Empowering embodiment: Our Digital Selves

We all have blood. We all feel. We all matter. We are all different.

– Shyla the Super Gecko (KriJon)

Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me  is a new video documentary by Draxtor Despres, which officially unveiled on Thursday, May 17th, to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

It’s a powerful 74-minute piece which, as Draxtor himself notes, “Was supposed to be a slightly extended episode of The Drax Files World Makers,” but which, “ballooned into a dense investigation into the power of living vicariously through an avatar in Second Life and next generation virtual worlds like High Fidelity and Sansar.”

The documentary grew out of a desire to follow the work of Tom Boellstorff and Donna Z Davis (respectively Tom Bukowski  and Tredi Felisimo in Second Life). For the last three years, Tom and Donna have been engaged in a National Science Foundation funded study formally entitled Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Selfand more informally referred to as Our Digital Selves.

I first covered this study in Exploring disability, new cultures and self in a virtual realm, back in 2016, when I outlined Donna and Tom’s examination of the experiences of people with disabilities – visible and invisible – who are using Second Life to represent themselves, possibly free of the shadow of any disability, engage with others and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

How is the internet changing the ways people think of themselves as individuals and interact as members of communities? Many are currently investigating this important question: for this project, the researchers are focusing on the experiences of people with disabilities in “virtual worlds,” three-dimensional, immersive on-line spaces where people with disabilities can appear any way they choose and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

– Donna Davis and Tom Boellstorff introducing Virtual Worlds,
Disability and New Cultures of the Embodied Self

Using in-world meetings and discussion groups, Donna – a strategic communications professor at the University of Oregon specialising in mass media & society, public relations, strategic communication, virtual environments and digital ethnography, and Tom –  a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine – set about engaging with Second Life users. Through these sessions they explored the many facets in living with a disability, people’s reactions to those with disabilities, and the experiences those with a wide range of physical and other disabilities – the ability diverse, as Donna notes – find within virtual spaces.

Donna Z Davis and Tom Boellstorff (Tredi Felisimo and Tom Bukowski in Second Life), co-researchers in Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self, supported by the University of California, Irvine; the University of Oregon; and the National Science Foundation.

Covering enormous ground over the three years – including providing participants with virtual space in-world at Ethnographia Island where they might express themselves and their relationship with their condition – Virtual Worlds, Disability and New Cultures of the Embodied Self is perhaps best described as a voyage of discovery and revelation for all those involved – researchers, participants and observers alike. And it is this voyage that the documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me encapsulates.

The documentary focuses on thirteen participants in the study who, along with their avatars  transcend their various disabilities through artistic expression and making a home for themselves in the digital realm.

Starting with the idea of freedom through embodiment that environments like Second Life offers as a result of the almost entirely free-form way in which we can express ourselves through our avatars visually free from the disabilities or imperfections that might otherwise define us, the film moves onto the concept of being rooted to a place, and the idea that having that space allows us to further define and extend who we are. This idea of “emplacement”, as Tom calls it leads to an initial exploration of the places the study participants built on Ethnographia Island.

Jadyn Firehawk, one of the original participants in the study – and who first notified me about it in January 2016 – before her installation ” Reconstructing Identity After Disability”, Ethnographia Island, 2016

It is here that the personal stories begin to unfold, with Jadyn Firehawk describing what those of us blessed with sound minds and bodies might take for granted in ourselves those around us:  performing every day tasks when living with an invisible disability. It’s easy enough to show understanding and compassion – and make allowances for – those with physical disabilities. Yet how often do we (if only silently) question or shy away from those with mental / emotional disabilities when they raise the subject of their health, simply because we don’t see physical evidence of their disability?

These stories are fascinating, moving, and deeply revealing studies; not only in terms of those relating them, but also in what they say about the sheer power of a platform like Second Life to imbue creativity, to form relationships, to encourage our desire to push past barriers – physical, mental, personal and societal – and even to re-grant the authority for us to control our identity and how much of it we choose to reveal to others.

In this, the video not only covers matters of personal representation of self when living with a disability, but covers wider issues of identity, revealing who we are, have the right of control over what is revealed to others about ourselves. In the age of Facebook, Google, data gathering, Cambridge Analytica style activities, this is an issue that reaches far beyond what might be seen as the “core” subject matter of the study – be which nevertheless is part and parcel of the idea of embodiment; one which does affect us all.

The stories revealed through the film are moving, insightful – and revelatory; not “just” because of what they reveal about the participants, but in the way it can cause measures of self-reflection and encourages thoughts on our own virtual embodiment: what it means to us, how it exercises our desire for growth, etc.

Continue reading “Empowering embodiment: Our Digital Selves”

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Drax Files Special: Second Life and the power of immersive journalism

Nonny de la Peña (l) and Peggy Weil

A new Drax Files World Makers video appeared on Tuesday, September 19th, taking the form of a special retrospective of a much earlier work – and series.

In 2007, he was involved in putting together a series for Berlin-based Life For You News, an in-world TV magazine in which Drax’s pieces were something of a precursor to World Makers and perhaps one of the first attempts at immersive journalism/ reporting within a 3D world. On September 19th, 2007 as a part of the series, he released a piece examining the Virtual Guantánamo project, aka Gone Gitmo, conceived by Nonny de la Peña and  Peggy Weil.  To mark the 10th anniversary of that story, this Drax Files World Makers special looks back on it through the eyes of de la Peña and Weil, and presents the original documentary itself.

Guantánamo Bay (aka “Gitmo”), rendition, the treatment of actual (and / or alleged) terrorists, the question of human rights, America’s response to acts of terror in the wake of 9/11, including things like the loss of civil liberties through the likes of Patriot Act are difficult if not contentious subjects to examine, simply because of the complexities of the views involved. Such was the containment of events within the barbed wire fences of the prison, what happened there was, for many of us, little more than something in the news, reduced to shots of orange jumpsuits locked together with words like “terrorism”, “threat”, “attack” and so on. Even as reports of human rights violations, the use of torture, the detainment of potentially innocent people without right to  basic habeas corpus, we perhaps remained largely injured.

In 2004, concerned at what she was witnessing with regards to American values, de la Peña, an award-winning documentary film-maker Nonny  released Unconstitutional: The War On Our Civil Liberties. A 66-minutes documentary, the film examined the US Patriot Act, and included material on Gitmo and the equally infamous  Abu Ghraib prison.

In 2006, with funding from the Bay Area Video Coalition and the assistance of the Interactive Media Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, de la Peña set out with artist Peggy Weil to develop the Virtual Guantánamo project. With it, they sought to recreate Camp Delta at Guantánamo and expose visitors to the realities of life there – from rendition through incarceration – in which they had absolutely no free agency over their avatar, experiencing everything directly in first-person.

The experience  – finely balanced in some areas to prevent undue attention of the use of torture – was open to the public for 6 years and became the focal point for conferences and discussions on issues of human rights hosted both in the physical world and at the Gone Gitmo installation (the latter including the likes of Seaton Hall Law School and ACLU). And thus it became the subject of a segment from Depres’ Live For You News series.

Gone Gitmo became a focal point for real world and in-world discussions on human rights issues during its six-year run in Second Life

Presented here, and bookended by commentary and reflections from de la Peña and Weil, the Gone Gitmo video – which itself was nominated for an Internews “Every Human Has Rights” Media Award and featured in Vanity Fair – makes for a fascinating retrospective on several levels. Most obviously, there is the examination of the subject matter itself, particularly in the present political climate.

However, the piece also sits as a reminder that immersive journalism is not a new thing (although at times Headset Hype would have us believe otherwise). de la Peña is (in Forbes’ words) “the Godmother of VR” through her work in this type of journalism across multiple mediums (Gone Gitmo, for example was also produced using Unity, and she has used VR a numerous other projects).

It’s also a reminder of how valuable immersive 3D spaces such as Second Life (and potentially Sansar), can be in bringing people directly in contact with issues and topics of interest / concern, not just as a medium for news or education, but as a means of challenging perspectives and awakening critical thinking. In this, de la Peña’s ideas voiced in the original Gone Gitmo video for dealing with street gangs and their internecine fights with one another, are particularly salient.

Finally there is also the visual reminder of just how much Second Life has grown as a visual medium in the last ten years.

All told, a fascinating piece.

Drax Files #45: a magnificent man and his flying machines

Arduenn Schwartzmann at home

The latest Drax Files World Makers took to the air – literally and metaphorically – on Monday June 5th, with a look at the world of Arduenn Schwartzmann.

Arduenn is perhaps most famous for his Warbug combat system of fun and quirky aeroplanes, which represent most eras of flying, and can be enjoyed for pleasure or in friendly air combat games (“combat” perhaps isn’t the right term, as it can feel more like a game of tag around the skies). I’m actually a fan of these little planes, which are small enough that they can easily be enjoyed within the confines of a single region, and have flown many over the years, both at Arduenn’s own Warbug HQ, where I’ve frequently been shot down (and also scored a few hits of my own) – although I admit, up until this show aired, it had been about 3 years since I was last there, although I do have a couple of his aircraft stuffed away in my inventory which come out on occasion for fun.

Overflying the Warbug HQ in one of Ardruenn’s rezzable planes (touch the windsock at the airstrip)

But there is more to Arduenn than Warbugs. He’s demonstrated clear insight into Second Life; his commentary, when given, has always been provided thoughtfully and fairly, while he has also been something of a pioneer; not only with his Warbugs, but also in things like trying to develop a means of shooting 360-degree video in SL.  As such, this is a segment which should have a lot to offer.

And indeed, it appears to be ready to deliver from the outset. In the first 90 seconds of the 4 minute 30 piece, we get a potted history of Arduenn’s background as a molecular biologist before swinging fully into his unbridled enthusiasm for the creative scope presented by Second Life and the ‘umble prim. Make no mistake, here is a man who, after a decade in SL, is in no way jaded by the magic and the promise, but who fully embraces it.

Arduenn and his children

Similarly, the final part of the piece, where we see Arduenn with his kids and gain his thoughts on life, creativity and balance, which offers us the expected insight into what attracts someone to SL and and causes them to first glue a couple of prims together. It is the bit in the middle I have problems with. Warbugs are there, and rightly so – and the voice-over gives the images the depth they need. But following it comes a period which tends to come over as pure product placement when we could perhaps be delving into more of what makes Arduenn tick, why he digs into challenges like trying to develop a 360-vedio capture system (particularly as he worked with Drax on this) and get involved in people’s projects; and so, for me, a part of the potential for this segment is lost.

Which is not to say the segment is not enjoyable – it is, and it clearly delivers in making us feel Arduenn’s passion for creativity in second Life, his sense of fun and the glorious light-heartedness of Warbug flying. I would just like to have seen the curtain cast back a little further to explore more of Arduenn’s thoughts about Second Life, content creation and  what, after a decade in world, keeps him engaged in the platform.

The Drax Files 44: “It’s Istanbul and VR education”*

Professor Tuncer Can and student share time in the physical world and in Second Life

*With apologies to Jimmy Kennedy.

The Drax Files #44 arrived on Monday, April 10th. It is a somewhat timely piece in content, returning as it does to the subject of Second Life and its role as an educational tool (first examined far back in segment #19) which has arrived shortly after the 10th Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education Conference has closed its doors in Second Life.

This segment is slightly longer than recent instalments of World Makers, running to one second under 6 minutes. The focus is very much on the work of Professors Tuncer Can and Irfan Simsek from Istanbul University, but the episode encompasses far more than examining looking at how the professors and the university use Second Life to enable and empower student learning.

Istanbul University’s virtual presence in Second Life

“I’m really trying to summarise what are the defining factors that make Second Life work for education,” Drax told me as we discussed the segment.

“I’ve striven to have some detail [through the examination of Istanbul University’s presence in SL] but moreover I’ve striven to give a feeling of the freedom Second Life brings to education. Not just for the teachers, but for students as well. The emphasis is on the fact that Second Life can create an atmosphere of freedom that unleashes energy in the students, encouraging them to participate in the learning process.”

A core part of this freedom is the fact that Second Life presents students full agency over how they represent themselves in-world and the security that they have control over how much they reveal about themselves – and how much (if anything) can be traced back to them. This aspect of identity / anonymity is something oft touched upon in many areas of Second Life, but it is perhaps not so well recognised when it comes to education, where one would perhaps expect things to be more regimented.

A skyborne language park at Istanbul University, Second Life

“They want to reflect their own real character that lies behind their social masks,” Tuncer Can notes in the video. “I had one student whose voice I had never heard in my life; and instantly, when we had this virtual education class, he started using all of his experiences! He said that the anonymity that Second Life allows, nobody looks at me, and I started sharing.”

Tuncer sees this as a vital part of encouraging learning and giving student a greater freedom, as Second Life encourages students to remove the affective filter, causing them to be more receptive to learning, their peers and their class leader.

“That’s why I dwell on these different avatars,” Drax continues. “I have the feeling this is not really a priority right now in many of the VR applications. The ability to openly define yourself, which has a kind of creative chaos which can be leveraged by a skilled educator to open out the learning process. That’s what I’m really trying to show.”

Istanbul University’s virtual presence in Second Life

Second Life can help remove the affective filter in other ways as well. For example: many – if not all – students today are at least semi computer literate. They have games, the Internet, social media, and so on. Thus, they have a natural curiosity when introduced to Second Life, a desire to find out what it is, what they can do within it. This naturally pushes their affective filtering to one side, generating a desire to learn.

“You see this in the shot of students playing with the prims. I have so much footage where you see prims floating all over the classroom” Drax says (starting at around the 1:25 mark). “We gave the students scripts and let them play with the prims, and we filmed everything in real-time in Second Life and in the classroom at the same time. It was not a structured lesson; we weren’t teaching them scripting or coding. They weren’t doing that per se, but they were learning as they played.”

Istanbul University is the perfect focal point for a broader examination of immersive environments in education for a number of factors. It has around 200,000 students, many of whom come from far afield, marking it a melting point of cultures and social influences, any of which might influence the depth of affective filtering any particular student might already naturally feel.

Professor Irfan Simsek offers a helping hand to a student

Through Tuncer Can and Irfan Simsek, the University has been involved in using Second Life as an educational tool for a decade. This give the professors an in-depth perspective on how immersive tools might be used, and – through their technical abilities – a keen understanding of what the future of VR might bring and what are, for the time being at least, the limitations of the new wave of VR systems.

Some of this is touched upon in the video. Again as an example, take Erasmus City, as visited in the segment. It’s a unique environment, allowing students who are about to study at the university to visit it in virtual form, and gain a broader understanding of what their time at the university – and after – will be like. It’s a fascinating take on student orientation which not only helps students better understand the university and manage their expectations, but also offers a unique opportunity for social interaction between students before they even arrive in Istanbul.

Technology-wise, the focus right now is on the new era of VR as personified by the broad range of VR systems from the high-end HTC Vive through to elements such as Cardboard and Daydream. But, as Tuncer touches upon in the video, this entire new ecosystem is actually a big unknown, and raises more questions than it answers. This is not just an issue of cost of high fidelity headsets – specifically mentioned towards the end of the piece – it is the whole ethos of approach.

Erasmus City – offering students a virtual orientation to life at the physical world Istanbul University

“VR is at a point of transition,” Drax elaborates in our conversation. “We don’t know where it is headed. It’s fascinating, but there is nothing out there that really works. That’s something a lot of educators are questioning; there really isn’t a platform like Second Life. High Fidelity is way too complicated, and Sansar is not open yet.

“So this is where we’re stuck right now. Of course there’s Google Expeditions, and things like that, but right now only Second Life is out there and is known to work. And the price point, raised by Tuncer, is a legitimate point.  People will of course say, ‘Well, you can always get Google Cardboard and let students us their own devices’. But students using their own devices is an issue for some schools. So, where VR is concerned, there’s a whole set of issues which no-one is really addressing.”

Second Life, however has addressed many of the questions. Its success as an educational tool lies within its track record of use across a range of teaching disciplines. It is not something that is going to go away as use of consumer-based VR grows in use. But it is something which will remain relevant for some time to come and – for the wise at least – inform them as to how VR should be considered in the educational realm.

Once again, Drax has delivered another outstanding segment for World Makers, one which in itself see a return to the seeds of the show, in that like the first in the series, it is led by Drax himself – although this time purely in the form of a narrative voice over. It’s the perfect way to round-out the circle for the series.

Music and experimentation in Second Life

nnoiz Papp in the flesh
nnoiz Papp in the flesh

Drax Files: World Makers 43, released on Wednesday, February 1st, takes us back to the world of music in Second Life; specifically that of nnoiz Papp. As someone who has a deep appreciation of classical music, and who very much enjoys music with an electronic flavour and can wrap itself around Middle Eastern and Far Eastern themes and ideas, I have to say that the piece came as something of an eye-opener to me, as I’ve somehow managed to miss nnoiz’s music thus far – but having seen the segment, it is something I’m liable to be keeping an eye out for in the future.

nnoiz’s life very much revolves around music. His physical work has him providing sound and music for the animated television series, Sendung mit der Maus  (The Show with the Mouse), which has been running since 1971,  and is Germany’s longest-running animated children’s show. With a strong educational leaning, it has won 75 awards over the years. and has drastically altered perceptions around the value of television as a tool for learning with youngsters in Germany. nnoiz first became involved in it in 1984, and also works on the spin-off series Die Sendung mit dem Elefanten (The Show with the Elephant), aimed at pre-school youngsters, which launched in 2007 – the year he also got involved in Second Life.

Nnoiz Papp in the pixels
Nnoiz Papp in the pixels

In-world, he is able to bring together an engaging mix of classical-based, electronically inspired music which he describes as organic. It’s a description I’d agree with, intertwining contemporary, electronic / industrial beats with the more assured, mature influences of classical pieces and middle-eastern influence to produce something entirely harmonic, pleasing to the ear and very much alive.

nnoiz is very much an experimentalist within music – and Second Life is perhaps an ideal environment for such experimentation. Not only does it offer the chance to reach a global audience through in-world concerts and gigs, it is also a unique environment in which music and sound can be played with physically.

The original plug & play - nnoiz working at his modular synthesisers
The original plug & play – nnoiz working at his modular synthesisers

In his liner notes, Drax draws a line between nnoiz’s work at that of Wendy Carlos, and it is not in any way a stretch. For me, on hearing the excerpts of nnoiz’s music, together with learning about his work with modular synthesisers – something which carried me back to reading about and listening to the late Isao Tomita. Again, both men share similar ground in the avant-garde of music, whilst remaining true to some of the great composers of the past (I particularly enjoyed catching J.S. Bach woven into one of nnoiz’s pieces, Bach also being a favourite with Tomita).

This is a World Makers piece which largely speaks for itself – although non-German speakers should ensure they have subtitles enabled when watching! – and as such, extensive commentary from me risks adding hyperbole to what really is an excellent piece.

nnoiz's other alter-ego (who shares billing with nooiz): The Singing Cat
nnoiz’s other alter-ego (who shares billing with nooiz): The Singing Cat

That said, and in case you do find dealing with sub-titles a little difficult, I do urge you do watch the segment through to the end. From the 3:45 mark nnoiz offers some pithy insights into clichéd views on Second Life, included the tired old (and wholly incorrect) view that you “cannot” understand Second Life without entering into its smuttier side. As nnoiz points out, it is possible to visit a city and entirely its seedier side, unless that is your intention for visiting – which is something else entirely. So the idea that SL is “all about the sex”, or any exploration of SL “must” include sex, is a very erroneous position to take.

As this segment of World Makers again demonstrates, SL is so rich and vibrant a melting pot of experiences, ideas, explorations and opportunities, that someone entering it doesn’t necessarily have to jump into its “dirty corners” in order to fully and roundly appreciate it.

The Drax Files 42: creativity and remembrance in Second Life

Jaimy Hancroft and two of her father's creation: a warnamandal, and on the wall behind her, a mirror painted by Mario
Jaimy Hancroft and two of her father’s creation: a swarmandal, and on the wall behind her, a mirror painted by Mario

Dangarnon, The Spires of Andolys, Hope’s Horizon – for anyone who loves Relay for Life of Second Life, these are the names of places which brought to life the three ems, each of them being mythical, mystical and magical. They are also places designed by sisters Jaimy Hancroft and Eowyn Swords, who together form Death Row Designs (DRD), featured in The Drax Files World Makers #42, released on Friday, December 16th.

For those who don’t attend Fantasy Faire, Jaimy, Eowyn and DRD are perhaps better know through their participation in gacha (or gatcha if you prefer) events, such as The Arcade. Through these, their items have also gained popularity in public and role-play regions. Their broken Ferris wheel, for example, can frequently be found as one travels across the grid looking for places to explore.

The DRD Arctic Express
The DRD Arctic Express

Gacha events are loved by some and a total mystery to others. Entire events are devoted to them – The Arcade, mentioned above, being perhaps the most popular / prominent.  However, for those unfamiliar with the The Drax Files World Makers #42 provides a solid introduction during its first half. But this isn’t the heart of the DRD story; that belongs firmly to the second half of the segment, in which Jaimy shares the origins of her creativity with us, which is deeply rooted in the memory of her father, Mario, and his creative influence over her.

“He could fix anything,” Jaimy says of him. “He did woodwork, he built [musical] instruments, he painted landscapes. And he also recreated famous paintings, but in miniature just with only one hair of a brush and a magnifying glass. He was the first one of us, I think, to be in Second Life.”

The Disney-like Spires of Andolys, Fantasy Faire 2015
The Disney-like Spires of Andolys, Fantasy Faire 2015

Jaimy’s own artistic talent revealed itself from an early age through art, but under her mother’s encouragement, directed her talent into cuisine, attending culinary school. As she notes, as a means of artistic expression, it is somewhat akin to other creative endeavours, taking as it does,raw ingredients to create something unique.

But it is Mario’s influence that has had the greatest impact on Jaimy’s and Eowyn’s work in Second Life, and is honoured in many ways through the goods they produce. It is also the reason they have been so deeply involved in Fantasy Faire and RFL of SL – perhaps most memorably in 2014, when Jaimy built Hope’s Horizon, inspired by Tolkien’s great city of Minas Tirith, for that year’s Fantasy Faire.

“He was a major Lord of the Rings fan,” Jaimy noted at the time, “and this was my chance to do something great to make him proud.” Anyone who visited Hope’s Horizon will acknowledge that it was inspirational in its scope, and a fabulous tribute to her father.

The citadel at the top of Hope's Horizon, built by Jaimy for the 2014 Fantasy Faire, and in memory of her late father
The citadel at the top of Hope’s Horizon, built by Jaimy for the 2014 Fantasy Faire, and in memory of her late father

It would perhaps have been nice to catch more of a glimpse of the path  Jaimy took to move from cuisine to Second Life and digital creativity, but this is really a very minor niggle. What we have here is a poignant story, told honestly and from the heart, without any overlay of pathos, told honestly and openly.

Presented in this way, the segment stands as a further tribute to Mario, as well as giving us a glimpse into Jaimy’s own warm nature and the creativity she shares with her sister. As such, it really doesn’t need a lengthy written exposition; it speaks clearly and eloquently for itself and is a fitting piece for the time of year, and with which to see out 2016.