Social Studies

Social Studies
Diplomacy Island

Melody Lutz | 30 Oct 2007 11:43
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Both Thomas and Fouts think these learning experiences in virtual worlds are particularly powerful because of the notion of co-presence, or the belief that the 3-D representation of you on the screen is an extension of your physical self; a self that occupies a physical world filled with other physical beings. "I am my avatar at some level," says Thomas, "and I think that makes learning possible in a very deep way because at the most basic level our bodies are learning machines. When you're a little kid and you see a flame for the first time and your parents say, 'That's hot, don't touch it,' what's the first thing you do? You touch it, because you have no idea what hot means. And then you have that experience of pain and that's the learning part, like 'ow that really hurts,' not 'Mom told me not to do this.'" Thomas says avatar-navigated virtual worlds provide experiences that feel very immediate to the player. "And I think the more sophisticated these worlds become, the more we're going to feel that."

They both stress that they are only asking questions about the role of the foundation in virtual worlds at this stage in their research, and say it is too early to tell whether our experiences as residents of digital communities can make us better citizens in our physical world. "The thing that carries over between the physical world and the virtual world is not particularly behavior because the spaces are so radically different," Thomas says. "What carries over is a notion of dispositions, and dispositions are more or less attitudes towards the real world. If you're generous in real life, you're probably generous in virtual worlds. And if you're racist in real life, you're probably racist in virtual worlds, too."

Thomas admits that most people who engage in virtual worlds tend toward dispositions like openness - and indeed, Second Life's Community Standards explicitly state that intolerance is grounds for expulsion. "There's this soft selection problem," he says, "which is, are the people who are going to virtual worlds right now the kind of people who are likely to be more tolerant? Or is there something about these spaces which is shaping that extra tolerance?"


Perhaps submersion in Second Life's increasingly international space necessitates tolerance - out of Second Life's 9 million avatars, only 30 percent are from the U.S. "If I'm from a small town in Iowa and I've never left my hometown, much less the state of Iowa, I'll have a certain set of dispositions about that. Now, put me in Second Life where I have to deal with people from Germany and France and New York and all over the world," Thomas says. "The more cosmopolitan I become in Second Life, the more my disposition about the world changes."

Fouts agrees that virtual world experiences can change a person's attitude toward others. He thinks that, in some ways, Second Life can provide a class, gender and culture-neutral space for people to engage in dialogue and build relationships with people they wouldn't otherwise speak to in real life. "If I meet you and I see you as a green alien in Second Life, and I'm a walking horse, and we build a relationship and we meet in the real world, we'll say, hey, we have this friendship. And it won't be because my avatar looks like a horse and yours looks like an alien. It'll be in spite of that."

Melody Lutz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her blog can be found at

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