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Virtual Environments beyond the Computer Game

The last session on this first day of PerthDAC focusses on virtual worlds in games and beyond, and begins with a paper by Nicola Bidwell, David Browning, and my colleague Jane Turner. Their work is related to the ACID project Digital Songlines, and are interested in developing digital representations in which the landscape itself matters - this is not about games for play, but bout virtual worlds as representations. Most current game worlds represent experience from a designed path, and this carving of paths is enmeshed in a western ideology of human power over landscape; landscape is only a passive framework for narrative. The Digital Songlines environment, by contrast, is an environment in which the landscape matters; it was developed in collaboration with the indigenous design company CyberDreaming and the indigenous people of south-west Queensland. The gameplay tools in this world interfere with the experience of this simulated world as first-hand, though, as does the embedded, usually tacit knowledge of the indigenous custodians of the land.

So, how can such problems be overcome - how do people actually interact with landscapes? An egocentric point of view only captures participants' unreflective visual and audio landscapes, but how do people recreate and augment space, how do they customise it through their own mnemonic tools, how do they make meaning from the landscape? What is necessary here is insight into the in situ dialogue between participants, spatial resources and researchers. Such shared context is a form of indexicality, and informs interaction with the landscape.

Caroline McCaw is next, whose focus is especially on Second Life. She notes that this virtual environment does not have an inherent in-world game narrative, but is instead simply a simulated world. Common criticisms of Second Life include the pervasive normalising avatar design choices, the highly economically-driven framework for interactions within the space, and the highly colonial, 'terra nullius' approach to dealing with landscape in the environment. There is now also a growing range of Second Life art, promoted in part also by a Second Life art stream as a distance component of the ISEA2006 conference - this includes a form of in-world performances described as 'hyperformalism', and links to a wider range of digital performance and hypertext art.

Second Life (and Second Life art) in particular, however, builds especially on landscape metaphors, linking perhaps to social and nostalgic ideas of landscape as uncolonised by humans; Caroline, who is based in Dunedin, links this to similar portrayals of New Zealand during its period of settlement as untouched, malleable territory - which then suggests a comparison between Linden Corporation as the provider and creator of space in Second Life to the idea of the Christian god of the European arrivals to New Zealand as the creator of that supposedly virgin landscape. More work to be done in relation to participants' perception of landscape in Second Life, then!

Finally on to Gaye Swinn and Jenny Lade, then. They suggest that it is time for computer science in university games development programmes to make more room for women, minorities, artists, and other groups traditionally locked out of the processes of the games industry. Virtual worlds have been around forever, stemming back right to ancient cave paintings, and act both as a window (into another world) and a mirror (of our own); indeed, any new media technology creates a new range of virtual worlds, and often the void created by the common reluctance for artists to become involved with such worlds is filled all too quickly by technocratic approaches. The problem here is that (as Hannah Arendt said) 'what we make, makes us' - these patterns, once set, affect future development possibilities, of course. Where are the non-conformists, the objectors in digital spaces like Second Life? We must begin to deal with the other in such spaces, to start a dialogue between different participants. How can we act between the window and the mirror, how can we distinguish between fantasy and reality in the virtual world?

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