31 July 2011

#H800 Virtual worlds and Identity

Second Life is one of the topics in week 25 of H800, with in particular a focus on how people engage with an 'online identity', given shape by their physical manifestation online, their avatar.

A key element in the discussion on virtual worlds is the concept of identity or, better, multiple identities.

The issue of multiple identities reminds me of the identification concept of Wenger (1998).  Wenger considers identity as a social construct, formed by our participation (and non-participation) in a wide range of communities and our influence in those communities (our ability to negotiate meaning, as he calls it).  In this regard, participation in Second Life adds another identity component.  We have one identity (the ‘self’) according to Wenger, but it is composed of a range of ‘identifications’ in communities.  This resonates with the following excerpts:

What is changing is not the self, but the ability we have to explore different manifestations of this self. ‘In conventional terms of reasoning, post-modern identity can be considered schizophrenic; however, it should not be looked upon as pathology but as a virtue’ (Adrian, 2008, p369 in Peachey, 2009, p.4).

The role of groups in shaping ‘real life’ identities is implicit, as is the multiplicity of ‘real life’ identity. What is interesting and new about virtual worlds is that they make this group-shaping explicit and multiplicity of identity actionable. (Adrian, 2008, p368 in Peachey, 2009, p.14).

Peachey (2009) describes how people construct their avatar very carefully, like spending a lot of time in choosing a name and physical appearance.  First impressions matter, also or even more so, in virtual realities.  For some identification with their avatar can become very strong and spill over to their real life identity, blurring boundaries between the two.  For example, people create Facebook profiles with their avatar name or adapt their hairstyle to match with their avatar’s looks (Peachey, 2009).  Experiences with an avatar may result in increased confidence in real life, or, conversely, may also result in real emotional pain.  A strong identification with one’s online identity makes me wondering about the person’s satisfaction with his/ her real world’s identity.

The notion of extending avatar identity into the real world inevitably raises the possibility of overidentification and withdrawal from essential realities (usually where contributing factors in the real world might predispose such withdrawal). (Peachey, 2009, p.13)

For some students balancing 'real life' and 'virtual' identities may create tensions, fearing that their online identity '[takes over' their real identity.

What comes through most strongly from the accounts … is that there is a tension in students’ narratives between the ideal of an embodied, authentic, anchoring self, the self that goes along to tutorial classes on Tuesday afternoon, and the possibility of other, deviant, less authentic selves which emerge online and which threaten the anchoring subject with the possibility of their autonomy (Bayne, 2005).

I found the discussion on people with disabilities interesting.  For this group of people a virtual world such as Second Life may provide them with an appearance that doesn’t generate the instinctive reaction of ‘patronising convention’.   However, some still choose an avatar with physical disabilities.  .

But what is the potential for education?  The author sees a lot of potential for collaborative learning.  I can see that you can re-create some of the visual clues that are absent in regular online interaction.  I can also imagine that community bonding could be stronger in a Second Life environment than in a regular forum or e-mail discussion.  On the other hand, it is another social network to engage in, another place to login and check updates.  I’m not sure whether the added value of Second Life weights up against this reluctance to engage in another network. 

Within H800 it could be an interesting experience to move some of the tutorials from Elluminate to Second Life.  A disadvantage in Elluminate is the lack of visual clues, which makes it difficult to engage in a muti-person informal discussion.  Second Life may provide a richer and more intuitive environment for discussions.  However, the considerable time investment to get started in Second Life would require using it at least a few weeks to make the effort worthwhile. 
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