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Practicing the ‘Religion’ – Collaboration Patterns

In order to explore and determine successful (innovative) practices of using virtual worlds for collaboration tasks we are pursuing the approach of investigating – or initially, describing and formalizing – them as collaboration patterns. A collaboration pattern is defined as “a set of tools, techniques, behaviors, and activities for people who meet at a place to work on a common goal, together in a group or community”, and thus combines the people with their specific intentions and the medium with its distinct features and particular design in one concept.

An early exploration of collaboration patterns in the popular virtual world Second Life resulted in a compilation of patterns, which we classified according to the surplus value they get out of being carried out in a 3D environment and the effort they require in design and implementation (see Publications).

This eventually led to the creation of our Avatar-Based Collaboration (ABC) framework: a powerful tool to scaffold collaboration experiences by supporting and fostering the ideation and design of collaboration patterns for virtual worlds. Illustration and explanation in the next post (or see Publications).


Choosing a ‘Religion’

Clearly, the offensive approach (see last post) is by far the more innovative one. The defensive one can be understood as pushing an evolution of the avatar equivalent to that of man – in the most negative way of interpreting it:

Evolution of Man -> Evolution of Avatar?

The upper half of the image depicts the evolution of man, the lower half illustrates the evolution of avatars that we can already observe in some attempts of making virtual worlds ‘productive’ to end users who want to collaborate online. The point I am trying to make here is that, following the defensive approach, we are tying avatars to interactive screens, just as we have tied ourselves to computer desks. We spend the bigger part of our work time sitting at desks, typing on keyboards and using mice while staring at flat screens (what, by the way, we also do a lot even after work). The fact that we use portable computers instead of fixed desktop computers nowadays doesn’t make it better but even worse, as we use just about any place we come across to sit down and stare at a screen, typing on a keyboard, trying hard to blind out our surroundings, reducing our body movement to finger strokes and mouse clicks, and thus damaging not only our eyes but innumerable other parts of our body in several ways. But, this blog is not about ergonomics and sustainability – it is about how the avatar can reshape the way we think.

The progress of evolution of avatars did seem very promising, especially when they were given the abilities to fly (move freely in 3D space) and play (interact with objects and with each other) in a fantastic world (a fully designable responsive environment) in which magic is accessible to everyone (easy user content creation, editing and scripting).

But then, in the last years, the path from there has been proven to be directed by the impulsive and narrow-sighted demand for immediate efficiency and productivity – the very same causes that keep us tied to our computers day by day. Motivation and engagement (not even to mention enjoyment) have become secondary. As the illustration above depicts, avatars experienced their high point of freedom and quality (or sense) of existence when interactive objects, a responsive environment, and the ability to collaborate with each other were in focus. This is starting to fade away with interactive 2D screens coming into play, as a focus of some newer virtual world platforms and developments. Believers of this what I earlier referred to as ‘defensive approach’ falsely understand 2D interactive screens as the right way towards productivity for virtual worlds, mislead by their actual work habits and an associated mindset that has come into being around online media: the fallacy of believing that imitating actual world designs and activity patterns in online media would generate the same experiences as those we get in face-to-face settings.

Truth is, though, that online media logically cannot generate the same experiences, since online media are greatly dissimilar from face-to-face settings. So, just as one should not try to simply walk in water in order to stay floating at the surface we should not try to make our avatars stand idle as their main activity, gazing into 2D screens. While walking instead of swimming in deep water will end in drowning, abusing avatars for bodiless labor on interactive screens will quickly end in frustration and in the question why this medium was chosen in the first place. (meeting online to collaboratively edit documents can be done much more efficient using slimmer, 2D collaboration tools somewhere in the ‘flat’ Web 2.0 instead – there are numerous tools that combine collaborative editing of office documents and text chat, sometimes also voice chat).

So, in conclusion, the new ‘element’ of virtual worlds requires us to regard its distinct properties and features in order to utilize it as a medium for engaging and fruitful collaboration experiences. This is the earlier termed ‘offensive approach’, the one that this blog, and my research, are pursuing.

‘Religions’ in the use of new media

Let me start this blog with some thoughts on what I believe to be the most fundamental decision when working with virtual worlds – or any other online medium, for that matter: the question of whether or not to utilize the distinct features of the medium.

In the case of virtual worlds this means either making use of 3D space and spatiality, customizable embodiment, responsive virtual architecture and landscape, configurable environment with interactive and behaving objects, navigation, physics, and the possibility of visualizing and embodying data from databases, dynamic web services, and possibly other virtual worlds, etc., or… creating a place where users’ simply ‘park’ their avatars just anywhere with a view to a 2D screen on which they enter and modify numbers in a conventional spreadsheet or edit text in a text document.

By my choice of words and the imbalance of passion towards these two opposed approaches you can already tell that I am a believer. I believe that a new technology/medium should not be used in the same way as an older, conventional one, just because that one is established. Rather should we focus on the distinct features of the new medium, to get most out of it. For example, the TV was not used to display static pages of the daily newspaper, right? For people to sit in front of it and try to read it? No, it was used to show moving pictures right away! Now, with this image in mind, thinking about virtual worlds again, why would we want to focus on displaying and editing 2D documents, when we can do so much more with this medium? (Note: this blog is concerned with collaborative work and learning only, obviously there are other applications of virtual worlds where 2D documents are not even thought of)

The answer seems apparent: because we are used to work with 2D documents. Have been doing that for the last decades. Actually, most of what we information workers do is creating, modifying, and sharing 2D documents of all kinds, day by day. Our digital world is built around 2D documents; reading and writing, the Gutenberg paradigm is still all over us. What started out as an imitation of the office world, the desktop metaphor now seems to be indispensable – it seems to be vital for collaboration tools and systems to focus on 2D documents in order to make useful collaboration tools. But… is it really?

That is to say, the answer to the question from before could be: because we don’t know yet how to best use the medium for it to support and foster our collaboration endeavors – we are not sure how to design the virtual world, let alone what to do and how to interact using these avatars. In order to get some real value out of the virtual experience, that is. This is why we stick to the traditional. And it is exactly what I am convinced we observe when we see how virtual worlds are mostly used for collaborative work and learning: avatars sitting at tables or standing still (in extreme cases directly facing a wall), and chatting – it’s like using the virtual world as not much more than a chat room with some neat graphics and an enhanced feeling of presence. Which is alright. However, it can be so much more than that.

So, there are two opposite approaches to follow, two ‘religions’ to choose from:

  • the defensive approach: creating and designing virtual worlds and collaborative activities in them to best fit into our existing and established working and learning culture, or
  • the offensive approach: taking up on the offer of utilizing the novel possibilities and features of virtual worlds to form innovative ways of working and learning together, utilizing the concepts of space, spatiality, and embodiment, while letting go of 2D documents for a moment.


Welcome to real virtual x, a blog about 3D MUVE (Multi-User Virtual Environments) and Virtual Worlds, and how these environments can bring real added value for collaborative work, collaborative learning, and other group or team activities – through offering memorable experiences rather than just verbal communication.

I will blog about my work in the scope of my PhD thesis, the working title of which is “Visual Collaboration and Learning Practices in 3D Virtual Environments”.

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