Friday, March 30, 2007

Is Second Life a Game or...

I have been active in Second Life (SL) now for about 10 months. In that time I have come to see great potential in SL as a social networking tool, as an educational environment, and so much more. I have seen things and been to places in world (that's SL-speak BTW) that I could not have done in the "real world (RL)". I have met people from all over the world and have made many friends that I think of no differently than my RL friends even though all I have met is their avatars. There is a vibrant and growing educational community in SL that is doing some amazing things. There are artists, entertainers, entrepreneurs, and ne'er do wells in world. In many ways it emulates the RL, with the good, the bad, and the ugly that any society has.

But the nagging question is this - is Second Life just a game or something else? Is it a virtual reality with a real economy employing a lot of people and allowing many to get rich? Is it a place where people can be anyone or anything and do anyone or anything? Is it a great place to learn, to collaborate and communicate with educators and learners from around the world? It is all these things and more, but is it a game?

Clark Aldrich has an interesting post on his blog - "educational simulation". He defines an educational simulation as "A type of sim that brings together significant simulation elements and pedagogical elements with limited Game Elements." He then goes on to describe how educational sims differ from games in that they:
  • Are built primarily to nurture specific learning goals in participants (called students or learners), often with real-life actions reflected in the interface.
  • Often are supported by human coaches/facilitators.
  • Tend to have lower production values than complex game.
  • Focus on replay using different approaches.
  • Are often chosen or paid for indirectly by program sponsors, not the participants themselves.
  • Come in specific genres including branching stories, game based models, interactive spreadsheets, virtual labs, practiceware, just to name a few.

Yet like with all simulations, educational simulations:

  • Require participants to necessarily develop skills, and do so through emergent learning.
  • Can be single player, multi-player, or massively multi-player.
  • Are built around levels.
  • Will appeal to some people and not others.
  • Focus on what actions are available, how the actions impact systems (including units, maps, and processes), and how those systems then produce results, often presented in a practice environment.
  • Are surrounded by multiple communities.
  • Are first described in design document, before programmed, debugged, and distributed.
  • Can be complex or mini
(Many thanks to Clark Aldrich for this great definition - check out his blog - it's a great source of terminology and other educational resources for all things dealing with simulations and Web 2.0)

If you examine Second Life using these requirements and features, I think it is safe to say that SL is indeed an educational simulation. But is that all it is? No, it is so much more, and yes, at some level it is a game. But to simply dismiss Second Life as a game is to miss an incredible opportunity for learning, commerce, socialization, and so much more. Anyone who does this risks missing out on what could be a wonderful experience for them and their constituencies.

Maybe we need a new description for Second Life - it's not a game, it's not a simulation - it's a parallel synthetic reality - one more universe in the ever growing multiverse. Hmmm...

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