An ongoing conversation on this blog focuses on the value of electronically simulated worlds as learning environments. A comment on our first post and the lively discussion at USIP over the summer have reignited my thinking on virtual simulations as learning tools and I think it has bubbled in to something to actually say on the subject – you can be the judge.
At the USIP event, Beth Noveck suggested that avatars are valuable because they reflect back our own behavior. Skip Cole suggested that our end goal for much of this work would be integrating realistic scenario design with virtual environments, ie. holodecks. Often we invoke MMORPGs as examples of spaces where social networks evolve in very complex, user created environments (see Rex’s insightful discussion on COIN sims with WoW references below). Still, I have a fundamental objection to using avatars for training.
Avatars do not and cannot convey complex human signals. It is possible that they never will. By design, every action by an avatar is the will of the user.
Take a simple example. Rexio and Garus happen to bump into each other outside the wailing caverns in the Barrens and Garus starts telling Rexio a long and, frankly, quite boring story about the unusual swift zhevra he just killed. As Garus goes on and on about the unusual hide and mane of the zhevra, Rexio, stands there in rapt attention, without interruption, and finally concludes with a resounding, “Well fought, sir!”
While Garus was rambling on and the player behind Garus, let’s call him Gary, was feverishly typing his epic tale, the player behind Rexio, let’s call him Amos, King of the Cosmos, could’ve actually been paying close attention, hanging on every word or he could’ve been surfing the web, he could’ve run to the refrigerator for a soda, he could’ve been on the phone to a friend (with the proper technology, he could be doing all three). None of the typical signals of boredom: rolling of his luminous, heavenly blue elven eyes, constantly looking at his gnomish timepiece, tapping his chain mail clad foot, yawning, etc – would be conveyed.
This is just one rather silly example of human signalling that is vital to every day interaction but completely missing from avatar interaction. My point is that avatars only convey what the user wants them to convey. Additionally, I would contend that this is both a function of technology and incentives.
Technology cannot currently integrate human behavior behind the keyboard. Sure, techies might suggest motion and bio tracking software that uses human signals to overlay behaviors on their avatars – but then, I think, users would be training themselves to avoid the biomedical conditions that lead to negative signals, not the negative signals themselves. I’ve learned how to be still and balance on a Wii Fit – still, I don’t presume that I’ve learned how to meditate. I think there is a very interesting analog in poker players that learn online versus those that learn in person – those that play online are very good at not conveying tells, but are often quite poor at reading other players (or tilting other players or resisting tilt or the other sorts of psychological warfare necessary for “good” play) – this is all anecdotal, of course – I’m open to evidence to the contrary. The point is that avatars can’t convey all of the complexities of human signals that are used in conversations.
And even if they could, why would they? In addition to the technology limitations, there are incentive problems for individual users in committing to convey negative signals. If there are negative consequences for negative signals that would otherwise be difficult to control in real human interaction, why not write subroutines that take out yawns, eye-rolling and all the other rude stuff we humans do to each other?
Amos, King of the – err, Rex runs a giant simulation, full of human interaction where his students learn that their actions have real effects on the world, mostly as a result of how they coordinate, cooperate and communicate with each other. Having run Carana eight or nine times now for more than 200 participants, I am firmly convinced that the main value and worth of the exercise as a teaching tool is that people learn about human interaction in complex social environments with pressing timelines and exogenous (and occasionally endogenous, participant created) shocks. I’ve had participants ask “What could I have done differently to convince them that they were making a mistake?” and others say “I finally understood what was going on in other similar conversations I’ve had in real situations like this.” I think this fundamental learning about not just what is said, but how it is said, is a vital component of using simulations for peacebuilding. Avatars can’t deliver that now, I don’t know if they ever will.