Avatars pile into the outdoor amphitheatre on Annenberg Island, the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy’s headquarters in Second Life. These virtual people represent audience members from around the world who have logged in to hear the first roundtable of CivWorld‘s fifth annual Interdependence Day conference. Visionaries such as Gilberto Gil, Brazilian Minister of Culture, and Peter Marx, former Chief Technology Officer for Vivendi Universal Games, have gathered to discuss “Making the Global Local: Virtual Worlds, Migration and Linguistic Diaspora.” Though several of the panelists are logged in from the CivWorld conference in Mexico City, others are joining the conversation from remote locations around the world.

This panel is just one of many global forums held by USC Center on Public Diplomacy in Second Life. These conversations are made possible by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which in June 2007 awarded the center a $550,000 grant to study philanthropy in virtual worlds. Center Director Joshua Fouts serves as the Co-Principal Investigator of the grant, along with Dr. Douglas Thomas, who is an Associate Professor of Communication at USC.

Fouts and Thomas say the increasing popularity of virtual worlds provoked the MacArthur Foundation to take a serious look at the potential for philanthropy in these spaces, in spite of the U.S. media’s insistence that these worlds are fraught with profiteers and pornographers. “I think that virtual worlds are going to become as ubiquitous in our society 10 or 20 years from now as the internet is today,” Fouts says. “And for us to ignore it and say this is either a ‘get rich’ or ‘corrupt our society’ kind of space, we do so at our own peril.”

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The duo is staging a series of events in Second Life to explore what the foundation can do within virtual worlds. Thomas says, “Our goal is not to turn Second Life residents into philanthropists, it’s to try to figure out how foundations can be effective in that space and to understand that they have to go in and engage the practices of the world as they exist, rather than trying to define what those practices should be. So, rather than saying, ‘MacArthur’s doing great things, how do we take that and shuffle it into virtual worlds?’ it’s more of an interesting question to us to say, ‘What are people actually doing to make a social life in a social world, and how can that be used in productive, pro-social ways?'”

Fouts and Thomas believe virtual spaces have the potential to transcend geopolitical boundaries and facilitate intercultural dialogue and understanding, and they hope to explore this potential in provocative ways in the coming year. First, they plan to bring Saudi women, who are not allowed to meet or talk about politics in public, to Annenberg Island so they can freely discuss the issues that matter to them. (“Which they’re allowed by law to do because they’re not leaving their homes,” Thomas notes.) They’re also working on bringing two U.S. Congressmen and two Parliamentarians from Iran to the island to talk about what’s happening between the two powers.

They may not have come across this crucial application of virtual worlds if it hadn’t been for USC’s free high-speed broadband. When lifelong gamer Fouts came to USC in 1997 to run the Annenberg School for Communication’s Online Journalism program, he and Thomas began “exploiting the fact that USC had this great internet connection” and started playing multiplayer computer games over the school’s local area network. In 2003, they began playing their first MMOG: Star Wars Galaxies. They noticed it had a huge international fan base, even though it was an American game. “So one day just for the hell of it we went to the EU servers just to see what they were doing in Europe, and we started asking people, ‘What do you think of Americans?'” says Thomas. “And they started saying, ‘Well, they’re really not so bad once you play with them.’ So light bulbs went over our heads where we were like, ‘Wow, so there’s a public diplomacy project here.'”

“At that point we had just launched the Center on Public Diplomacy, which is all about researching how governments, civil societies and [non-governmental organizations] can work to facilitate dialogue and understanding between cultures,” Fouts says. “So I started playing the game and noticed that not only were people from other cultures hanging out in this space and playing in this space together, but that what they had to do was inherently collaborative, so these really close relationships formed among people.” Fouts noticed that Star Wars Galaxies gamers not only worked together to complete quests, but also established highly bureaucratic, multicultural cities. “All of these elements together illustrated that something really different was going on in these spaces. People were not just playing games. People were emotionally, intellectually and psychologically invested in these spaces in a really rich way.”

The Star Wars Galaxies experience inspired Fouts and Thomas to begin studying cultural exchange and civic engagement in virtual worlds. The first project for their Public Diplomacy in Virtual Worlds Initiative was the “Reinventing Public Diplomacy Through Games Competition,” which challenged game designers to “design a prototype or modify a game incorporating the fundamental characteristics of public diplomacy.” Entries arrived from all over the world, and the majority of them were built in Second Life. The platform’s popularity persuaded them to buy an island, where they hosted the awards ceremony for the competition.

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Thomas says that although virtual worlds can effectively transfer facts to a player’s brain, they specifically excel at teaching subjects like ethics that are only learned experientially. One example of this learning experience is “Virtual Gitmo,” USC and Seton Hall University’s joint Second Life project that simulates what it’s like to be hooded, helpless and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. “Think about the comparison of that and somebody lecturing you about what it’s like to be in Guantanamo. It’s a very different set of lessons to be learned, so those are the killer applications for virtual worlds, this experiential stuff that you can’t get anyplace else.”

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?”

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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 gobedelighted.blogspot.com.

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