Friday, December 03, 2010

To Sim or Not To Sim

I know, silly title. Here’s my main question: Are virtual worlds effective environments for the presentation of dramatic arts? Maybe some genres are more appropriate than others?
The reason I’m asking is I presented a short video of two students' inworld performance of a scene from Approaching Zanzibar. Here's the vid. Part of the dialog is about fears the characters have about visiting an aunt who is sick with cancer. To my horror the whole auditorium of 4-8 graders reacted with laughter during some of the most sobering and serious lines. I’m sure this was in part a way to relieve anxiety about a heavy subject. But I also believe it had to do with the content being delivered by awkward-looking cartoony figures. This leads me to think we really shouldn’t be trying to present serious dramatic material in this format. Kids this age have never even seen anything like this. Their closest point of reference is probably video games. If a performance with any emotional gravity comes across as goofy, funny, or unconvincing this might be the wrong medium for those kinds of dramatic experiences.
On the other hand there are dramatic genres that seem like they would lend themselves well to the fantastical possibilities of virtual environments. I would have liked to show the Alice in Wonderland scene but the FreeSWITCH service that's been so dependable kept dropping Alice’s voice during their performance for some inexplicable reason.

The Peter Pan scene might have been good, too, with Peter flying onstage and having trouble getting his shadow to attach properly. But I was kind of smitten with the local light effect and wanted the kids to see it. It's like that with virtual worlds. The magic of it is hard to explain to people. They have to see it for themselves, have the experience.

So what kind of dramatic performances are VWs good for? Now I'm thinking material that takes advantage of the special capabilities of the platform--the ability to fly, script objects to do unexpected and magical things, the ability to make amazing, gravity-defying costumes, the ability to appear and disappear magically (teleport). In our Aesop's Fable of The Frogs Desiring a King Jupiter was able to throw down a huge log onto the stage out of thin air. That was a surprising, fun experience and in that world it also made sense. It just added to the magic the kids watched unfolding in front of them.
I don't think serious drama should be avoided altogether in VWs. The drama teacher I do this with put it well when he said one of the best things about it for him as a drama teacher is it forces the students to treat dramatic devices--tone of voice, gesture, movement--more consciously since they have to do it from a distance through the narrow parameters of the avatar. They can't fall back on their own default expressions like they can in RL. So I still think it's an effective tool for students to learn more about all genres of dramatic performance. I just don't think all genres in this medium need to have an audience. 


Drew Crow said...

Erik, have you tried getting students to use the Windlight settings to evoke different moods for their scenes? You might find that it helps to gloss over the (let's face it) mildly amusing clunkyness of avatars when trying to portray a more sombre scene. Of course, it might not work at all! You can even push preferred Windlight settings for a sim to users' clients when they enter it now using Lightshare enabled viewers and a simple OS script.

Erik N. said...

Hi Drew!
I would love to get my hands on a simple OS windlight script. I found an inscrutable one I could scarcely manage to make the sun set with after 30 minutes of messing. Aside from finding a manageable script I have the problem of having only SL viewers installed on all the computers students use. I would have them use Imprudence but want to avoid the confusion of the grid manager.