Tom Boellstorff: teaching digital culture in Second Life

Tom Boellstorff and his digital alter ego, Tom Bukowski (image: Steve Zylius / UCI)

Professor Tom Boellstorff is someone I’ve oft written about in these pages. Known as Tom Bukowski  in Second Life, he is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and has a long association with the platform as he has, and continues, to engage a range of studies both on his own and in collaboration with Donna Davis (Tredi Felisimo in-world), a digital ethnographer at the University of Oregon.

Tom’s involvement with Second Life goes back to 2004, and has carried out numerous studies in-world that have resulted in a range of publications including Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton University Press, 2008), the result of two years fieldwork in Second Life, living among and observing its residents in exactly the same way anthropologists traditionally have done to learn about cultures and social groups in the so-called real world. He has also co-authored Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press, 2012) a concise, comprehensive, and practical guide for students, teachers, designers, and scholars interested in using ethnographic methods to study on-line virtual worlds, including both game and non-game environments. Alongside of Donna, he co-curates and operates Ethnographia Island, about which I first wrote in 2016 (see: Exploring disability, new cultures and self in a virtual realm), and which later became the subject of a segment of The Drax Files World Makers video series.

My own contact with Tom started in 2013, as a result of my learning about and covering the story of Fran Swenson (Fran Serenade in Second Life – see: Of Parkinson’s, Second Life and a story worth reading), and with whom both Tom and Donna worked. Since then, I’ve tried to follow Tom’s work – albeit not always successfully, so I’d like to extend my thanks to Luca (lucagrabcr), co-founder of the Virtual Existence Society, for tweeting about Tom’s latest project (so to speak): bringing his classroom and students directly into Second Life as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Anteater Island: landing point

As reported in the UCI News by Lilibeth Garcia, because social / physical distancing prevents him from teaching in his usual environment – an auditorium located in UCI’s state-of-the-art Anteater Learning Pavilion – Tom has created Anteater Island within Second Life, a place that allows him to continue to teach his course, Digital Cultures (Anthropology 128C), directly to his students without fear or risk of possible infection.

UCI’s digital cultures class is a rare sight these days, with unmasked students sitting together, often shoulder to shoulder, in a large venue and listening attentively as anthropology professor Tom Boellstorff presents a slide show. But the pre-coronavirus-style format isn’t flouting any social distancing guidelines. The class takes place in Second Life – a 3D virtual world that allows users to create communities and interact with each other – and the instructor and students are avatars.

– from Anteater Island, UCI News, June 1st, 2020

Anteater Island: the auditorium

Tom made the move to using Second Life as UCI sought to moving its teaching activities on-line as a result of the pandemic. Thanks to his long association with the platform, and while his colleagues were doubtless looking at potential options for moving their classes entirely on-line, Tom was able to capture the essence of the collaborative working spaces offered within the physical Anteater Pavilion as used by his students and replicate their capabilities within Second Life without having to confine himself to the traditional view of learning spaces as bricks-and-mortar structures.

Within the region, learning spaces are located around the coastline, offering a primary lecture auditorium, meeting areas for each student team, a display area where students will eventually display their work, and an office where he can be reached. Towards the centre of the island lies a social space where students can relax, chat and even dance, while a primary landing point providing an introduction to the island for students, and some basic notes on viewer use.

Given the course is about digital cultures, the approach of using Second Life is not only practical in terms of overcoming the issues of social / physical distancing, it is actually a potential enhancement to the course. After all, how better to get students thinking about digital cultures and how they impact / reflect / alter people’s lives, than by actually placing them within a digital environment where they can experience things first-hand, both through their own involvement in, and reaction to, the environment and through observation of their fellow students.

Anteater Island: central social area

Hence why, perhaps, Tom has also included three fun fair rides – roller coaster, sky drop and bumper cars – for students to try, as well as offering sandbox building space in the sky above the island. All of these allow students to both relax and have fun outside class time, and also experience some of the interactive appeal of virtual environments.

In a time when, thanks to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, our relationship with, and use of, on-line capabilities for communication, contact, learning and more, are being subject to so much re-evaluation, Tom notes that virtual spaces are especially deserving of greater understanding and study.

We need to get away from talking about the physical world as the real world. On-line sociality is a set of cultures that can be just as real as what is in the physical world … Virtual space gives you a sense of shared space that you don’t get with a phone call. Zoom fatigue is an interesting aspect, because I find engaging through an avatar less stressful than Zoom. There’s something lost with having an avatar, but there’s also something gained.

– Professor Tom Boellstorff, UCI

Hopefully, this is something we’ll be able to witness, as Tom plans to lead studies himself, with the assistance of a further grant from the National Science Foundation. Certainly, it’s something I hope to be able to report on in the future.

Links to Tom Boellstorff