Digital Storytelling and Second Life

By Leena Pendharkar

Web 2.0, or the second wave of the Internet explosion, has brought with it an unprecedented level of media consciousness. While corporations have controlled film, television and music in the past, Web 2.0 has fostered decentralization of the industry, allowing for individuals to publish themselves on Internet channels and platforms like YouTube and Second Life.

This freedom in publishing creates a whole new set of questions and even aesthetics for not only users, but also for an educator teaching interactive storytelling. While in the past, interactive storytelling has been driven primarily by the Net and video game consoles, platforms like Second Life allow for new possibilities. As a recipient of the Fletcher Jones technology grant this semester, I decided to explore Second Life in my class.

Digital Storytelling is an LAS course that uses theories and practices from literature, screenwriting and game development to teach students how to create an interactive story from the initial concept to storyboards. An interactive story is defined as narrative that is nonlinear and allows for user choice, like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels.

I’ve had students write everything from a fiction piece about a little chicken trying to stop animal rights activists to a nonfiction piece about the history of the electronic music movement. Second Life is an ideal platform to explore not only because it is on the brink of technological innovation, but also because it is a clear example of what technologists define as the third level of interactivity when considering interactive, nonlinear storytelling.

According to the theory, which is based on the educational research of Piaget and Bruner, the first level allows a user to turn a device on, like a television. The second level allows a user to travel through a particular media, such as a DVD menu or the internet with a choice at each juncture. The final level, which in the past has been much more of a theoretical level, allows a user to develop and change the environment as he/she moves through the narrative, thus changing his/her experience. Second Life is a clear demonstration of this third level.

In my class, we dove right into Second Life, by setting up our avatars and going through the tutorials with relative ease. My goal was to have students explore Second Life a bit, then develop their own ideas for stories that could be based in Second Life. As we began to explore, however, students approached SL with a healthy dose of skepticism. They felt that the graphics in Second Life were far inferior to many of the video games they played, and it wasn’t interesting because there was no specific goal or outcome, like in a video game where the goal may be to “save the world.” In fact, they were resistant to developing stories in Second Life, because they felt that it was an inferior platform to a game console.

I was surprised by their reactions, but it was also an excellent launching pad for a discussion about user driven media. User driven media allows users to publish themselves in ways that weren’t possible in the past. In Second Life, this means that users are building and developing the world as they traverse through it, rather than only the developers from Linden Labs. While this might mean that the graphics as less sophisticated, the trade off is that the world is controlled and developed by regular people who want to participate in the community, and it grows as people see fit, instead of by the “man behind the curtain.”

This same point came up later in the semester when we had a producer come in from Current TV, a user driven TV network that allows for users to post documentaries, then vote for one ones they want to see on television. One piece, in particular, called Sideshow, about a phenomenon where predominantly African American youth drive their cars dangerously through Oakland, was done in a raw, rough style by a local filmmaker. The students felt that the piece wasn’t polished and therefore wasn’t very good.

However, I pointed out that he was a local filmmaker telling a story about his own community, rather than white reporters cleverly editing the piece and making the kids out to be villains. While the aesthetic may not be as slick as something on MTV or even the news, the filmmaker is telling a story about his own community, and could only do so because of his own unique access. We had an extensive discussion about this in class, and students finally began to see that users controlling the media could mean greater freedom of ideas.

The same concept or thought process could be applied to Second Life. In other words, a new type of aesthetic was developing because of the concept of media driven by the people. For these young students, they finally understood that while the “look” wasn’t slick, the idea of control was very different than with past forms of media.

As a teacher, this discussion was highly enlightening, and made me see how important it was as an educator to make sure that students were dissecting the ideas behind the images rather than simply taking them in for the visual and aesthetic qualities. With advertisers now cleverly taking on the same aesthetic as user driven media, it is critical for students to ask, who is developing this story, and what is their goal? Even within Second Life, I pointed out several spaces that are now cleverly embedding advising into various SL worlds, like Calvin Klein.

As the class continued through the semester, I posed several questions related to Second Life and media aesthetics on our class blog. The blog was an excellent springboard for many of the questions students had about interactive media and Second Life. As we progressed, students came to realize that Second Life in and of itself is not a “story” like a singular video game, but it is a platform in which stories can be developed. For their final projects, students developed their stories on whichever platform they decided. While the majority of students went with the Net or video game consoles, a couple of people did develop stories that were Second Life based. One in particular, about an FBI unit within Second stood out.

While using Second Life in the classroom provided certain challenges, it also opened up the door for very important discussions on new media aesthetics and the idea of media control. As user created media becomes more pervasive, a new visual and storytelling styles will also emerge. We are only at the beginning of a media revolution.

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