Teen Second Life: A virtual learning experience?

teensl.jpgI’m baking homemade apple-cranberry pie for my pile of holiday guests arriving, and the scent of cinnamon wafting through the kitchen makes me realize this is one sensory, tactile, shared experience with my child that surely can’t be replicated with a media experience…Even in the surreal 3-D virtual world of Second Life.

What is Second Life? A simulated world that’s quickly becoming a virtual boom town of over 2 million residents and explosive growth.

People create avatars to represent themselves as any race, gender, age, or personality they wish. You can mirror how you really look, or depart completely from your style and go gonzo to try on a different self and be whoever you want to be.

3-D platforms like Teen Second Life (13-17 year olds) open up new ways of learning, identity exploration, behavioral experimentation and self-expression without stumbling into dicey terrain ‘outside the grid’ in SL’s larger virtual world.

I’m not wild about some of the toxic body image messaging with certain creepy, kooky avatars but hey, it’s fascinating, mind-bendingly creative, inspiring in potential, and a haven for self-expression…

It could EVOLVE into a cutting edge think-tank of youth innovation, OR DEVOLVE into yet another sleazy appearance-based vapid hook-up opportunity or new media platform for marketers to sell stuff.

Either way, it bears watching in the kids arena…

A full immersion web experience has the potential to do a lot of good things, depending on whose light saber you’re drawing from, so to speak.

Today, for example, MIT Professor and gaming guru Henry Jenkins will be ‘in world’ on Global Kids’ island for a dance party and live audio stream as part of TSL’s “A World Fit for Children Festival.” His talk is titled “We’re not playing around here!–The pedagogical potential of computer and video games.”

Though Professor Jenkins is funded by the gaming industry, he usually has a considerable amount to say, in his blog, or in person…and this topic hints of the surge in ‘serious’ social impact games which has the power to engage kids in some incredibly beneficial interactive ways.

Wish I could Tivo, Sling, or time-shift the professor’s virtual gig but I have REAL world holiday airport pickups with family arriving for Christmas.

CAN a presentation taking place in a virtual world be time-shifted?

Give it a sec if it hasn’t been done yet. The fact that I’d even ponder it is a media morph of epic proportion.

It reveals how media has altered life in the 21st century already, and tips me off that I’m spending WAY too much time in Silicon Valley geek chic circles.

Guess it’s time to go immerse myself in nature’s cathedral to hike the redwoods, smell the sap of pine, cuddle with my animal friends, or bake another fragrant hot apple pie.

Still, TSL’s Global Kids dance party has captured my attention for a variety of reasons…

For starters, Global Kids is a NONPROFIT seeded and growing within an alternate reality, so you can see why Shaping Youth is VERY interested to see how this plays out.

Second, it’s part of Digital Media Initiative’s UNICEF project where teens have learned about worldwide issues and teamed among themselves to build Second Life exhibits and try to create some answers for some pretty hefty problems, from youth poverty to health care.

Then there’s the whole ‘dance’ aspect which boggles my brain…

Something about avatars meeting up in the Huntley Ballroom to boogie at 2:00pm (PST) before hearing Jenkins speak at 3:00pm (PST) poses all kinds of questions for me…

Do virtual teens try out their new moves here? Does an avatar ‘sit one out’ or ‘get rejected’ like a teen peer group in real life where kids judge each other on appearance and quirkiness factors? Hmn.

You can probably tell my cerebral cortex is swinging like a metronome when it comes to viewing the context of virtual reality for kids, since it all depends on where the content lands.

As with anything, the media’s merit is based on what people do with it.

One glimpse of their movie trailer contest eludes to the limitless scope of this virtual vision.

What happens when teen thought leaders around the globe are given tools to literally shape the world around them?

I’m cautiously optimistic, and would love to see this platform used for making a difference in this ol’ world. (the real one, that is!)

The TSL ‘happening’ today takes place within the New Media Consortium Campus which was expressly designed to:

“…encourage explorations both formal and informal, traditional and nontraditional, real and surreal, and serious and play-like…the spaces are flexible and will lend themselves to additional uses, yet to be defined.”

So…the Jenkins event is apparently one of those “events” that has “defined itself.”

The NMC Campus was ‘built’ within Second Life to provide researchers and students dozens of settings for experiments in social interaction in 3-D space…a virtual laboratory of sorts for educational gaming and massively multi-player online environments.

NMC member orgs and collegiate faculty members get a better handle on emerging technology using this central hub simulating the teen scene.

The sim part is what really intrigues me…In fact, at the Guidewire Leadership Forum a couple weeks ago, I found myself seated at the dinner table with none other than Second Life Founder & CEO of Linden Lab, Philip Rosedale.

He talked about how SL is gaining global mindshare as an alternative media form, with some whopping educational uses in the simulation arena.

So far media articles have focused more on the adult grid of avatars in SL, emphasizing the provocative role playing, identity morphing and entrepreneurial aspects of buying and selling in a real world economy, with business transactions in dollars that are far from fictitious drawings.

But THINK of the opportunity for teens to bridge past racial stereotyping or peer conflict struggles, safely ‘act out’ social simulations or identity exploration…work together as teams on a global scale from ecosystems to urban planning, microlending, preventive health care and socioeconomic simulations.

Makes me think of the Food Force United Nations game and the ways kids can learn by doing.

Also reminds me of all the interactive promotional work I’ve written for avatar based interactive education, like ‘Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing’ for Broderbund software or The Interactive Courtroom used at Stanford Law.

I wrote a headline that sums up how simulations can work like training wheels in a virtual world setting; like a flight simulator for lawyers: “Eliminate the process of trial and error, because there’s no room for error in a trial.”

Any pilot or trial lawyer with a life in their hands would no doubt agree, fouling up in virtual sim is the way to go…This applies to teen life too.

Educational simulations like these could light up the NMC campus within TSL, not to mention all the other positive, engaging ways to extract meaningful interactions, team-building and interpersonal skills.

Teaching-wise, SL is already there. There’s a mirror replica of the Harvard law school building in SL which has already been used to teach a collegiate class, so this is not ‘coming soon’ technology use…it’s up & running.

For more, here’s a peek into the teen grid via interview with a TSL teacher in “Second Opinion” using the 3-D platform to teach programming and scripting to teens.

The NMC “Teacher’s Buzz Session” is slated for January 8, 2007, but they’ve already had several popular field trips (Morocco!) and are gearing up for new ‘in world’ experiences under construction, including the Machinima complex, new theaters, a biosphere, and a trauma center simulation.


SL’s also working with In Kenzo for a large scale in-world event on social issues in early February, and “a new welcome area for newbies, so they are not thrown off by the chaos of Orientation Island.”

Speaking as one who is “newer than a newbie,” it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the whole concept…so…

Here’s a glimpse of how Teen Second Life works written by a 16-year old who blogged about her ‘entry’ from the get-go.

She sums up how she entered TSL and used virtual reality as an education and awareness building tool via the Global Kids’ Digital Media Initiative:

“Hello, everyone! My name is Mariel, I’m sixteen years old and I live in Mexico City.

I’ve been a member of Voices of Youth for the last two years, and quite recently I joined a joint project of Voices of Youth and Global Kids on Teen Second Life, a ‘game’ that I’m sure those leaders would have loved to have sixty years ago.

A ‘game’? I don’t think that’s an honest way to describe it. Despite the fact that it’s a computer program where you interact with others through your avatar, build, etc., it’s way more complex than a game. It’s virtual reality. It’s living whatever you please (and I do mean whatever) through a computer program.

The first day on TSL was overwhelming. I had NO idea of what to do. Thankfully, there was a guide for newcomers and Tabitha from Global Kids (among other kind people from TSL) to save my newbie soul. Now I’m a bit used to it, but I still have to learn how to do many things!

It is the first time in my life that I can say that imagination is the only limit we have to act. Literally, that happens on TSL. Do you need to take modeling shots to sell your clothing designs at your store? Do you want to have fun in a water park? Do you want to travel in your own supership? Do you want to organize or attend ceremonies? Do you want to build your own house? Do you want to chatter in the café? You can do it all.

How can this be related to activism, though? Well – a really brilliant group of people thought that, now that Internet and virtual reality play a really important part in young people’s lives, education and activism can take place through them. As a result, we can see Global Kids Island on Teen Second Life, the place where Global Kids and UNICEF’s contest is going to take place.

What would a world fit for children be like? Why is it important to work towards that goal? In the contest, Teen Second Life ‘residents’ (people who interact in the program) will provide us with their insight and ideas to work towards that goal. I will tell you more about this in the following posts.”

As I read on in the blog I found a couple of other quotes posted by teens that resonated with hope…

“Among individuals, as among nations, the respect to others’ rights is peace.”
“Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.”
-Benito Juárez (1806-1872)

“One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade”.
“Una generación planta los árboles; otra se cubre con su sombra”.
-Chinese proverb

Most kids may be more tuned into their ipod, IM or MySpace rather than this whole ‘beam me up Scotty’ virtual reality gig just yet…

…BUT…Shaping Youth is all about awareness and media literacy to see all sides of a media equation with a balanced perspective and see where we can tilt that content into a productive, proactive realm for a positive worldview for kids BEFORE it gets off track…

Personally, I’m struggling to keep up with my FIRST life, much less add a SECOND one, so I haven’t created my avatar yet and plunged in, but this whole thing intrigues me.

I may dive in to find a way to snag that audio file of Jenkins lecture today!

I’m far from naïve when it comes to knowing there are plenty of negative ways virtual reality can impact kids as the ‘next big media thang’ too, so I plan to tred lightly, filter the good stuff, and report back on the pros and cons we’ll all need to keep in mind navigating these new platforms.

It’s similar to my ‘take away’ from the dinner table that night with Philip Rosedale…he was dazzlingly brilliant and insightful, with a laser sharp mind and immense personal charm. He had my intellectual synapses pinging all over the map thinking of the positive uses for youth…I was enthralled.

I went from optimism to full recoil in a nanosecond when he said something along the lines of the virtual world someday becoming reality and reality relegated to the context of a museum…sigh.

Whoa, ace. Can’t embrace that one.

Made me want to unplug from the world completely, toss the laptop into the sea and do the whole Swiss Family Robinson nature scene, far, far away from anything electronic or buzzing.

Speaking of buzzing, my holiday apple pie is dinging for attention downstairs and pumpkin is up next. I can safely say, Second Life holds vast potential for youth arena…but virtual worlds DO have their limits…

A cinnamon scent module via media monitor will never cut it with me.

p.s. Blog update/post-Jenkins talk: Here are some of the photos they’ve posted from the virtual event on Flickr.

8/4/07 Update: I’ll need to do a sequel to this piece soon as SL and TSL have evolved significantly, but wanted to link to this great interview with their visionary honcho, Philip Rosedale, who I met at the Guidewire Group forum back in December…Barry from Global Kids and Mariel from VOY who commented here below all are in the piece as they discuss integration of education, vision and technology toward creating meaningful virtual worlds for teens.

Needless to say, Teen Second Life goes FAR beyond Zwinktopia dress up/hook up/chat fests with monosyllabic bubble talk, like ‘sup?’, thank gawd… Stay tuned, we’ll see what they’re up to next once I clear the deck a bit.



  1. Hello! This is Mariel from Mexico.

    First of all, thanks a lot for quoting my blog post. I seriously wouldn’t have expected anyone from outside VOY to read it.

    About the smell of the home-made pie, you’re right. Now matter how far technology goes, it can never ‘substitute’ the more tangible evidence human leaves behind. However, I don’t know how to make pies. If I tried, I’d poison a community and they’d come to check my house for radiactive residues. I’m that bad at cooking. Perhaps that’s why I find it fun for example, to e-bake an e-cake.

    I don’t think that whoever realised these digital media could give education a big hand did it because of their superneatness. I guess it’s got more to do with the fact that it’s a reality. I’ve been chatting and using the net everyday since I was 12 and, even if I’ve learned a lot from conversations with people from different ages, I think I would have spent the last four or five years in a better way if, for example, I had had access to programs like the ones held in Second Life. Now my younger brother (14) is spending hours as well in chats and Runescape, and I can’t wait until I can get him an account on TSL for him to actually begin learning other stuff while he plays.

    I’m a computer-addict. I admit it. There’s no day I don’t check my e-mail or chat with my ‘e-friends’, who pretty much know more about me than many people I know ‘offline’. As sad as that sounds, it’s helped me a lot. Perhaps my grades aren’t as good as they were before I discovered technology, but I’ve also had the opportunity to learn other things one doesn’t learn as well in school.

    Eh, well, sorry for the whole treaty in one comment… To conclude, yes. I don’t know how to bake a pie, nor how to walk in high heels (well, I didn’t do that badly xD), nor how to dance something you don’t learn in dance academies; however, it is thanks to technology that I like to think I’m actually taking action against educational issues offline, and that I have an idea of what I want to do with life. I guess one can’t learn it all in life, sadly.

    Thanks again and happy holidays!

  2. Mariel, Your voice is a strong one and it resonates with clarity as to why I feel youth are the ticket to getting the whole media message flowing in a positive direction…Feliz Navidad, and btw, when we get to podcasting some youth voices on the digital media front, would you consider being one of them? Keep in touch…Amy

  3. Happy new year! And of course. I’m not quite sure what you’re planning to do, but I can try to help, hehe.

  4. Nice site actually. Gone to my favourites. Thanks for creation.

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  6. HelloWorld says

    Peace people

    We love you

  7. I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Teen Second Life: A virtual learning experience?, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  8. i think second life and other virtual simulations are a good idea but teens cannot allow themselves to get too involved in them because while they reflect a little similarity to real life, burning something like an e-cake is never going to be like burning a cake in real life.
    .-= mark´s last blog ..Healthy Eating Tips =-.

  9. I agree, Mark…there are differentiated lines and boundaries that those who are media literate in virtual worlds adhere to and follow…Whereas those that are ‘just visiting’ tend to cross those lines regularly and blur/skew the dynamics to the point where they can even get hurt (e.g. emotional attachment to role play, e-romance, virtual sims w/characters in MMORPGs, etc.)

    It’s one of the main reasons I’m a huge fan of universal media literacy, because when age barriers and teen developmental appropriateness get tossed by the wayside we end up with some unfortunate turns of events…(like some of the 4th & 5th graders in schools I work with accessing their sibling’s social network and WAY outta their league on a variety of levels)

    That said, virtual sims ARE awesome for RP and ‘doing good’ as well…and yep, as we come upon Thanksgiving, family, friends and such, I double-dog-dare anyone who can ever come up with a replacement for a genuine, sincere, hearfelt face to face human hug and the smell of pumpkin pie. 😉 heh.

    Happy Thanksgiving! Thanks for taking the time to comment…checking out your site now!
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Fun Tips for Thanksgiving: Ethics, Priorities & Media Moments =-.

  10. Any more news on Henry’s appearance?

  11. Teen SL will be integrated with the main grid soon. We’ll have more younger residents around. I hope that Linden Lab is ready for it.

  12. No kidding. Ironically, I’m interviewing Linden Labs’ Terrence Cummings about the transition on Wednesday…(already talked to Barry Joseph at Global Kids on Facebook a tad) so watch for posts coming up soon… I went in and checked out the new GK hub and wandered around a tad…

    Keep me posted? 😉 Amy

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