CALRG Conf: Games and virtual worlds

Diane Carr, Martin Oliver and Caroline Pelletier on What are we actually studying?

Diane Carr

starts with a bit of background – they’ve worked in games research for a long time. Recently thinking about research design and how concepts might be developed and theorised, and their ramifications.

Latest work – Eduserv-funded project Learning from online worlds, teaching in Second Life – e.g. WoW. LPP, and so on. Couples who play together. Also teaching courses that are related – clinical ed and simulations, computer games studies, cmc, education and technology, literacy, affect, games.

Digra – Digital Games Research Association – has excellent online archive/library.

Looking at relation between tools/technology and social practices; conceptualisations and implications for methodology and research design. Exploring definitions and assumptions.

Impact of the voice feature on SL’s deaf residents – instead of text chat as default, everyone started using microphones to chat. There’s a focus on accessibility as a technical or interface issue, on educator’s compliance with legislation; conceptualising disability as individual problem, impairment or deficit, tool/technology as solution’.  Big focus on creation of tools – to meet deficit model. Very problematic as discourse – don’t talk about hearing people change practice, is about deaf people adopting a tool. Need to look beyond this – Disability Studies. Brings the social model of disability in, rather than impairment/deficit model. (Paper published on this) – it’s not the voice feature as a tool that ‘disabled’ deaf users, it was the conventions and practices associated with it. Shows how pervasive inequitable practices can be. So need to produce and evaluate tools, but also to think about social and cultural factors alongside.


On things, people and practices – it’s not system features, it’s how they take them up, and position others. Link from artifacts, to practices. What claims are being made, and should be made? What questions get asked? (What works? and Online vs F2f?).

Structural claims – consistent claims, inconsistent assumptions: reports from news Digital natives brains physiological different, “video gaming leads to surge in rickets” – as daft as “playing this game led to improved learning outcomes’. A lot of technical determinism – Powerpoint caused a space shuttle crash. Assumes that technology has an effect on learning. Methodologically, dose/response studies and standardisation – causal assumption, controlled model, black-boxing the pedagogy. Can you standardise education? Does it make sense? It’s natural sciences envy. If you could get to that point, it might make sense, but we can’t.

The alternative – theories of social practice (activity theory, communities of practice, actor-network theory. Attention moved from causal power of the tool to people and their agency. Technology implicated in meaningful action – but not determinant. Science and Technology Studies looking at technology as a social effect, not a social cause – people’s actions lead to technology.

In his work – teaching in Second Life. Had first session, students did field work, brought back to a discussion. Goldfish bowl technique – discussers on the rug, others around observing. Establishing convention to help structure discussion.

What claims can we make? Avoid – that red/virtual/rugs cause/permit/afford conversation. Can say – people made this and used it in particular ways to structure their conversation; so, certain kinds of structuring can help learning activities.


Realism and medical simulations – assembling a project at the moment. Growing use, partly because of Working Time Directive cutting junior doctors’ time on wards, not getting the practice in. Medical education literature has realism as a primary concern, expressed as fidelity, or validity, or authenticity – get impression that’s the main problem. To the point of ‘the educational validity of simulations is a function of their realism’. Medical education model is one of apprenticeship. Simulations need to mimic that process. Assumption underpinning that one can measure realism and should do – techniques vary (observations of tasks, self-reports, etc).

Excludes other theories of simulations – e.g. as a representation, simulacra, which are not necessarily representations of the physical world. Baudrillardian simulacra, concern about what you are taking out of an experience to put it in to a quick medical education. Simulations not copies of reality, but help you conceptualise it in different ways.

Realism as a practice – SYS literature and medical ontology – great study on how a particular condition varies depending on the technology available to the practitioners interacting with you; shapes how it’s understood. The condition is an effect of its measurement, not the cause. The Case of the Unrealistic Vagina – simulator for gynecological procedures, validated in the United States, but in Sweden seen as a very poor model, not at all realistic. What simulators simulate is not anatomy per se, but a particular way of exploring it. Medical knowledge isn’t of an objective reality, it’s a particular way of knowing that reality. Shift of view from truth to how they represent the body – more ethics.

Research questions – around how medical knowledge manifest in simulation centres, how claims to realism are established, maintained, de-stabilised – and debated in med ed settings. And how you account for this.


Martin again – different ways of framing research in this area – purposes, units of analysis, claims. Some claims made on the back of default approaches (causal, controlled, human subject, black box) – don’t hold up when scrutinised. Can make sense , but very applied situations are often not easily black-boxable.

Diane – Danger we’ll travel in circles about virtual worlds?

Also concern about mutant terminology – terms not new, only loosely defined, treated as measurable, as effect, or good for learning: includes affordance, immersion, engagement, embodiment, realism.


Me: Important question to address as a field, especially given the current economic and political climate, where we’re likely to be under pressure to give answers.

Martin: Field is hard to define. Don’t want to homogenise, recognise difference and celebrate it – it’s part of the pleasure of this area.

Martin LeVoi: What’s your answer to the reality measurement?

Diane: Would talk about immersion, not reality. Valid to use different definitions, it’s when you use technical term and make vernacular claims about it.

Caroline: Argument to change field of debate, look at how knowledge is produced, rather than is the simulation realistic or not. It’s a dead end.

Martin LV: Are hospital simulations in 2L, so not just physical simulation but social evaluation, can you define that in advance?

Martin O: Stylianos Hatzipanagos did PhD on fidelity in simulations – was specific about what that meant, and was based on formal models. Wasn’t ‘is this real’ as much as ‘is this faithful to this model’. When you move from ‘is it real or not’ to ‘what does a medic need to know to be seen as competent’ it’s much more productive.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.