Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Identity and Ethics

I've just had an interesting meeting about ethical clearance for the art & design pilot. It all seems pretty straight forward, with the pilot considered low-risk. However, when I was asked what the potential risks were with a project like this, I found myself voicing concerns about role play and identity. Creating a character and acting out otherwise impossible roles in a virtual world is a powerful tool for learning at a deep and fundamental level, and as a partly trained life coach (I got some free session when I did a website for a life coach a few years ago), I am a strong believer in the power of imagining and acting out the hyper-real version of yourself in-world. My own role play in Second Life has allowed me to explore my previously under-fulfilled desire to be a proper artist.

However, is hitting new students with the enormity of creating a 'whole new you' too soon counterproductive, and potentially dangerous? What if a student is mentally unstable (as many art students are), and the creation of a virtual version of themselves triggers off a bout of multiple personality disorder? What if looking deep within yourself and piecing bits of your suppressed personality together into a walking, talking avatar is just too difficult. Many of the Second Life inductions that I have conducted in the past have scared my students. Not because of the technical barriers, but because it is just too much, too soon. Whilst they acknowledge the obvious amazingness of Second Life, they feel personally overwhelmed.

One way to tackle this problem is to ease students into their virtual identity gradually.

The first step is to make everybody Ruth TestUser, and give them their own private island to mess up. The issue of identity is delayed until they can at least walk and fly.

The second step (maybe) is to allow them to use their own identities by registering their real names in an OpenSim networked grid. Their avatars can meet and chat, and everyone knows what's what and who's who.

Up to now, I've been working on the assumption that step 3 would be the point when students could handle the whole 'Choose a second name, make up a first name' SL sign up. Now I'm not so sure.

There are a whole load of thing still to take on board when you enter Second Life. Visiting the mainland, talking to strangers, visiting strange and scary places, buying something from a shop. Do we still need to provide identity scaffold for our students at this stage?

One way we could provide this would be to buy a bunch of identities from Linden Lab. I understand that we can purchase whatever last name we want, and register the real first names of our students. So one of our students in the pilot would be called something like Brian Leedsmet. Would this identity half-way house help new users to adjust and acclimatise to Second Life?

I would be disappointed if the participants didn't sign up to Second Life properly and get a proper fantasy self going after the pilot, but by then they would be making an informed decision to sign up and engage. They would be choosing to create their own Ziggy Stardust, with a better sense of the possibilities and the consequences.

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