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August 21, 2014

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Virtual world, real college class

UNLV is the latest university to get with the Second Life program

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COURTESY OF LAWRENCE MULLEN

The avatars of UNLV professor Lawrence Mullen, far left, and students in his class gather in the virtual world Second Life. The two avatars wearing lingerie are tour guides for a class field trip to a fantasy world where many women are enslaved. Mullen is teaching an experimental class this semester in which students meet “in-world” - in Second Life - instead of in a classroom.

“Can I get a squealing wench?” asks bigbabyjezus Undercroft.

“No you can’t, babyjezus,” responds Kucinta Moody, a red-haired, lingerie-clad slave guiding Undercroft and other UNLV students through Kalana Mount, a fantasy village for role players in Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual world. The Squealing Wench is the name of a Kalana Mount tavern the group will visit.

It’s just another Tuesday for Undercroft and his classmates, who are studying societies and cultures in online environments with their professor, Lawrence Mullen.

At the start of each 75-minute class, Mullen and company log into Second Life, and their avatars — their digital incarnations — materialize on-screen.

Bigbabyjezus Undercroft, sporting a black suit, sunglasses and gaudy jewels, is actually Dane Young, a senior who enrolled in the course because he was an enthusiast of games, such as World of Warcraft, that take place in virtual worlds. He quickly discovered that unlike Warcraft, Second Life has no objectives — no monsters to slay, no quests on which to embark.

In Second Life, people do whatever they want — dance, shop, build homes, start businesses, or, in the case of Kalana Mount, act as slaves or slavers.

The diversity of activities in which users can engage is part of what makes Second Life appealing to colleges.

Scholars can conduct “in-world” interviews with Second Lifers who hail (in real life) from different countries, religions and fields of work. Mullen has four avatars, one of which is a “furry” — an animal-like incarnation — that he uses when studying communities of furries.

In Second Life, students can meet “face to face” without commuting to campus. Many of Mullen’s students log in for class from remote locations, including their homes and the UNLV library.

Some other imaginative uses: “You can simulate a large-scale anthrax outbreak ... You can walk around a model of a heart that is 6 stories tall. You can walk through the arteries,” said Sarah Robbins, a doctoral student at Ball State University in Indiana who co-wrote “Second Life for Dummies.”

Mullen’s class demands a certain level of comfort with technology, which some of his 14 students say is not a problem for young adults who are accustomed to texting and instant messaging. As students follow Moody around Kalana Mount, using their keyboards to control their avatars, they keep up on several typed conversations going on in a group chatroom.

Mullen believes his class is the first at UNLV to meet “in-world,” making the school a bit of a latecomer to Second Life. More than 400 higher education institutions already have a presence there, ranging from one instructor to full campuses, Robbins said.

Applicants who can’t afford to visit the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom can tour a replica on Second Life. Doctoral candidates in Pepperdine University’s educational technology program swap ideas on Sundays in a tree house on the school’s virtual Malibu Island.

UNLV built a digital island this semester and will pay about $2,000 a year for Second Life membership and land rights. Called UNLVExploratoria, cyber-UNLV boasts an amphitheater, a koi pond and a “holodeck,” an enclosed area that morphs on command.

Judith Osterman, director of distance education at UNLV, said the university built the virtual property in part to explore how Second Life could contribute to learning.

“The way it is used now as just a space to meet as avatars does not meet my idea of the ideal learning space,” she said in an e-mail. “I think that having students build or design casino floors or role playing for social work students are possibilities.”

Second Life is so popular in schools that its developer, Linden Lab, pays Robbins to run a blog about using the virtual world in education.

The digital world, Robbins said, can be a friendly place for students learning to conduct research.

If potential research subjects “say no to your avatar, it’s not quite as embarrassing or tough to take as if they were rejecting you face to face,” she said.

Mullen’s class revolves around exploration. Besides taking field trips, some students have queried strangers about their virtual activities.

The group has heard from guest lecturers, including a consultant for businesses planning to enter Second Life. The consultant’s real-life wife is the woman who plays Moody, the virtual slave.

“It’s been interesting just to see what Second Life is all about,” said Nia Huerta, a senior taking Mullen’s course.

“It’s a whole world that so many people are involved in that I had no idea about.”

But, she said, she doesn’t completely “get it.”

Neither, apparently, do many of her classmates. On Tuesday’s field trip to Kalana Mount, the UNLV visitors are full of questions.

Moody explains to the class that slavery in the virtual society, created by willing role players, is “slavery of love, not slavery of pain and torture.” Kalana Mount, Mullen says, draws its culture from Gor, a fictional planet from a series of science fiction novels by a philosophy professor.

The class “opened my eyes,” Young said.

An apt description, considering how much newbies can find to gawk at in the virtual world.

Second Life can be strange (a small posse of aliens appeared to be testing a spacecraft at UNLVExploratia on Tuesday), shocking (virtual torture? virtual sex?) and sweet (Huerta once encountered a grandmother who would meet each week in Second Life with a grandchild living in another country). Young, raised in Hawaii, said spending time in virtual Hawaii makes him less homesick.

Students said they were surprised to discover that Second Life can spill over into real life.

People do business in the virtual world — the Linden dollar is the currency — and convert their earnings into real money.

In a dark twist, a woman neglected her children while spending the bulk of her waking hours playing Second Life, one of the more disturbing pieces of information Huerta and Young picked up from class.

The two said though studying virtual culture has been intriguing, they plan to leave the slaves and slavers behind when the semester ends.

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