The Virtual School, the Better Choice?

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Dr. James L. Moore

 

 

As an education major at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, I have a particular interest in different ways students can learn. When my class read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, there were parts of the novel that denoted different ways in which the main character, Wade Watts (avatar Parzival online) learned and studied in a virtual world called the OASIS. What was most interesting is this apparent dichotomy between learning in a physical versus learning in a virtual setting. It appears that the OASIS, as you will soon come to learn in the opening chapter, emphasizes virtual components as the main vehicle of getting really almost anything done. Along with currency and communication being almost completely virtual, the schools seem to be as well. Taking a look at a quote in the beginning of the book,

” I was more or less raised by the OASIS’s interactive educational programs, which any kid could access for free. I spent a big chunk of my childhood hanging out in a virtual-reality simulation of Sesame Street, singing songs with friendly Muppets and playing interactive games that taught me how to walk, talk, add, subtract, read, write, and share,” (Cline 15).”

This quote points out the power of Virtual reality in promoting the healthy social/emotional development of students a an early age. An award winning and in my opinion one of the best, highest quality children’s programs of all time, Jim Henson’s Muppets- Sesame Street- Cline discusses through the main character how certain elementary concepts and lessons on social skills could be learned at a more interactive, much more tailored pace through this use of virtual education. Let’s take a look at a video that relates to this (Video #65 on the list:

After watching this, you may recall Dr. James L Moore III remarking that, “We need schools that are student centered and always factor in the human element.” This is juxtaposed with this idea of virtual learning that is the way of learning and understanding in the OASIS. What is better? Virtual learning to give an extremely tailored learning experiences to almost all students, or more expensive individualized learning, with a physical presence of a teacher?

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Harassment in VR Spaces

(Spoiler warning for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline in first two paragraphs. Links contain sensitive content relating to sexual harassment in online/gaming communities.)

Ready Player One: 80’s nostalgia trip, celebration of gamer culture, cyberpunk dystopia, hero’s quest, and – teenage love story? I’ll admit, I haven’t finished the book yet, but from the beginning our protagonist Will Wade/Parzival is smitten with Art3mis, a fellow gunter and popular online personality. He even has pictures of her (or at least, her avatar) saved on his hard drive. When he first encounters Art3mis in the Tomb of Horrors, he gives her advice on how to beat the lich king. Once they’re both High Five celebrities on the famed scoreboard, they begin a casual romance. Art3mis breaks it off when she feels their time together has become too much of a distraction from the hunt. Parzival, lovesick, sends her unread messages, flowers, and stands outside of her virtual castle with a boombox: part persistent “good guy,” part slightly creepy stalker.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One has not (yet) examined gender politics on the OASIS, but it acknowledged the age-old mantra: “There are no girls on the Internet.” Even in a world where virtually the entire population uses OASIS and a game event with a massive prize, the default is presumed male. Parzival persistently questions Art3mis’s gender until he is assured that she’s “actually” female, accusations that Art3mis takes with good humor.

(Spoilers end here.)

But as we all know, there are women on the internet and in the gaming world, and they have been there since the beginning – even when the climate is hostile. Shortly after starting Ready Player One I found this article about the writer Jordan Belamire’s experience with sexual harassment in virtual reality. Despite all players having identical avatars, another player recognized her voice as female and followed her around attempting to touch her avatar inappropriately. She finally exited the game. The game’s developers were shocked and dismayed when they heard of the incident and in response developed an in-game “power gesture” that creates a privacy bubble around the player. They hope that other virtual reality developers will take harassment into consideration when designing their games. Online or in-game harassment is nothing new, but as we pioneer exciting new platforms and experiences, it continues to be a thorn in the community’s side.

Ready Player One might take place in the distant dystopian future, but in characters’ interactions with each other the culture seems closest to the Wild West of the 2000s internet – complete with flame wars and skepticism on women’s presence in the OASIS. Presumably, harassment continues to be an issue in this brave new world of the OASIS – but is the response closer to QuiVr’s developer-implemented “power gesture,” or the old advice of “just ignore it and it will go away?” Perhaps it isn’t even a talking point in the OASIS’s community – why worry about it when, after all, there are no girls on the internet?

What do you think of QuiVr developers’ response in implementing the power gesture? Do you think that this is a valid solution, or do you believe it is too much/too little?  What responses to harassment have you seen on other platforms and games?

Character development and communication in gaming

There are a lot of ways that characters can be developed in games. This could be something as simple as their communications with other characters in the game, dialogue, or simply a narrative. Every game has a different approach to the way they develop their characters, however almost every game depends on some form of communication to achieve this. Some of my most favorite games such as the Ratchet and Clank series on the Play Station Portable follow the idea of using a narrative to develop characters. The game uses short films in the middle of game play to both develop characters and further the plot of the game. This form of character and plot development is seen quite often in many games.

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https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/ratchet-and-clank-size-matters-psp/

Journey is one game that uses a very different way to develop the main character and communicate between characters and the gamers. Journey is set in a vaguely Egyptian region, with appearances of several things such as many glyphs and symbols and of course the figure that possibly depicts the Egyptian goddess Isis, that point to this Egyptian influence. The way this game communicates between characters and gamers is something I have never seen before and find very interesting. Throughout the game, we control a robed figure that travels through a desert towards the mountains in the distance. What’s surprising to me was that the game had no mechanics allowing us to communicate with other characters, and we didn’t even see any cinematic scenes where the characters talked.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_(2012_video_game)

We start off as single player but often come across other characters, soon to realize that these are actually other players playing the game from around the world. Usually in cases like this, you would expect to be able to communicate with those players, for example, in Lord of the Rings Online, the world chat enables us to communicate with those characters, and we can also interact with them, and challenge them to duels or form a fellowship with them. However, in Journey, we can’t do any of this and the only possible way we could “communicate” with those characters is by “singing” and signaling to them. I found this form of communication very interesting, and after watching a couple of walkthroughs, I found that gamers ethos plays a big part in the game. I saw that many gamers would guide new gamers through the game and wait for them as they followed them – even though they didn’t actually know them. The game has an overlaying theme of maternity and has a very calm feel to it, and the actions of the gamers really represents it. The game shows clear and definite themes of romance, and this game really shows that games allow portray their creativity by using familiar themes in and shows that the same effects can be achieved in different mediums in variety of different ways.

Allegory, whether you like it or not

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From quotefancy

I’m sorry, Tolkien – I love your work and all, but this is happening.

Per the quote above, and the message in the foreword, it’s not incredibly hard to figure that Tolkien was not fond of allegory and especially its application to his work. While the times might indicate that the War of the Ring has some pretty strong parallels to some of the recent events of the time (namely World War II), Tolkien and his followers have strongly protested this idea, and said they had nothing to do with each other. And others have connected his work to religious texts, namely the Bible (Frodo as Jesus, Melkor as Lucifer, etc.), which would (and likely has been refuted by his fans).

Unfortunately for Tolkien and many of his fans, that’s not really the way literary criticism and allegory works. The intent of the author is not necessarily considered when reviewing texts and parallels with other texts. Even if Dante Alighieri had not planned on making his own epic journey through Hell laden with images of his political rivals, the parallels between his depictions of members of society and his expulsion and dissatisfaction with how Florence was conducting itself were not invisible, and connections can be made.

So it is with Tolkien. Allegory doesn’t require the author to have written the text with allegory in mind. And as it is, many writers write things with parallels that are discovered after the fact and that were completely unintentional. Unfortunately for Tolkien, his Catholic upbringing and fellowship with writers like C.S. Lewis allow there to be a solid injection of hidden meanings and ideals thrown into the mix.

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of religious allegory, the makings are there. As previously mentioned, there are characters who bear resemblances to Biblical figures – Frodo carries the ring (sins of the world) and he alone is capable of making the sacrifice necessary to destroy it; Melkor was an Ainur (essentially angel) and corrupted many Maiar (lesser angels) to follow him, including Sauron and the balrogs; other examples that elude me.

There are plenty of unintentional allegories that exist in the world. You don’t have to look much further than this year: “Warcraft,” the fantasy movie based on the strategy game series, has been linked by some Redditors to the Syrian refugee crisis despite preceding the crisis by decades. And even if Tolkien is sincere in saying no allegory is meant to exist within The Lord of the Rings, it exists.

And even if it can be vehemently ripped apart and destroyed, the story is good enough stand alone; in fact, if the reason Tolkien was and Tolkienites are so vehemently against the trilogy as being described as allegory was/is to establish it as a root text for future allegories, I’ll gladly support it.

 

Ever, Jane: Mansfield Park and MMORPGs

Every MMORPG I’ve ever played has had murder as a basic and essential game mechanic. Need to complete a quest, advance a level, acquire an item? Better go kill a dozen wolves/bandits/pirates/mages so that you can get enough exp/gold to… buy more powerful weapons and kill stronger wolves/bandits/et cetera. Even in Lord of the Rings Online’s Shire area has kill quests – there are hobbit-suited quests like delivering mail and avoiding nosy neighbors, but there are also assignments to kill bears and slay wolves, even if the books themselves say it’s been generations since wolves appeared in the Shire. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this style of gameplay, but it’s become so ingrained into the MMO experience thatI I’ve come to assume it’s essential.

Enter Ever, Jane, an online roleplaying game currently in open Beta that is based on the novels of Jane Austen.

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The village of Tyrehampton. Screenshot from Ever, Jane.

Yes, Jane Austen. Set in Austen’s vision of early 19th-century Regency England, Ever, Jane allows players to create a character who – instead of climbing levels and increasing their strength, defense, HP, and other familiar stats – will develop traits called Status, Happiness, Kindness, Duty, and Reputation. Instead of kill quests, players may embark on ‘stories’ with or without the help of other players. As the game’s website says, “It’s not about kill or be killed but invite or be invited. Gossip is our weapon of choice. Instead of raids, we will have grand balls. Instead of dungeons, we will have dinner parties.”

Unlike Lord of the Rings Online, where roleplaying is only encouraged and required on specific servers, roleplaying appears to be the heart of Ever, Jane: players are encouraged to stay in-character at all times, build storylines with other players, and adhere to role-playing etiquette. However, the game’s stories and character traits introduce more traditional elements of gameplay that players of other MMORPGs might expect. Balls and dinner parties act like special events (or exclusive dungeons) where a player must meet certain requirements to enter; mini-games will simulate era-appropriate pastimes which help increase stats. Instead of slaying your enemy in PvP, you can ruin their reputation with gossip.

I was impressed with the creators’ passion to translate the experience of Jane Austen novels into a gaming experience — especially an MMO. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for instance, lends itself easily to action and adventure. To adapt Austen’s works the creators needed to challenge the basic notions of what an MMORPG is and cut away the stereotypes of the medium to get to the heart: community.

An online game based around Jane Austen novels might sound like a niche product, but it’s a niche with an enthusiastic fan base: during the game’s Kickstarter campaign, 1,600 backers pledged $109,563. As the game passes through its Open Beta and into full launch, it will be interesting to see which classical MMORPG elements will be integrated and altered to suit the game’s goals and which won’t be invited to the dinner party.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Is it really an allegory?

To be honest, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t think that it could be allegorical of anything at all. It was a highly fictional world with Elves and Dwarves and Magical Rings that are just too imaginative to be part of the real world. To me, Lord of the Rings was nothing more than the product of Tolkien’s fantastic imagination and dedication towards creating such a detailed world. All I saw was a writers’ great enthusiasm towards the concept of this imaginary world in which all the creatures from the fairy tales we all have read live together.

To be fair, I was 15 at the time so I’m not surprised to see how my recent readings of this series has completely changed its meaning – not going to lie, I enjoyed my first reading far more than my recent ones, just because I was able to immerse myself into this fantastical world and almost become a part of the story. In recent readings, however, I have been much more aware of what is actually happening in the story and have often connected aspects of it to the real world. By doing so, I did cut out on some of the fun of reading it, but my recent readings of the series have been far more memorable, just because they now feel a little more realistic.

In the foreword, Tolkien bluntly states that “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” In short, THIS BOOK IS NOT ALLEGORICAL OF ANYTHING – And my first reading of this book is representative of exactly this. As the story progressed, I went along with Frodo and Sam on their quest and felt the same things as they would have felt – the book most definitely held the attention of its readers. What really strengthens this idea that Lord of the Rings is purely fictional is that Tolkien just didn’t stop at this book, but wrote almost 12 more books on the history and lore of Middle Earth. He was just trying his best to make a complete fictional world.

However, at this point it’s just difficult for me to think that this book (and all the books preceding or following it) does not pull from the events around Tolkien in his time. The overlaying themes of good versus evil is something that was (and is) highly prominent at the time given that this book was written shortly after the first World War and was followed by the second World War. The number of parallels that can be drawn between the book and the state of the world at that time make it very difficult to agree with the fact that this book was written as pure fiction. Sure, the book is not a direct allegory of real events such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which it is clear that each character represents a person in the real world, but it is most definitely not pure fiction.

Looking at the allegorical aspects of Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s comments about how the book was not intended to be allegorical of the war, one question that came to my mind was that can anything be pure fiction? Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings during a time of great social and political turmoil and it is hard to think that those ideas were not part of his subconscious while writing the book. It is extremely difficult not to include aspects of the real world in writing and almost impossible to not be influenced by what is going on around you. In my public speaking course, we have been talking about informative speeches and how it is necessary to be unbiased in such speeches. During our discussions, I realized that it is really difficult not to include any of your own opinions to be part of your speech in one way or another. In the same way, I’m certain that Tolkien definitely had some opinions on the state of the world at that time, and at some point some of these ideas were bound to bleed into his writing. Perhaps, this is why he states that the book was not intended to be an allegory, but the ideas presented in the book are highly applicable to the real world and this is just a result of some of his own opinions being reflected in his writing. Taking a look at another ‘fictional’ series, Harry Potter once again deals with highly imaginative topics such as wizards and fantastic beasts. However, it is quite often debated that this series too has some allegorical aspects with respect to religion. Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings, themes that are shared with christianity are seen throughout the book, and I think it’s very possible that his interactions with C.S. Lewis could have been a contributing factor to that. After all, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is full of references to the Bible.

In the end, I agree with Tolkien on the statement that The Lord of the Rings was not written as an Allegory to the second World War, Christianity, or any of the many other ideas and themes that this book parallels. It was written as an attempt to entertain and excite readers and it does exactly that. However it is nearly impossible to write any work without being influenced by the culture and society around you and The Lord of the Rings is a result of the events happening around the time it was written, blending into it. However, this actually doesn’t take away from the book but in fact, adds to it. By adding aspects to it that are representative of the real world, readers are able to connect with the book at a deeper level as they are familiar with the concepts being dealt with. It allows the readers to relate to the events taking place in the book and in some ways enhances their experience as the delve deeper into the world that the author has created for them.

Cavafy’s “Ithaca” and The Video Game Arms Race

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Don’t get caught up in this damn World of Warcraft arms race,” he told me. “You’ll only lose sight of why you enjoy the game in the first place.”

He was referring to the fact that in World of Warcraft, a game that we played together when I was younger, the developers constantly released new, awesome material that required your constant attention and dedication in order to master. A lot of this came in the form of high end “gear,” or equipment that would grant bonuses to a player’s abilities. Once you got towards the end of the new content, you might get diminishing returns on your investment in terms of stats, but it was still noticeable, and a lot of players still grind out countless hours for the sake of becoming a tiny bit stronger. I was one of those players.

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Though my old account has long since been deleted, this is some of the stuff I was working with. You tend to have a lot of free time when you get grounded as a teenager, and oh lord could WoW use every bit of it. There was a never-ending stream of items, equipment, skills and mounts to obtain and master. I’d spend a lot of time going through the same dungeons and events over and over in the hopes of getting some gear that I hadn’t gotten yet, half for my own abilities in the game and half for pride.

My dad would notice my reaction when I’d lose some sort of achievement that I wanted, and he’d usually get on me for not enjoying the game itself. You know, cuz that’s kinda the point of a game. I’d spend most of the time that I played with my dad looking forward to simply getting loot, losing track of what was most valuable about that time with my dad.

One of our favorite dungeons was called Karazhan; it was an old castle filled with all sorts of magic creatures and haunting spirits who held strong items and fun challenges.

This is but one of them, as our heroes attempt to defeat the actors in the play. The play changes between three random options, and in this one they try to defeat the Big Bad Wolf as he spontaneously chases random members of their party, who are designated as “Little Red Riding Hood,” all the while screaming “Come here little girl!”

Totally fun, right? I missed out on a lot of the pure enjoyment of the game because I was too concerned with the end result. Another good example comes from the final boss of Ulduar, an ancient Dwarven city dedicated to the mystical Titans who created this world.

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Besides the innovative combat, the stunning location and graphics, and the numerous challenges present for players, Ulduar offers some of the most expansive and immersive lore that I’ve ever encountered as a gamer. Hours of gameplay must be dedicated to reach this point, and we are given a lot of incredible story line along the way that culminates in our showdown with Yogg-Saron. This encounter is both extremely challenging and totally fun, but I spent most of this time worrying about what loot he was going to drop.

Had I not, I might have enjoyed the game as it was meant to be played. I couldn’t tell you now all the stuff that my characters possessed in this game, or even how much time I spent acquiring it. However, I can’t describe the nostalgia that I got when looking up videos to put in this blog. Each of them brought back individual memories with my dad, or they reminded me of how much fun I had immersing myself in one of the great games of our time.

This is all to say that we should take the message of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to heart, especially in gaming. If we start to stress too much about the end goals of the game, or keep chasing minor achievements and a minuscule leg up on other players, then we start to lose the reason that we play games like this in the first place.