Panel 6-1: Making Sense of Virtual Worlds as Sites of Innovation in Communication
by Sebastian Armbrust
Fitting its title, the first panel in the Digital Culture and Communication section started with an “innovation in communication.” Five presentations per 90-minute panel, the norm at this year’s ECREA conference, require tight time management by chairs and presenters, a task well-handled by all involved in the panels I attended. But in addition, this panel featured an interesting and well-performed modus operandi: After giving shorter-than-usual introductions to their projects, in a second round the panelists addressed each other’s projects, discussing similarities and differences in research questions, methods, and findings. This (prepared in advance) discussion made the panel a coherent whole, so when in a third round, the audience was invited to ask questions, it resulted in a real group discussion rather than a discussion of individual questions addressed to individual presenters.
This was, of course, also the product of the high thematic coherence between the different research projects presented, four of which based at Roskilde University, Denmark, and all of which explored the sense-making and communication strategies and motivations of private as well as professional and institutional users of virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL).
CarrieLynn Reinhard explores how media users make sense of novel media situations when navigating virtual worlds such as SL or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) like City of Heroes. Informed by Brenda Derwin’s sense-making methodology, and Lakoff & Johnson’s cognitive metaphor theory (1980: Metaphors we Live By), she looked at how users use metaphors in describing their media experiences, conceptualizing the unknown and unfamiliar aspects of their virtual environment in terms of real-world experiences of communication situations and movement in space.
Ursula Plesner talked about how architects use virtual worlds to build 3D models of their projects in order to discuss design decisions with other professionals and/or their clients, at a level of spatial immersion and detail lacking in traditional, two dimensional architectural blueprints. Interesting aspects of this type of architectural communication include the lack of standardization in 3D software for architecture; the double-sided expert role architects adopt as professional real-world architects and expert virtual-world users; and the transformations of the client/architect relationship that emerge from the technical possibilities of direct user configurability.
A closer look into user-driven innovation and collaboration practices by semi-professional and fully professional Second Life designers was given by Ates Gursimsek, who talked in more detail about the tools, skills, and methods of the “builders” (as Second Life architects like to call themselves), and the virtual economy emerging from the various tools and resources offered to and created by the community, re-used and adapted (often free of charge) by other users in various ways.
Lisbeth Frølunde researches the motivations of machinima producers (videos digitally shot by users/fans within the virtual reality environments provided by virtual worlds and computer games). In particular, she presented her work on the “machinimators” partaking in the Metrotopia Contest, who submitted entries shot in the virtual city of Metrotopia in SL, which was developed by Roskilde University as a virtual research lab.
Last but not least, Stina Bengtsson talked about real-world countries’ embassies in SL, namely Sweden’s embassy (here is an article about its opening in 2007), which was actually run by a cultural exchange organization. A failed experiment, the virtual building has since been abandoned by the authorities, and is today used for various activities by Swedish SL citizens. The history of this first virtual embassy in SL reveals interesting insights into the subcultures that have developed there as alternatives to the real-world order, seemingly uninterested in importing real-world politics or national identities into their virtual structures.
One important result of the various dynamics in SL, as explored by the approaches presented and further explored in the discussion, is a diversification of participant roles that complicates traditional conceptions of media producers on one side, and public audiences on the other: “Machinimators” and “builders” can be described as “users” and “amateurs” using the technology provided to them, but are also pioneering experts addressing their own audiences and clients with their creations. Furthermore, as the example of Sweden’s embassy shows, there may be quite a discrepancy between the mainstream public and a virtual public, posing as a difficult challenge for public communication strategies.