A better system? Teaching healthcare virtually

A story from our sister site, Metaverse Health.

MyCaseSpace data image

Rather than assessing their students through a paper-based examination, or even by having real, live people come in to pretend to be patients, it is starting to become more common to hear of healthcare educators asking their students instead to use computer applications and tools featuring digitally-created patients.

There are a myriad decisions that need to be made surrounding patient care. Students need to be able to wield a large amount of technical data, be able to think well on the fly, and be able to make quick yet considered decisions as healthcare professionals. These digitally-created, or virtual, patients can assist in building these skills.

Though virtual patients look just like the avatars that represent actual people in virtual worlds, the virtual patients usually have either an artificial intelligence (AI) or a scripted backend behind them. As opposed to an AI, the scripted backend cannot make decisions itself – instead , it follows a decision tree that has already been set before the student engages with it.


Source 1, Source 2

MyCaseSpace is a Web-based application which presents virtual patients to students at irregular intervals throughout the span of their course. Virtual patients may contact the student at any time of the day or night, through their computer, and request a clinical consult. The virtual patients use avatars to communicate visually with students; the speech of the virtual patients can be accessed in 13 different languages. These patients use a scripted backend for their interactions, the design of which was based on video-game decision trees.

The application can easily be updated and altered to include virtual family members of the virtual patient to make demands upon the students.

Critical thinking skills used to be tested by setting examination papers; some people believe that the current set of students, being more digitally aware, will respond better to a digital presentation. Others are of the opinion that modern students have an expectation that they will continue to receive paper exams, and may have trouble with digital resources.

Though it has not been proven that this method of assessment results in either better or poorer results for the students, the professors and tutors find the system to be most beneficial for them. The application collects, stores, and processes data generated by the students’ assessments, cutting down on time and tedium, and increasing accuracy, for the marking individual.



“Nurse Island” has been set up inside Second Life by the Glasgow Caledonian University. Apart from the virtual representation of the university, built so that prospective students can learn to find their way around campus, the Nursing Skills Laboratory has been recreated and populated with virtual patients. These patients can be controlled either by an AI or by a tutor, and use text to speech synthesis rather than recorded voices.

The conversations held between patients and students are recorded, so that students can be debriefed later by a tutor. This facility will open early next year.


Source 1, Source 2

This Second Life project represents a partnership between St George’s, University of London and Kingston University.

Paramedic students will work in teams of three or four, and will encounter emergency scenarios in Second Life in which they will need to treat a virtual patients or patients. They will need to perform such tasks as checking the patient’s pulse, dressing wounds and administering drugs. They may also need to be able to use equipment that would typically be found in an ambulance, such as oxygen masks and electrocardiograms (ECG). After assessing and treating the patient, they must load the patient into the ambulance and set a GPS device to take them to the hospital.

On reaching the hospital, students then handover a set of patient notes to their tutor via email.

Emily Conradi, e-Projects Manager, says: “Paramedic students spend a lot of time in work placements, which can be based anywhere in the country, so it can be hard for the students to meet face-to-face with each other and with their tutors.”

CPR and emergency first aid


The Italian Resuscitation Council (IRC) headquarters in Second Life (to teleport there, click here) has been set up as a place that people can be trained and re-trained, whether they be instructors, medical professionals or laypeople.

The IRC training simulations for instructors and medical people would include simulations to improve and test teamwork, leadership and technical skills. The simulations would also impart knowledge concerning CPR and other emergency training procedures.

Some of the information directed at laypeople includes cardiac arrest prevention knowledge and basic life support information.

In conclusion

Effectiveness of learning is not the only reason to use a virtual world or virtual patients. If learning is not less effective than by using other methods, and there are other benefits to the virtual alternatives, they may still be well worthwhile.

Will Internet censorship soon include Virtual World censorship?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no direct relationship between Australian and American laws. Australians are not afforded all the protections that the American people have access to by law, although in some circumstances Australian society works as though those protections existed. Americans are protected from governmental censorship by the First Amendment to their Constitution. Even though Australian law does not guarantee that governmental censorship will not occur, many Australians assume that we have that protection, and for the most part, this has been borne out in practice, if not in law. Here is a list of rights that are protected by law in Australia.

Stephen Conroy would like to see both law and enforcement of law be enacted with regards to “Internet” censorship.

Senator Conroy is a Catholic, and socially conservative. It is likely  that his wishes will coincide with a minority of users of the Internet, both because the way in which the law is to be enacted is unadvisable, and due to a generalised belief in the right of all Australians to free speech, misplaced or not, especially as regards material available across the Internet.

It is not yet clear from the Senator’s statements who will be in charge of deciding the parameters surrounding the law: what material will and will not be allowed to be transmitted across the Internet, and whether “the Internet” in its entirety will be censored, or whether they are referring only to web pages available over the Internet.

According the the Wikipedia entry concerning Internet censorship, Australia is in the OpenNet Initiative (ONI)’s nominal category as of 2008; content classified “RC” or “X18+” may not be hosted within Australia, and content from outside Australia may be blacklisted.

The filtering aspect is of great concern.

  • The blacklist will not be made available for public consumption.
  • Filtering technology is of very little practical use at this point. A blacklist of every site containing banned or age-limited content would need to be kept.
  • Current filtering boxes slow all Internet traffic, on average, by 30%.
  • The government has declared it will not let internet users opt out of the proposed national internet filter. Source.
  • Finally, this one’s a real doozy – a private company will have access to a record of all traffic passing through the filtering boxes that they provide: essentially, all the Internet traffic in Australia. Interestingly, the government will not necessarily have access to that information.

There does not yet appear to be any information regarding restrictions on content provided by services other than the Web. One wonders how services such as some of the virtual environments might be restricted – except for cutting off access entirely. Banned content from virtual worlds such as Second Life cannot be separated from allowable content by a third party. Perhaps, as with the legislation in Germany and Britain, it will become the responsibility of the individual to keep child pornography and other banned content off their screens; this is the case for all online and print media in these countries. More likely, the Australian legislation will expand to encompass virtual worlds in some way, probably circumventing the whole issue by cutting off access to such worlds altogether. Much as it would be preferable to see better education of our youth regarding these topics, in preparation for becoming responsible, Internet-using adults, it seems more likely that the government will choose to to do the work for us, much as the Chinese government does for its people.

Censorship of the Web has already arrived; how far behind can the censorship of other services be? How disruptive could the censorship of virtual worlds be?

Pride and Prejudice

Since virtual environments started getting noticed by the early adopters, there has been some discussion about social mores in and out of virtual environments. In particular this applies to users trying out avatars of a different gender, race, or overall look, to their regular atomic world selves. Educators and academics in general have noted students and other users typically bring their prejudices and biases with them into virtual environments, but that they also sometimes take what they have learned in virtual environments back into the atomic world with them.

Unfortunately, it seems that users open to such experimentation were already quite open-minded. More closed-minded individuals are less likely to experiment, and less likely to lose their prejudices along the way.

I belong to two genres of people which are often vilified and denigrated – I am somewhat Goth, and quite a bit Geek, and I express this both visually and in the way I act, both in virtual environments and atomic worlds. These are two groups I have found to be unpopular with other people, though less so in virtual environments. I had hoped that some of the acceptance from virtual environments might have spilled over into the atomic, but this does not seem to have been true to the extent that I might have hoped for.

Goths and Geeks that I know tend to have some areas of overlap – they tend to be individualists and thinkers, they tend to make up the innovator and early adopter part of the populace, they tend to act and dress distinctively, and they tend to be unpopular with other groups: educators, academics, business people – normal, mainstream folk.

I wondered why. Especially, I wondered why Goths and Geeks should be so unpopular amongst people who use virtual environments, and who are exposed to people with curious looks and outlooks on a regular basis.

This is what I came up with:

We make choices about how we are going to look, act and live our lives. We have made choices independently of our genes, of our circumstances. Other people could also make this choice – but instead they have remained with the cultural ideas and circumstances they were born into. The choice they often make instead is to disparage and utterly reject the people who have decided to live their lives intentionally.

Along similar lines is this thought:

I recently heard someone referring to their IT staff as “the enemy”. As an IT Geek, I found this to be a most off-putting thought. It makes it sound as though I have to wage war whenever I want to get my work done, making my under-paid, over-worked position even worse, and, boy, does it sound unfriendly! Again with the wondering – why?

The IT Geek often has at least two agendas: their own practical agenda (where is the point in having a firewall if you are just going to open ports for people at random?), and someone else’s political agenda – usually their boss, sometimes another member of staff. Rarely does the IT Geek have their own political agenda – if it seems that they do, it’s more likely that they are defending someone else’s policies, or it’s a case of apophenia (seeing patterns where none exist). Also, Geeks are rarely in a position to make policies.

I am a Goth, and a Geek, and I belong to a number of other unpopular sub-groups. I’d love for our society to change, with the assistance of virtual environments, to one that is more tolerant of people who are different, whether that be by birth, environment or choice.

But I’m not holding my breath.

AVWW Doggie Bag


A big thanks to Feldpsar Epstein for attending the real-world AVWW event last weekend. What follows are some of the highlights from her perspective. We’d also love to hear your thoughts.

The Australian Virtual Worlds Workshop, Friday 28 November and Saturday 29 November 2008, held at Swinburne University, Hawthorn Campus, was a bit of a mixed bag. I present here some of my favourite take-away notions.

Presence in Virtual Worlds

The presence afforded by virtual worlds of many flavours can put conference and class participants on a more equal footing, where each individual has access to the event in the same way, i.e. through a common virtual world. Unlike video or phone events, where some people are present physically, and others are present through a technological medium, virtual worlds create a more compelling atmosphere, since each person has an equal presence.

Investing in understanding

It makes sense for educational institutions to make use of contractors and ‘experts’, especially where that knowledge or those skills are lacking amongst the faculty. However, it’s important also that the faculty invest some time and effort into expanding their own knowledge to the point that they understand what they are asking the contractors to do. There is little point in asking for the impossible and then feeling disappointed or cheated when it cannot be done.

Students are not just consumers of education

Students at all levels need to have input into their own education. It is important that students collaborate with and mentor not just each other, but also the faculty. This kind of education goes on in the real world all the time; failure to support it in virtual environments represents diminished opportunity for students.

VastPark – vast possibilities, simplicity in action

Vast Park is a virtual worlds platform being developed in Australia. The standards are open (as in Open Source), as is the code, to a large extent, except for pieces such as the renderer; these closed-source pieces have been introduced to cut down on the amount of work needed to be put into technologies that already exist and need not be duplicated. The Immersive Media Markup Language (IMML) was conceived with this notion in mind – “A deaf person must be able to communicate with a blind person.” This means, in essence, that rich, complex environments can be described simply, and that there is a vast range of accessibility options available.

“VastPark” is the name of the technology behind the virtual worlds that other people will create.

Hedonic Consumption Behaviours

Hedonic behaviours account for approximately 51% of intentions to use virtual worlds, making enjoyment the most significant predictor of usage.

Who’s your Daddy?

Mark Kirk

US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) would like to be your parent. At least, he would like to act as though he was your parent.

Starting back in May 2008, Kirk has been singling out Second Life for special attention: he would like legislation to be introduced that prevents children from accessing Second Life– both the Teen Grid and the Main Grid (he makes no distinction), through public libraries and in schools.

On the surface, it sounds alright. We all want to protect the kiddies, right? Who is going to say an ill word against legislation that looks like it is designed to protect our children? But then you have to wonder: why should teenagers be excluded from a place designed especially for them? How will adults who want to access Second Life through libraries and schools do so?

There is no easy, cost-effective way to restrict access to content in public libraries and schools. Unless the Congressman wants to spend many more of the limited dollars already available to libraries and schools on solutions that would allow some people to access Second Life but not others, then Second Life would effectively not be available to anyone at these venues.

Legislation banning access for kids is not considered to be censorship – law that acts in place of parental control is often seen as advantageous.

Legislation that also functionally causes a service to be banned for adults is a bit stickier. It may not strictly constitute censorship, as the law would not state that adults are banned. However, functionally, censorship would be the end result.

Does it depend on the end result, or on the original intent, as to whether this is in fact a case of censorship?

For those who are not US citizens, here are the words of the First Amendment (1791):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This is the fundamental piece of law protecting US citizens from censorship. Formally, censorship is prior restraint of communication based on content and enforced by law.  Censorship by the government is broadly unconstitutional.

What Kirk seems to be trying to achieve, intentionally or unintentionally, is an end-run around the constitution. There’s precedent for the State acting in loco parentis, but this sort of legislative restriction barring adults would never fly. Because it’s targeted at kids, and catches adults as collateral damage (something Kirk must have considered), it could squeak through to the detriment of everyone.

On another tack is this related idea, which to some extent makes the legislation pointless:

Thinking members of Congress, teachers and librarians have said that website filtering in the schools and libraries won’t protect kids because they aren’t finding predators in schools and libraries, but from their home computers that they surf alone in their rooms because they have nothing to do after school as many after school activities have been cut.

Perhaps a more useful way to spend Congress’ time and funds is:

  • To put more effort into providing alternative activities for children after school

and, maybe even more importantly

  • To put more effort into educating children about the use of services provided over the Internet.

An educated child is more likely to be self-monitoring. A restricted child is more likely to see excitement, danger and really wild things in those services that have been restricted.

So, what do you think? Is this legislation “in loco parentis”? Or just plain loco?


Avatar: representation, communication, experience

The many faces of Feldspar

“Virtual Worlds Research: Consumer Behavior in Virtual Worlds” 
Vol. 1. No. 2  ISSN: 1941-8477  November 2008
Symbolic and Experiential Consumption of Body in Virtual Worlds: from (Dis)Embodiment to Symembodiment


This experiment focused on the corporeal body (real, physical or atomic embodiment), and the virtual body (digital, non-corporeal embodiment), also called an avatar in some digital environments. Each embodiment can be for social and self-presentation as a part of communication, and as a project, for creating experiences by altering one’s appearance and living new lifestyles associated with that appearance.

Prior to this research being undertaken, there were two primary competing views regarding virtual embodiment:

  1. Disembodiment – the user is able to break away from their corporeal embodiment, into a virtual embodiment.
  2. Embodiment is essential, even in virtual worlds, to whatever degree it can be achieved.

This research team has concluded that the embodiment/disembodiment debate is non-resolvable and futile. Instead, they introduce the concept of symembodiment: that is, that an avatar is a symbolic embodiment but not a physical embodiment. There is always a partial degree of embodiment.

The body in modern, Western, society has more meaning placed on it than perhaps at any time in the past, because it is easier to modify the body, successfully and safely, than it has ever been. Body image – creating and maintaining a “perfect” look – is paramount. On the flip side, disease and disability are much harder to cope with in this modern age – because there are so many treatments available for common ailments now, anyone with a visible issue is seen not have care about their body image, or the social and moral implications of their perceived “choice”. Thus, while for some people the body can be seen as a “project”, to be worked on and altered, other people tend to view their bodies as hindrances – they have greater constraints on how much their bodies can be altered, and on the type of experiences they can have through their bodies.

The researchers contend that an avatar, as a body that is as much a representation of self as the corporeal body, can be an end that the user playfully engages in for its own sake – modifying the avatar becomes an experience in and of itself.

Their research questions included the following:

  1. How do consumers attach meanings to the digital self images they create?
  2. How are these images constructed and reconstructed?
  3. How and what do consumers experience through their virtual bodies?

Avatar: the body in the virtual world

The mind and previous bodily concepts of the user greatly influence the types of virtual bodies they inhabit. With virtual bodies, it is common to have at least two, if not many more, symbolic bodies.

Second Life

Second Life tends to support the use of multiple selves. Once the skill of avatar alteration is learnt, it becomes a very quick and simple process to change between virtual bodies. Second Life also supports using avatar alteration as a form of play or experience – avatars are very malleable, and have fewer constraints to alteration than our physical bodies.


  1. The researchers entered Second Life as users.
  2. They fully participated in Second Life culture and conducted participant observations.
  3. They found participants by using their own personal networks.
  4. They conducted both online, in-world interviews and offline, atomic-world interviews.

Questions asked during interviews focused on the participants’ feelings and motives about their lives in Second Life, how they went about creating and recreating their avatars (virtual bodies), and what sort of experiences the participants had with their avatars.


The researchers felt that users were highly involved in Second Life due to the ability to alter and experience the alteration of the avatar, and due to the freedom afforded in such alterations compared to the corporeal form. They also noted that users create multiple avatars, or at least multiple, vastly differing looks for a single avatar, each of which is derived from a facet of the user’s own concept of self. I wonder to what extent each individual takes on a separate role to go with each representation – do they take on different morals and ethics? Perhaps, less drastically, it is more similar to our representations of ourselves that we use at work and at home – different dress, different speech /language.

In Second Life, a ‘null’ representation – one designed not to  draw attention, is just as apt to be interpreted by other users as are more interesting or daring representations. Any representation says something about you to other people.

Some people found there to be excitement associated with the experience of having different bodily features to those in the atomic world. I note that there can also be a sense of normalcy associated with the difference, particularly for those people whose atomic body does not fit their mental concept of self, or for those whose atomic body varies greatly from some desired, unreachable, state.


Your representation of yourself in virtual worlds, your avatar, has a great impact on how you communicate with and convey meaning to others. However, the avatar is more than this. In symembodiment, the users playfully construct and engage with their avatars – the user experiences the avatar, and has experiences through it.

“The modern impulse of seeking an ideal life is waning, while the desire to experience multiple alternate lives that allow
extraction of different meanings from life waxes.”


The researchers believe that the virtual body, rather than just being on display for communication purposes, becomes an experience in and of itself.

Out of consumer error – insert more consumers

Source: Journal Of Virtual Worlds Research Vol. 1. No. 2. ISSN: 1941-8477  November 2008

“Consumer Behaviour in Virtual Worlds”

The “New” Virtual Consumer: Exploring the Experiences of New Users

By Lyle R. Wetsch, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Faculty of Business Administration, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.

In essence, Lyle Wetsch’s idea is that there are insufficient numbers of people already participating in virtual worlds, so businesses need to attract new users into these worlds, to “effectively recruit real world consumers into the virtual world and retain them through positive interactions.” Whether or not this should be the goal, or whether the goal should be to study the existing populations of virtual worlds and make the advertising and other offerings more attractive to them, is somewhat of a moot point. What is more important here is that there are new users entering these digital environments, and that we need to understand their grievances and positive experiences, in order to know how best to tailor consumer experiences for them.

40 undergraduate business students and 10 MBA graduate students spent 12 weeks in Second Life becoming acclimatised to that environment, all having entered as first-time users. Through blog entries, online discussion groups and interviews of these students, information about new user experiences was gleaned. Wetsch feels that this information is able to “guide suggestions for improving the experience of new virtual consumers in order to create long-term consumer relationships with an organization’s virtual presence.”

Second Life is one of the prime candidates being considered as a potential advertising base for real world consumers. It is one of few virtual worlds with the capabilities required for business endeavours – user-created content and user-to-user transactions.

In summary: section by section

Research Problem: We need to reduce churn – this is where users register, but fail to continue to use the product – by coming to understand the new user experience better.

Theoretical Framework: Research done on text-based chat environments. This seems inadequate – users interact with other users, but are more likely to interact with their environment, unless a business has provided a staff member to interact with at their build.

Methodology: “Student comments and discussions provided insight into the mind of the new entrant to the virtual world in real-time as they experienced it, commenting on their blogs at the time the incidents occurred to enhance the
accurate recall of events.”


  • Technical Requirements: Many students were disappointed with the lack of capability to run Second Life that their computers demonstrated. Both the students and the researchers compared Second Life graphics and overall quality of response to other “gaming” environments, not taking into account that those other environments, using game-like graphics, can store much of their data locally, rather than having to make continual updates, as happens with Second Life.
  • Graphics: Those students able to access the digital environment easily were for the most part impressed with the graphical quality of Second Life.
  • Avatar control: Interestingly, this group of students seems to have had quite a lot of difficulty with avatar control, particularly those with prior gaming experience, who found the different controls to be disorienting. Time and practice seemed to fix the problem.
  • Griefers: “Griefing was experienced by less than 10% of the students.” However, those affected by it seemed most upset and put out by it.
  • Variety of experiences: Many of the students expressed great disappointment with the Search function, especially when comparing it with Google’s performance.
  • Lack of people/interactions: The students had quite a lot of trouble finding other users to interact with. Even when they were able to find groups of users conversing, often the other people would not talk to them. This brought about feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Building is not enough: A lack of effort is recognised by users, and will have a decidedly negative impact on them as consumers.

Conclusions and Implications

“The key is the INTERACTION. Without the interaction, there are better channels to present the information.”

  • Expectation Management: Users are more likely to be forgiving if you let them know what they are getting and why they are getting it – if you have a good, rational explanation for, for example, the technical requirements for your product being so steep, people tend to be more forgiving.
  • Ease of use: Improve the new user experience by making the environment easier to interact with. Provide useful tools and expectation management.
  • Interaction: Make it interactive. If there are no users to interact with, consumers need some other sort of interaction to keep them engaged.

Shadows on the wall, mimes in the street

Feldspar - at my command?

“… their avatars were less coy. While flesh and blood reporters and photographers banged on the door of the couple’s homes, virtual ones were trying to doorstep …”

” … one of the South West staff who “controlled” Meggy, ” … our characters started chatting and it was different. … Amy’s character was much more confident in the game than she was in real life.””

” … his character got the run around from Barmy because he was a novice in the ways of Second Life, … “It was difficult sometimes because there was a blurring between reality and Second Life.”

All quotes above from How South West News got its divorce scoop in Second Life.

The above article is from the Guardian, Friday November 14 2008. Giving the impression that ‘characters’ (perhaps they mean ‘avatars’) have independent action, and perhaps a life separate from their creators, this article demonstrates a common fallacious idea. An avatar, whether as a component of a gaming or non-gaming digital environment, cannot be said to be controlled by a person, nor can it have its own actions.

An avatar, in digital terms, is a visual representation of the person behind the screen. As the person behind the screen, you do not have direct access to you avatar – as many a person has bemoaned on the Second Life development lists, there is no way even for programmers without access to the servers for a digital environment to move or otherwise interact with an avatar.

Instead, what we have access to is an ‘agent’. The agent – defined either as an entity capable of action, or as something that acts on behalf of a[nother] person – is the thing that acts on your behalf. When you create input through your keyboard or mouse, those instructions run through your agent to the server. When ‘you’ move, you are changing the location stored in your agent. Effectively, the agent is an invisible point in a virtual space which moves by proxy. The avatar then, is a visual representation of changes you have made, or actions you have taken, through your agent.

In a digital environment, the things you can typically do involve moving, communicating, and interacting with or editing objects. In each case, your input is sent from your input device to the servers via your client and through your agent. Some manner of response to that input is then sent back to your client. This response might lead to text being displayed on your screen, or you hearing some audio output, if you are communicating; if you moved, the response will involve visual output – you will see your avatar ‘walking’ or perhaps ‘flying’, moving with respect to the background. If you are interacting with an object, you may receive visual output or text-based output, depending on the type of interaction. In each case, the agent acts on your behalf – moves, communicates, or interacts – and you then receive a response based on your actions.

Your agent is not the only entity that can cause a reaction in your avatar. If in Second Life another person starts to type, your avatar will turn their head in the direction of their agent, independently of any action you might take, unless your camera is locked. The servers may also cause your avatar to react. You can send an action request to your avatar through your agent to allow your avatar to be animated, but your agent is still doing the work on your behalf. Your ability to get an avatar to do anything that does not reflect an action you took at the input level, then passed through an agent, is very, very limited indeed.

Finally, an avatar most certainly has no life of its own. It cannot do anything the agent has not done, since it is a visual representation of what the agent is doing. Avatars do not communicate; people communicate through their agents. A somewhat inadequate analogy might be this: think of your computer hardware as if it were your phone – would you say that phones talk to each other? Think of your agent as a person taking dictation and typing out Teletext for a deaf person – would you say that you are communicating with the person you called, or the person taking dictation? Think of your avatar as an annoying street mime, following you and reacting only to your actions. Better yet, think of your avatar as a shadow thrown against a cave wall – would you say that the shadows had a life of their own, and could wander off and communicate with other shadows?

It may seem like a purely semantic issue – does it matter whether avatars can do these things or not, or which terms are used to couch these ideas? Well, it matters very much to the people who design and code digital environments and it matters in legal terms. It should be of importance to you, whether you are a user of these environments, or a reporter of these environments, or an outsider. Why?  It means that many of these amazing and outlandish stories never even become an issue, and that people have a better understanding about how these things work, legally and socially. There’s less cause for confusion and less wiggle room for those gaming the system.

Wouldn’t you rather know where you stood on this issue concerning digital environments?

Positively Furry


The stereotype of the Furry, whether inside Second Life or out, has been abused out of all proportion. Let us establish a new stereotype of Furries. They have a tendency towards shyness and reticence, understandable given the substantial drubbings they have received, but perhaps also part of their natures. When they create representations of themselves, they tend to use anthropomorphic personifications.

So far, so good. Remember I’m talking about a stereotype here – I’m not intending to describe any one individual. To continue, the stereotypical Furry is not obsessive when it comes to sex. Or, perhaps, anything else. They have more of a tendency to be tolerant and accepting.  That’s what you’re into, they ask? Great, hope you enjoy it, and play safe – don’t hurt anyone doing it. Specific Furry individuals have commonly had other traits: curiosity, generosity, respect, common sense.

So much for breaking the commonly-held stereotypes surrounding Furries. What do Furries have in common? What attracts them to being Furry, whether they be Furry fans or follow a Furry lifestyle?

Humanity – is it a base condition?

Every Fur, from one end of the spectrum to the other, exists inside a human body, and necessarily has some traits associated with that form. Whether the Furriness manifests as a desire to dress differently and to stand out from other people, or as a knowledge that the person has an other-than-human soul, every Fur has some human traits, and as such, like all humans, has a tendency to act in predictably human ways.

As with any grouping of human beings, some of the individuals in this group are nasty, petty, obsessive, and can possess a whole host of other negative traits. This is the aspect of Furriness that is often portrayed by the media, and that’s unfortunate, because it all boils down to stereotypes generated based on input from a minority of cases.

On the flip side, humans like to identify themselves with traits that they see as being positive. Who can say that they did not play dress-ups as a kid – Pretty Princesses, Cowboys and Indians, Jedi Knights – and pretend to be heroes or distressing damsels or even villains, with all the connotations that underlie those ideas?

Positively Furry

Animals – whether for reasonable or unreasonable reasons – are often associated with human traits – the lion is noble, the hyena cowardly, the dog loyal. Sometimes these traits are actually possessed by said animal, but in just as many cases traits are allocated based on looks, or, other misguided reasonings. Whatever the purpose of allocating these traits might have been, we have been handed down a rich variety of animals and associated traits to work with. As we said earlier, being Furry is not a single fixed idea, there is a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, we have folks who put on and take off their Furry apparel and personas as easily as changing clothing. Indeed, they see Furriness as a temporary condition, perhaps putting it on to indicate how they are feeling, or to change how they are feeling. They identify or resonate with the traits portrayed by the animal or parts thereof that they don, but are not attached in identity to one form. At the other extreme, we find those people who fully identify with a single representation, and the traits that go with that representation. Somewhere in the middle, are those who resonate with a representation, but do not feel that they are in an incorrect body.

A very brief history

The use of the term “Furry” dates back to perhaps the early 1980s. Tthe practice of dressing up as an animal, or adding parts of animals such as ears or tails or masks to a costume in order to symbolise taking on the characteristics of that animal, dates back so far that the origins are lost in time. Even today, in the remnants of the ancient religions, we see shamans and other tribesfolk taking on animal roles and appearances, to tell stories, and to add to the flavour of those stories. The ancient Egyptians gave their depictions of their Gods’ animal parts, linking the appearance of those Gods to the traits those animals where believed to have. More recently, mummers would often dress-up as a part of their plays, donning animal masks and other parts at times, to elucidate their tales. More recently yet, the cartoons and shows popular with children are filled with a veritable menagerie of characters – in essence, animals have taken the place of heroes and villains from the stories of older civilisations, and children are often being encouraged to identify with animal characters instead of people from those older stories.

In conclusion

When we are young and naive, the world is a big place, full of external forces that tower over us. First there are our parents or guardians who, like gods, know everything. Then there are the more advanced role models: bosses, rock stars, actors, and others who manage to masquerade as our power archetypes. They represent to us our own undeveloped sexual, artistic, or professional powers, aspects of individuality we do not yet possess. For a while we give them authority over us; we give them our energy by buying their albums, supporting their causes, and recruiting others into their reservoir of power. On subtle levels our ritual acts of patronage even project part of our aura in their direction. (God Forms of High Magic)

And so, animals have become role models to some of us.

We’ve all dressed up, or changed our hair cuts, or bought new cars to make us seem more confident, or cooler, or more appealing. When we want access to a particular trait, either externally or internally, we put on the trappings associated with that trait.

Being Furry is an uncommon choice, but for most Furries, the genesis is commonplace.

Distance education close-up

Coat of arms of Finland

Learning together apart: Distance education in a virtual world – Kim Holmburg and Isto Huvila

Holmburg and Huvila’s study, as related in the article link above, focuses on distributed learning opportunities for distance education students, ‘distributed learning’ meaning that multiple tools are used.

Background information

Some of the tools compared in the study were traditional face-to-face classroom teaching –  asynchronous systems such as blogs, wikis and discussion forums. Synchronous systems include chat rooms, video conferences, and lectures and classroom teaching in digital environments like Second Life.

Overall, students in the past have reported that the use of distributed learning has caused them to be more engaged with the class material. This seems unsurprising – the more learning modalities they are exposed to, the more learning styles a student has access to. Synchronous systems in particular were useful for encouraging interaction between students.

Lectures run in Second Life were found to be distinctly advantageous for distance education students. Students report preferring face-to-face classes, however they also found Second Life to be a more ‘fun’ learning experience compared to the other modalities they were exposed to. Additionally, lecturers found that students were more likely to participate in lectures run in Second Life than in face-to-face classes.

Using Second Life creates an interreality for the users – users are immersed in a digital environment, but are also making use of the real world. They are neither in one reality or the other completely. Digital environment experiences, being used the way they are at present, are best interleaved with real world experiences – students getting solely one set of experiences or the other will be missing out.

The major reason for students to prefer face-to-face education over distance education is because of perceived technical problems with remote connections, rather than a difference in perceived quality of overall educational experiences.

Some researchers have found that digital environments that the students engage well with, will positively impact on students’ emotions. Others fear that digitally mediated distance education will lead to emotional distance.

Holmburg and Huvila’s Study

This study had 30 participants – 28 female, 2 male. Of those, 6 had technical difficulties responding to the survey. Moodle, Second Life and one day of face-to-face teaching were used during the course. A classroom was built in Second Life, in which the lectures were held; the classroom closely resembled real-world classrooms to increase familiarity and emotional engagement. The course was arranged by the Centre for Open University Education at Åbo Akademi University.

Respondents were born between 1952 and 1984.

Each student was given instructions about how to use Second Life, and was expected to get to grips with it before commencing lectures.

Respondents felt that the Second Life client was not too difficult to use. Face-to-face education still rated as ‘better’, though Second Life rated as ‘better’ than web-based educational methods. Second Life was rated as the most fun method. Sixty percent of respondents felt that Second Life lectures could replace face-to-face lectures.

The assumption was made at the outset of the study that using Second Life – manoeuvring an avatar – might be challenging for students who were non-gamers. This turned out to be incorrect.

Second Life itself provides many opportunities for different modes of learning, however there are still benefits to be gained from face-to-face communication, when that is easy to organise, since this adds yet more modes.

Second Life provides significant benefits where distance education is involved. If travel time is short and travelling easy, face-to-face teaching is to be preferred. Nonetheless, Second Life increases the fun in learning, an outcome which in and of itself increases engagement and participation amongst students.

In conclusion

The authors of the study state that fun “is always a desired outcome.” This does not always seem to be the case: for many years, anything ‘fun’ has been questionable in educational circles. Hopefully, studies like this in which the fun of an activity is shown to have a positive impact on learning outcomes will go to show that education can be fun and worthwhile at the same time.

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