VL. David Richardson – Section Report

TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 18. Nr.     Juni 2011

Plenarbeiträge | Planary contributions

Cities, culture and languages in virtual worlds

David Richardson (Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden) [BIO]

Email: david.richardson@lnu.se

 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication



This section took place both in the Plenary Hall of the conference and at various locations in the virtual world of Second Life. Both Second Life and the video-conferencing system Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro were used to link participants in Second Life up with other participants who were not in Second Life. The ‘in-world’ (the jargon term used to mean “in Second Life”) participants experienced the section entirely through the virtual environments and virtual participants (‘avatars’) they encountered, whilst the Connect Pro participants could see the environments on a screen (either their own computer screen or the screen in the Plenary Hall) and participate in chat contact with an in-world interlocutor. One of the presentations also involved a presenter using her camera in Connect Pro to appear both in-world (projected on to a Second Life screen) and to real-world participants.

Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, Virtual Life, Open Sim, Twinity and similar are user-generated environments. Cities like London, Paris, Berlin and New York are being rebuilt and offer a virtual environment where commerce, arts and fashion and night life are thriving. They also attract avatars in large numbers, the 3D representation of a human using a PC.

As an avatar you enjoy a world that does not seem to know any limitations and where even gravity no longer exists. People, sometimes in human, sometimes in animal form are helpful and open, and relationships and friendships are not inhibited by reputation, not influenced by gender nor age.

In these virtual urban environments, a second life starts all over again.  

  1. Will we be working and living ‘in-world’?
  2. How sustainable is this urban second life?
  3. In a world without borders, without time and space, where are the opportunities and where is danger?
  4. What kind of role do virtual worlds play for the preservation of culture?
  5. How do we overcome the last of all barriers, the language barrier?

The section involved approximately 170 participants from more than 40 countries around the world. The program for the day consisted of five separate presentations, each of which was followed by a moderated discussion between experts from around the world and conference section participants, together with an exhibition of Virtual Tashkent, Uzbekhistan:

  1. Universities in Second Life
  2. Virtual Athens in Second Life
  3. Virtual Tashkent Exhibition
  4. Panel Discussion of Cities in Second Life
  5. Virtual Berlin of the 1920s in Second Life
  6. Culture in Second Life: Virtual Harlem and the Jazz Culture


Universities in Second Life

This round table discussion started with a tour at the University of Western Australia (UWA), which is one of the star universities in Second Life with their innovative campus program and famous 3D arts exhibits by their students. UWA is shortlisted for a Linden prize because of their outstanding innovative ways of using Second Life. It is a combination of real life reproductions of the University building and the famous Sunken Garden, a place in Australia famous for the many RL weddings taking place. By reproducing these gardens in Second Life, UWA hopes to bridge the gap from what Australians are familiar with, to the postmodern look and feel of Second Life art and science displays on the virtual ground. After the 30-minute tour, we met on AVALON Learning island for the panel discussion with the following participants:

  • Monash University, Melbourne Australia, Scott Grant [Xilin Yifu]
  • University of Western Australia [JayJay Zifanwe]
  • Freie Universität Berlin, Dr. Undine Frömming [Augenblick Winkler], Germany
  • Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Dr. Pawel Topol [Pawlus Twine], Poland
  • Dublin Institute of Technology, John O’Connor [Accupa Tae]
  • 1 VirtualVision [Micheal Armundsen], Australia

The discussion was moderated by David Richardson from Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden.

Several issues emerged from the panel discussion. Firstly, the degree of organizational support for a university’s presence in a virtual world is extremely important. The UWA site is comprehensive and multi-disciplinary, using the particular qualities of a Second Life environment well to enhance both on-line and campus education. Among these qualities are 3D-visualization and interactivity in real time, which are used by UWA for such purposes as visualizing mathematical concepts, tree root structures and running a virtual art and sculpture competition. The other universities represented on the panel discussions are all involved in Second Life on an ‘enthusiasts’ basis. I.e. there are individual faculty members who have developed more or less sophisticated in-world environments and uses for a virtual world focussing on specific projects, courses or subjects, from language courses (at Adam Mickiewicz University) to a reconstruction of an Irish pub (at the Dublin Institute of Technology).

However, even these more limited uses of a virtual world are already raising some interesting questions about future developments. One important question is the degree to which the real world is merely reproduced in Second Life. A common starting-point for new users of the environment is to reconstruct a conventional classroom, with a display board at the front of the class and rows of chairs for ‘student avatars’ to sit on. Avatars, however, do not need to sit (since they cannot become tired!), so less conventional environments (such as an Irish pub, or a set of logs around a campfire) can be experimented with. Sometimes, however, there are advantages with ‘real-world reproduction’, such as the virtual copy of the astronomical observatory at UWA, which enables users to practise (cheaply) the use of a much more expensive real-world environment.


City Presentation: Virtual Athens in Second Life

This city presentation included a visit to the Acropolis which was followed by a city tour by train (20min) and a presentation by the chair [xris Oller] in the main city hall, the Athens Academy (20min). It was then followed by a round-table discussions with those who live and work in virtual Athens: tenants, shop owners, the priest of the local church, restaurant owners, bar tender, museum curator, Second Life architect and builder etc.

Hosts: Christina Oikonomou [Xris Oller], Eleftherios Artopoulos [Aristotelis Republic], [billy42 Streeter], [Mariposa Melodie]

Moderation: Jose Louwes [Jose Eternal]

The panel discussion was opened by the chair who outlined how the group of islands made up of ancient Athens (Hellas), Athens and Macedonia are organised by a group of educators whose main goal is to create an Athens that is free of financial and political interference and which tries to live up to the ideal Greek culture of long ago.

The findings of the panel and the answers to the questions mentioned at the outset were summarized by the chair with the words: “We can work and live in Second Life, we can have a virtual urban society that resembles a democratic model of management, we can create the Greece of our dreams with respect ot the Greek culture and the Greek tradition to maintain our culture, we are interested in preserving our culture and our reality, we want to demonstrate the virtual Greek world to all visitors of SL or websites, we can create a Greek learning community within the environment of SL and we would create more activities in the world to develop a knowledge society in 3D urban environment.

The discussion with the residents of virtual Athens largely confirmed these convictions by relating stories of a ‘near to normal’ life working, meeting, getting married and divorcing. It was especially the appeal of building an ‘ideal’ Greece, a Greece as it once was, somewhat of a nostalgic view of the grandeur of the once-influential Greek philosophy which laid the basis for our modern-day society.


Virtual Tashkent Exhibition

This exhibition demonstrated both the versatility and some of the current limitations of the technology involved. The presenter, who was based in Tashkent, Uzbekhistan, was unable to participate via Second Life because of a lack of bandwidth and inadequate computing power at her end. She could, however, link up via Connect Pro and had sent a PowerPoint presentation in advance with a number of visual aids to illustrate Uzbekh cities, culture and language. The section team leader then created a virtual Tashkent at a location in Second Life, using the visual aids from the PowerPoint presentation to recreate a 3D environment in which in-world participants moved from place to place to follow the presentation from Tashkent which otherwise was delivered via Connect Pro, thus enabling in-world and real-world participants to interact.


Panel Discussion of Cities in Second Life

This panel discussion took place in the same Second Life location as the virtual Tashkent exhibition (the ‘sandbox’ on EduNation Island, which is an environment where temporary structures can be created quickly) in a ‘holodeck’ of the Pantheon (a “holodeck” is a complete, though limited environment, such as the Pantheon, which can be created within seconds on any sandbox in-world, removed and re-created at will at another location). There were representatives from virtual Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and Athens and the discussion was moderated by David Richardson, from Linnaeus University in Sweden.

It quickly became clear that these city environments had been created for different reasons and under different circumstances. Virtual Berlin, for example, is a specific recreation of Berlin from the 1920s, whilst virtual Hamburg is an attempt to recreate the real contemporary environment of Hamburg. The first question which was discussed was the criteria the creators of these environments used to select which aspects of the cities in question to develop, which in turn reveals very idiosyncratic views of what those cities are, views which must, however, be sufficiently realistic and attractive to make Second Life users want to come to these environments and work in them.

The type of interaction and use of these virtual city environments varied quite widely too. Virtual Athens has a definite educational purpose: to show visitors various aspects of the real city’s long history and extensive culture. Virtual Paris is very much an expression of the creator’s feelings for specific Parisian environments, whilst Virtual Berlin is an extended role-play environment, where visitors are encouraged to dress their avatars in period costumes to try to re-create the social and cultural experiences of the 1920s.

Another interesting difference is the relationship between the real cities and their Second Life creators. The creators of Virtual Hamburg, for example, have engaged in discussions with Hamburg Council in real-life to explore how the virtual environment can be used to enhance tourism and culture in the real city. The creator of Virtual Berlin, on the other hand, lives in the Netherlands in real life and is not German. She does, however, have a deep interest in Berlin of the 1920s and wants to propagate this interest in wider circles. However, it is her interest that is central to her involvement in Virtual Berlin, rather than her desire to propagate it.

It is clear that the reproduction of real-life cities in a virtual world is a phenomenon that is developing rapidly. It appears that there are over 20 real-life cities represented in Second Life, each of which has a different emphasis, from the reproduction of history (which involves subjective decisions about which history to include) to attempts to promote that city in some way to people who may or may not be able to visit it in real life.


City Presentation: Virtual Berlin of the 1920s in Second Life

This city presentation included a city tour by veteran automobile and bus (20min) and a presentation by the creator, Jo Yardley, in the main city hall, the museum (20min). It was then followed by a discussion with those who live and work in virtual Berlin: tenants,  shop owners, the priest of the local church, a journalist of the local newspaper, bar tender, taxi driver, school teacher, restaurant owner etc. Frau Jo Yardley explained how she tried to replica the city structure in the same manner as it must have been in the real Berlin of the 20s, namely smaller streets and 1-room apartments for the poor and larger houses in the suburbs for the rich people.

Berlin of the 20s is a role-playing sim which means that the residents not only dress in 20s-style clothes but they also assume roles from that time. Jo Yardley herself is a war widow and has never remarried. Her late virtual husband was a sailor who died in World War I and the times were hard for widows back then. Bea related that the reason she is in Berlin is because her brother disappeared after the end of the war and his last letter came from Berlin. Was he a victim of the Spanish flu or was he indeed caught as a Russian spy? These and similar stories are being told and lived, and the local newspaper reinforces the daily gossip and adds to it a measure of crime, drink-driving, riots in the streets, strikes, sex scandals, forbidden alcohol consumption and whatever else the residents come up with to keep the communication open.

Hosts: [Jo Yardley], [Zeno McAuley]

Moderation: Gwen Gwasi [Heike Philp]


Culture in Second Life: Virtual Harlem and the Jazz Culture

Virtual Harlem is a representation of a portion of Harlem, NY, as it existed during the 1920s Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance. This project, Virtual Harlem, was one of the earliest full virtual reality environments created for use in the humanities and certainly one of the first for use in an African-American literature course. Virtual Harlem has been presented at venues in Paris, The Netherlands, Sweden, Hungary, and multiple sites in the US. In 2004, the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, funded the development of Virtual Montmartre and Dr. Carter was asked to be the project leader and was awarded the prestigious „Professeur Invité“ from the Sorbonne to spend 6 months in Paris.  This project realized itself in the development of an interactive Web Site and a small 3D representation of the Lapin Agile, the oldest surviving cabaret in Montmartre which is still in operation. The evolution of Virtual Harlem was funded in 2006 by the National Black Programming Consortium and the Government of Norway with the development of Virtual Harlem and Virtual Montmartre in Second Life. These sites were two of the most important locations during the Jazz Age/Harlem Renaissance.

Presentation / Moderation: Dr Bryan Carter [Bryan Mnemonic]



The section presentations were well-attended and the evaluations received afterwards were very positive. Participants who were new to virtual environments and/or Second Life received many insights into the potential of such environments for the development of new ways of looking at cities, culture and languages. However, even those more experienced users found it stimulating to be exposed to the range of activities and environments which were presented in this section.

Whilst many of the virtual urban developments were clearly driven by individuals, it has shown that  a lively town life exists in these replicas of real buildings and city structures. There is a popular quote that states: “If you build it, they will come” (often misquoted as having come from the movie The field of dreams) but in these virtual cities this seems to have held true.

What is also truly surprising is that there is no shortage of jobs and a flourishing economy seems to be in place, and this often came about in a relatively short period of time. Police stations are manned, the pubs and discoteques ready to handle crowds and the churches are filled with couples getting married. Almost without a break, avatars try to replicate the normalities of life.

In the same way, knowledge workers who need a certain measure of intellectual interaction meet in  virtual universities and take the replicas of satellites and a panorama of a night sky as an ambience in which to initiate and drive collaboration. 

The greatest strength of virtual urban environments is that it encourages collaboration. People meet and talk. What brings them into contact is their interest in virtual worlds and what makes them come back is their newly won friends and colleagues.

What was truly outstanding for the organisers of this series of city presentations and discussions within the framework of the CCKS World Conference was the speed and ease of getting these individuals around a (virtual) table. It took no longer than 10 days in preparation of a team of 3-4 organisers.

The virtual venues were in place and people did not need to travel. Representatives of virtual Berlin, Hamburg and Paris met in a hall and this did not require any security. The city tour of conference attendants in virtual Berlin did not need any traffic control police force. Flights, hotel reservations, hours spent traveling and frustration because of lack of ease of internet access whilst traveling was non-existent. Presentation facilities were in place without any technology needing to be installed and no IT team to run around. No catering services needed to be ordered and lengthy planning and registration procedures were not required. Athens installed a train for convenience of the tour and they did this in a matter of a week.

The hosts of this conference demonstrated by their willingness to be part of the conference despite short notice the real strength of working and living in virtual worlds. This spirit of sharing and collaboration was also evident when organising this conference and not even the last barrier, the language barrier posted an obstacle there. Translators were on stand-by but not needed and English as a lingua franca has become a normality in a virtual world.

Working and living in virtual worlds mean access to amazingly dedicated and creative people. It means taking part in a vision of a human family that learn, work and live together in the spirit of sharing and collaboration. The power of a united family manifests itself in virtual cities and universities and the power of collaboration manifested itself in this conference.

A truly outstanding experience.

All sessions have been recorded and are available for viewing under the links provided.

TRANS  Inhalt | Table of Contents 18. Nr. INST

For quotation purposes:
David Richardson: Cities, culture and languages in virtual worlds –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.
WWW: http://www.inst.at/trans/18Nr/plenum/richardson18.htm Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2011-06-21