also note that an important element of Peirce’s semeiotic is its “future-orientedness”. (Bergman, 2000, p. 134)
For our present purposes, Peirce’s key concept of diagrammatic thought is of particular relevance. Kenneth Laine Ketner explains this as follows. “How then can we analyze thought, or signs, or communication? … If “analyze” means “come to have a better understanding of x” then the answer seems to be that we must analyze signs (triadic relations) by means of other signs or triadic relations. In particular, if there is a matter about which we lack understanding, we can use a set of relations that we comprehend reasonably well to model the relations in the area of relative ignorance … Stated in a very abstract fashion, this is Peirce’s method of diagrammatic thought, a technique he originally developed out of mathematical considerations, but adapted for other problem areas.”
Peirce himself described this faculty of “abstractive observation” as one that “ordinary people perfectly recognize, but for which the theories of philosophy barely leave room. It is a familiar experience to every human being to wish for something quite beyond his present means, and to follow that wish by the question:”Should I wish for that thing just the same, if I had ample means to gratify it?” To answer that question he searches his heart, and in doing so makes what I call an abstractive observation. He makes in his imagination a sort of skeletal diagram, or outline sketch, of himself, considers what modifications the hypothetical state of things would require to be made in that picture, and then examines it, that is, observes what he has imagined, to see whether the same ardent desire is there to be discerned. By such a process, which is at bottom very much like mathematical reasoning, we can reach conclusions as to what would be true of signs in all cases, so long as the intelligence using them was scientific.”
Despite his clear and powerful arguments, and the demonstrable success of his method, people habitually ignore this method, assuming that it to be “unscientific”. Current theorists attempt to replace it with approaches such as Sassurean semiotics and structuralism: approaches that claim to be able to analyse purposive relations in terms of dyadic concepts. Or it is ignored in favour of reductionist “quantatitive” research which seeks to assert a near-perfect relationship between those sampled, their responses and their real opinions; and between those opinions and the opinions of the larger population whom they allegedly represent.
Peirce’s semeiotic differs radically (and very usefully) from these approaches, because it is concerned explicitly with the analysis of triads, and so proceeds through diagrammatic mapping, which is seen as a legitimate scientific tool for resolving doubts.
Unsurprisingly Peirce did not write a comprehensive philosophy of media theory, but subsequently others have drawn the major aspects of such a philosophy out of his books and manuscripts. Interestingly, his work can be seen as a direct precursor of the work of McLuhan, with many of the same themes and strategies observable in both.
Peirce, for example, was explicit that “whatever we know, we know only by its relations, and in so far as we know its relations”. Indeed, he claimed that “in reality, every fact is a relation”. In this he is in complete agreement with Marshall McLuhan, who stated that “objects are unobservable, only relationships among objects are observable”.
Both avoided statistical approaches to analyzing relations, in favour of “abstractive observation”. Peirce proceeded by constructing diagrams (or models, or artfully argued analogies). McLuhan talked of his approach as “building probes” that have no methodological point of view. He claims that his method is “like that of a safecracker. In the beginning I don’t know what’s inside. I just set myself down in front of the problem and begin to work. I grope, I probe, I listen, I test – until the tumblers fall and I’m in. That’s the way I work with all these media.” He describes himself thus: “I am an investigator. I make probes. I have no point of view. I do not stay in one position…I don’t explain – I explore”.
This is the heart of the matter: it is futile and self-limiting to look at on-screen worlds as objects, rather than discussing their characteristic facets as the cultural production of repeatable dialogic relations. It is impossible to do this by amassing statistics. It may indeed be impossible to do this by any means other than a process of mapping.
Movies, immersion and diagrams
We might begin to discuss the relations embodied in immersive worlds by noting that these constitute a cool, low definition medium. In this, as McLuhan (1964) himself noted, they are very different to movies, which are a high definition, low participation medium. The apparent similarities between the two, between movies and computer-generated worlds, then, are superficial and misleading.
This means that there is no reason to presume that anything we know, or think we know, about the reception and interpretation of movies will have any, direct or indirect, relevance to the study of immersive worlds. If we cannot use film theory for our purposes, then what can we use? Logically we should look to find a body of critical theory that deals with a related cool medium. I believe that we can find just this in literary theory.
In slightly different ways Peirce and McLuhan are themselves pointing towards a literary critical approach to analysis, an approach that begins by creating exploratory models and then proceeds by discussing and debating the feelings and reactions these models engender. They are both arguing that logical analysis is a process of dialogue, not an operation of sifting facts and computing numbers.
The kind of dialogue that we need is a challenging one; one taking place at the boundaries of narrative and the borders of language. We need a dialogue that begins where McLuhan began. In the words of Jonathan Miller, McLuhan believed “that there is a point where apparently language is broken down in the lines of getting ideas across, and he is try to open up the possibility of not remaining silent, of being communicative by using new techniques which language has perhaps not provided”.
The fallacy of the fracture
If we adopt a literary critical approach we will immediately see that the work we are engaged in is not completely new, nor unprecedented. It is a continuation of work carried on for at least one hundred and fifty years. The idea that history has altered, that everything you know is wrong, that today is nothing at all like yesterday, and “virtual worlds” are a new way of teaching and learning is revealed as just more of the self-appointed digerati’s snake-oil salesmanship.
All of the aspects of what I have termed engagement have, for centuries, been available through the act of reading. Any novel invites the reader to engage with it in the same way as an on-screen “world”, by using strategies that rely upon the willing engagement of the user.
As McLuhan has pointed out repeatedly, we are not at the beginning of a revolution. Our problem is that the revolution began decades ago and we didn’t notice it. The move from goods to information (from “atoms to bits”, in Nicholas Negroponte’s phrase) began with the widespread availability of electricity, spread with the acceptance of movies, telephones and radio; gathered steam with the introduction of television; and ascended to ubiquity with the recent dominance of computers and networks.
The key to this, then, is not computers, but electricity, “for electricity not only gives primacy to process, whether in making or in learning, but it makes independent the source of energy from the location of the process”, which is why McLuhan designated the current period the electronic age and not, for example the television age. (McLuhan,1964, p. 370) The internet, and the 3D environments that we are capable of accessing through it, are the most recent and most powerful electronic tool available to us, but they are part of a lineage, a cultural history, that stretches back to the beginning of the twentieth century.
If we understand this, we can see why there is no newly discovered place called cyberspace, where the rules of life are different or somehow suspended. “Minimally all humans share one discursive universe, ie reality. This reality is a conception brought on by the fact that world refuses to conform to our will.” (Bergman, 2000, p. 135 )
From this perspective we can see the thread of continuity in our work that links us to the Dadaists, to Joyce and Burroughs, and we can see the ways in which our work is fulfilling the prophecies of Ted Nelson concerning hypertext, in ways he never intended.
Charles Sanders Peirce greatly preferred visual diagrams, arguing that the visual was the most highly developed sense, although he was liberal in his definition of “visual”. He viewed algebraic equations, for example, as visual examples of the diagrammatic method. On-screen worlds such as the Marinetta Ombro project can be seen as visual diagrams, or more exactly as a lattice-work of visual diagrams woven together but still able to be viewed discretely from different perspectives.
This kind of on-screen world can be viewed as a set of diagrammatic maps or texts to be analysed most efficiently through the tools of literary criticism. The objects on the screen may not be “text” in the sense of letters on paper but they are interpretable cultural markers and the relations between the users, the screen, and the on-screen “world” can certainly be seen as textual.
The terms we use for the machinery (hardware and software) that does this, and for the outputs of that machinery, must be terms that describe process, not terms that conjure up an imaginary “out there” and insist on discussing it as though it were real.
If we start from here we shall avoid the pitfalls of pseudo-geography, and the traps laid for us by the elves of self-promotion. We should be able to start talking about our work in terms of its antecedents and its intended goals; in terms of analogies and diagrams, rather than dubious “realities”.
We should now be able to engage in dialogues that are, in method as well as subject-matter, congruent with the constructed worlds whose narratives we are “writing”. From here we can develop critical tools, based on the similarities in approach between Peirce and McLuhan. We can, in fact, look for ways of explicating Peirce’s trivalent logic and putting it to practical use as a key part of the foundations of a logical and objective system for analyzing and understanding on-screen diagrammatic worlds.
Diagrammatic Inquiry as praxis
The analytical approach outlined in the preceding sections was developed over a period of approximately three years and was therefore (roughly speaking) in place at the time when we launched a version of the island of Rosario in Second Life.
This meant that the early stages of the project involved a period of genuinely open-ended exploration in which we undertook practical activity while mapping it and analyising it in order to see what it might mean and where it might lead us. The later stages took place within a fluid but developed theoretical framework in which we attempted to assess the worth of activities through the use of the existential graphs developed by Peirce and the tetrads laid out by McLuhan in Laws of Media.
Our approach to assessment was frankly hermaneutical and literary. Arcada is a small institution, with approximately 1200 students and 120 staff. It is simply too small to allow us to use the standard tools of quantative research. What does it mean to say that 25% of a class of eight students felt like this while 50% felt like that? Why should we assume that two, or even twenty, students are representative of “students”?
There are powerful theoretical arguments to suggest that this kind of approach is always flawed, advanced by both Peirce and his followers. These start by noting that statistical arguments are dyadic while all human relationships are triadic. (A full discussion of Peirce’s concept of triads is beyond the scope of this essay but an illuminating introduction can be found in Kenneth Laine Ketner’s paper Novel Science or How Contemporary social science is not well and why literature and semeiotic provide a cure.) Ketner (1993) has asked “how then shall we analyze thought, or mind, or communication, or literature, or society, or culture if these are essentially triadic? ” (p. 54). He suggests that, following Peirce, “we must analyze triadic relations by means of other triadic relations” (p. 55).
However, whether or not statistically based assessment is always flawed, in our case it was simply not possible. We did not, and do not, have a large enough pool of students to allow for control groups of any kind; nor to allow us to phrase results in terms of percentages with anything like a straight face.
Marinetta Ombro as mental mapping
The first stages of the Marinetta Ombro project involved imagining aspects of the virtual culture we wanted to create. We had to create the history and geography of the island. Concept design and branding courses form a key part of the digital online media students’ degree program, and we utilised those courses for this purpose. The island was precisely located (halfway between Crete and Malta and north of Libya), and students were challenged to answer questions such as: what animals and plants would live on the island, and what crafts would we find there? What happened to Rosario in the First World War ? Is Rosario primarily European or African? What god(s) have the Rosarians worshipped and why?
Students were further encouraged to raise more general questions about the specificity of place and time, and the shorthand methods that are used to depict these in different media. What makes Paris parisian? Where do we find the nineteen-fifties-ness of the nineteen fifties? How do we recognise these in films, books, radio broadcasts and postcards? The success or failure of these exercises was measured by circulating the initial results as e-books, and then devising presentations and lectures about aspects of life on the island.
A web design course then took this material as its starting point and built websites designed to attract holidaymakers to Rosario. These were launched online using the URL www.marinetta.info and remained online until the project closed. They were updated annually as part of the web design course.
Arcada’s media courses have always worked within a constructivist framework that, as far as possible, allows students to learn through doing. Students are placed in designer / client relationship as early as possible, and the use of the data from the island of Rosario enabled us to place students in such a relationship much earlier than previously. Because there was “real” data, and because there really was an existing site online that was due to be updated (and because we inserted a launch date into the process) students who were not yet ready to work in a live situation were able to simulate it with an uncanny accuracy, by working in a live situation.
Working with mental maps
It was not just the media students who participated in this way. We were also able to interest staff and students from other departments. The community health students have always had to work together to produce a community health plan as an important part of their course work. Previously this had been an entirely imaginary exercise, based on extrapolating data from publicly available information from municipalities in Finland. For three years after the inception of the Marinetta Ombro project, however, students produced health plans for different villages on the island, based on a complex series of population and economic data that we constructed for that purpose. These figures were not simply made up. We derived them from averaging the population figures for surrounding regions, allowing for the differences in geography and wild life, and different cultural and political histories.
The success of this project was measured anecdotally. The students enjoyed the exercise and were able to explain why. The attractions of creating a healthcare plan for a village in Rosario were not dissimilar to the attractions of playing Pokemon. Both have a set of established mythologies that you can consult outside the game, and both mythologies feed into, and serve to enrich, the experience of playing the game.
Being given a random set of figures and then told they represent a nameless town that needs a health plan seems to be less engaging than being given a set of e-books that relate to an online world you can explore, and being told that one in of the villages you find that there is a need for a health plan . Context is all, context is engaging, and (at least in this limited sense) rich. Immersive context that drew people in was something that both Pokemon and Rosario seemed to supply.
This was further illustrated when the international business students became involved with the island. They had also previously engaged in simulations that had been almost context-free. They had had to construct business plans for imaginary companies based on figures they were given. When the staff decided to use the island of Rosario several things happened. Firstly, the starting point for the simulations was moved several steps back, and secondly the students were told to, in effect, invent their own simulations.
What happened was that the figures on population density, age and gender spread, educational levels, and health issues that had been collected for, and by, the community health students were given to the business students. They were told to analyse the figures and then look at the geography and history of Rosario. They had to propose a business that they believed that they could start on the island; construct a business plan; and then justify it in terms of the overall context.
Bizarrely, this resulted in the students making a three metre square papier mache model of the island which they displayed publicly at a number of conferences. We therefore had a real model of a so-called virtual world that demonstrated the imaginary businesses that the students had really situated there based on the extrapolated figures they had been given.
Marinetta as coding
The initial stages of launching the 3D online world meant that Marinetta became a topic for a number of programming courses. Here, as in the previous examples, the main consequence was that the teaching exercises in existing courses were refurbished or upgraded. From being isolated examples proposed to make a specific point they became building blocks in a larger structure.
Digital online media students created a set of websites designed to make the project self-documenting. A newspaper site at www.jurnalo.info enabled any students involved in any aspects of the project to report on their activities in the guise of newpaper articles.
A hub site at www.marinetta.org housed an online encyclopedia, listing the ever-growing details of the island’s history, with entries dating from 1452BC “when the Emperor Tutmosis III, husband of Queen Hatshepsut, ascended to the throne after her death in 1480 BC, and began the great territorial expansion of the Egyptian New Kingdom. Phoenicia and Palestine were conquered and the island of Rosario was subsumed into the Empire, serving as a convenient port and supply base”.
This history, like the geography, carefully slotted any necessary fictions into consensus reality – and the success of this was one of the key measuring sticks during the early phases of the project.
The very existence of the island online prompted two separate programming interventions from the Computer Science department at Arcada. The first looked at the whole question of security and caused students from the cryptography courses to take the SCOL engine to pieces, and propose a series of improvements. The second resulted in John Packelen’s thesis Virtuella Världar: öppen källkod och icke-öppna lösingar, which detailed his research attempting to construct a home-made 3D environment build in Macromedia Director 8 to compare with SCOL.
Subsequently, computing science courses have looked at developing ways of communicating in and out of virtual worlds: projects that resulted, for example, in one of the first instant messaging systems for Second Life.
Marinetta as design
The existence of the island online enabled a wide range of design exercises in several courses to be expanded and enhanced. Again, our emphasis was not on teaching “in a virtual world”. Rather we were attempting to use a synthetic culture as a learning object, to improve the quality of existing courses by making the exercises appear less arbitrary to the students due to the fact that they now slotted into a global context, a back story that students could play with while learning.
One powerful example of this was the introductory course in digital imagery which is essentially concerned with making sure that students have a clear understanding of key Photoshop concepts and an ability to use Photoshop to practical effect. It is impossible to teach Photoshop without making images, and traditionally it has been difficult to find a suitable range of images that students have a genuine interest in.
When we had moved Rosario into Second Life, we found several ways to solve this problem. We quickly realised that designing and manufacturing clothes in Second Life required students to understand and use almost everything that we were trying to get them to learn. They had to use layers and masks. They had to understand how to use transparency. They had to understand file formats. They had to make 3D images using 2D templates.
We did not need to assess the effectiveness of this course, statistically or diagrammatically, because it became abundantly clear very early on that almost all students preferred making clothes for their avatars to colorising photos of Elvis or any of the other previous “teaching exercises”.
We soon built upon this by setting up a free clothes store on Rosario and advertising it inside Second Life. We invited students to assess their own, and their peers’, work using one simple criterion: if you give it away and nobody takes it, is it any good?
Our students are training for a life as web designers, graphic artists, programmers-people (often self-employed) who will be working to specifications set by clients. Understanding what the market wants is therefore one of the skills that they need to learn during their time at Arcada. By co-opting the other residents of Second Life as potential customers we were able to put the students inside a genuine working market.
The students’ final Photoshop exercise was not simply to make some clothes, it was to make some clothes that other residents would want. This meant that they had to do market research. They had to look round Second Life and see what people were wearing. Then they had to work out what they could do that would attract residents. Then they had to make and market it.
And if you made it and nobody came then you were invited to offer a constructive self-assessment.
Marinetta as interaction
The existence of the island of Rosario, and its capital village Marinetta, in Second Life prompted a series of interdepartmental and international projects that were based upon the interaction possible in a huge online environment, and the creative interference that this can generate.
The tourism department at Arcada produced a detailed tourism plan that was aimed at solving a real problem. In order to get the Photoshop courses outlined above to work we needed to have a regular influx of tourists to the island. We could not rely on them simply finding Rosario, we had to find ways of seducing them into finding it.
This is a real problem for professionals working in tourism. How do I differentiate my client’s town / resort / spa from other apparently identical ones? The tourism students were therefore able to engage in a real project that involved real people (the avatars in Second Life are “virtual” in a strictly limited sense, something I have discussed in detail elsewhere) who had no necessary willingness to be so seduced.
The plan they produced became the blueprint for several design and progamming courses, whose exercises were jointly intended to put the plan into action. This was repeated for several years with the cumulative information serving as the assessment criteria. It is important to note that the students were not “simulating” a marketing exercise, they were actively engaged in a real one with a real aim that was intended to make real people spend at least part of their time in Second Life visiting Rosario. The assessment criteria were therefore not “educational” (meaning feedback from a simulated exercise in a safe learning environment) but, rather, identical to the assessment criteria they would face after graduation. “You promised X number of people, you only delivered Y. Why I shouldn’t fire you?”
If the assessment methods were clear it is fair to say that assessing the effectiveness of the clear-cut assessment methods was less than clear-cut. Some students revelled in what they saw as freedom to “really do it”. A smaller number of students claimed that “it wasn’t fair”. An interesting result of lengthy discussion with the students, individually and in groups, was that the students who objected to the exercise as unfair seemed all to be students who wanted “teaching”, and were unhappy in any situation that they perceived as self-led.
The whole Marinetta Ombro project reached its climax when Helsinki held the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007. I have described this elsewhere from the perspective of the people of Rosario, who:
“Campaigned to be recognised by the organisers and allowed to submit an entry. Perhaps unsurprisingly the organisers remained unmoved, despite the viral videos that appeared on YouTube in favour of the campaign”. Kelly (2010)
Undeterred Rosario commissioned an entry; recorded a video and broadcast it on YouTube, where it was a success. The song was written and played by L’angelot. It was called Al Dek Manto in the honor of Dek Manto, the great Rosarian writer. You can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18BzfsbVCJA
The video was broadcast several times on Finnish television durng the period of the song contest. In what proved to be the climax of the Marinetta Ombro project, students from Arcada, in collaboration with a team of students from ITT, Dublin, organised a parallel Eurovision event on Rosario which ran continuously for forty eight hours. The attendance during that period was close to (or just over) one thousand unique avatars. By Second Life standards, it was a huge event.
The students had put in an extraordinary amount of voluntary effort, and afterwards we sat back wondering what (if anything) we could do next.
This final set of events was a joint project between Arcada and the Institute of Technology Talleigh in Dublin, Ireland. It involved four Irish students on an annual exchange who had been given a chance of devise something to the limits of their imagination, and had seized the chance. For at least one of them it was crucial in their subsequent employment.
The answer to “what (if anything) we could do next” was that we sat back and thought about the possibilities, and decided that, in its current form, the project had reached a natural conclusion.
So we stopped it.
The existence of the island of Rosario enabled us to pursue a number of liberating activities. It still does. In 2008-2009 Catharina Gröndahl got permission to demolish the entire island and lead its rebuilding, based upon lessons learned in the process of trying to meld the pre-existing Rosarian culture with the (implicit) culture of Second Life.
Her rebooted version looks at lessons learned from the underlying Second Life technology, and attempts to answer questions such as: why have roofs if it doesn’t rain? Why have art galleries if nobody can steal the art, and it doesn’t rain? What is the obsession in Second Life with cafes and houses all about? The answers to these and other questions form the basis of her thesis, which will be completed in spring 2010.
The ways in which we have assessed the efficacy of the work the project has enabled have been based on our belief that Second Life is a tool not a geographical space, and that it is best analysed as such. We have come to believe that the best methods for this analysis are diagrammatic and not statistical. We have created diagrammatic models that relate to things we think we know in order to find out more about those things, and more about what we think about them. Some of these “things” have been existing academic courses; some have been more exploratory.
In each case we have been clear about what we are doing and the relationships involved. In each we have measured success in human and not statistical terms. We have been assisted in this by the fact that we are a small institution in a liberal country that prides itself on a humanist approach to developing its culture.
We have been lucky.
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