Firstly I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak today. It is always good to come to speak at Cardiff University – this is only my second conference speech here, but as a student I spoke in a number of debates at the students union. I’m going to talk with you today about the multicultural aspects of Virtual Worlds.
When I say to you the term, Virtual World, what do you think of? Perhaps a graphical interface such as SecondLife, or a gameplay-intensive environment such as World of Warcraft. Or perhaps you think of something else.
These are all examples of Virtual Worlds, which generally these days consist of three-dimensional graphical environments for accessing social interactions with others and exchanging graphical representations of real-life or fantasy objects online.
Virtual Worlds today are like the television of previous generations. They have now become accessed by a range of different people from different ethnic groups and social backgrounds who share the same experiences of this new kind of media. So you might ask, ‘are virtual worlds multicultural environments?’
Culture can be defined as ‘a network of physical and mental artefacts that are formed through the participation of actors in functional systems’. This definition would suggest that in the UK, for instance, those people who watch the television programme Eastenders or Coronation Street and know the characters in these imagined communities are part of the same culture.
Based on this definition multiculturalism is unavoidable, because each person is different and an individual and may share cultural artefacts such as memories or experiences with people of any faith or race if they have access to the same environments. That is the case whether they are ones that are realised in their minds, such as virtual communities, or ones that they share in a physical space, such as organic communities.
Having used online communities such as virtual worlds for two decades, I have noticed the conflicts that arise when people from different generations and cultural backgrounds come together in the same space. In determining how it might be possible to reduce these conflicts through better system design, I decided the correct approach might be to find what these different cultures have in common, as a way of approaching information systems design to take account of their shared values.
Using data from the UK Data Archive I looked at what the Net Generation had in common with other current generations. The Net Generation were born between 1977 and 1997 and are currently in their teens and early adulthood and are referred to as N-Geners. They have grown up with digital technologies such as microcomputers and the Internet. They are however, treated by designers of computer systems as ‘youngsters’ or ‘the youth of today’, rather than by their commonalities distinctive of the age they find themselves in, which make them up as part of this techno-cultural generation.
The culture of this generation is incredibly different from previous generations, which may be considered inevitable as older generations will not share the same experience as those in the younger generations will share. However there are striking differences between this generation and previous ones. The Baby Boom Generation for instance were quite homogeneous, sharing similar beliefs and interests and having many common values. The Net Generation on the other hand are very heterogeneous, where it is often only their values that they have in common.
The attitudes of Generation X, previous to the Net Generation, were primarily shaped and formed by broadcasted information such as television, autocratic teaching styles. Conversely, as a result of new media technologies, such as the Internet, the Net Generation have been provided with a significant degree of autonomy, independence and freedom, making them a distinct techno-culture.
The Net Generation are currently between the ages of 13 and 33, meaning their skills and capabilities are considerably diverse and this can significantly affect how they interact within technology and the extent to which they are able to participate in virtual worlds. I’m sure anyone who knows a teenager today knows how much more demanding they are and how much more sophisticated they have become in the way they access information. This is true of many people in the Net Generation.
In my study, which was a factor analysis of data collected through computer supported quantitative interviewing, I identified six commonalities between the generations. These were Opportunity, Understanding, Relevance, Aspiration, Choice and Expression, which I will go through briefly now.
When someone decides to visit a particular part of a virtual world or take part in an information exchange, they are doing so by giving up the opportunity to do something else, referred to as ‘the opportunity cost’. Different generations value certain activities more than others and are more willing to sacrifice certain opportunities over others. This is a core aspect of ecological cognition, where it is stated that users of information systems do not have a hierarchy to their needs that are innate, but have developed cognitions that affect their priorities through exposure to not only their internal environment such as their mind and body, but also their external one. That is to say, the world.
It has been argued that the question of fairness across generations should be formulated as a comparison of opportunities available to individuals living at different times. From this it is clear to find support for the existence of this factor in understanding the similarities between how different generations use information.
The crucial part of responding to an economic opportunity in the environment is an understanding of the stimuli it offers. It has been argued that understanding, particularly of science and faith is spread over many generations, with each adding its own contribution, arising from its own perspective.
The relevance of a particular stimulus in the environment to an actor is affected by their ability to consume it. It can be seen that as a particular user’s confidence in a system increases, so their consumption of its resources also increase. For instance, in Second Life, as a user becomes aware of how to interact with the system, such as through ‘flying’ or ‘teleporting’ then the greater their exposure to different aspects of the system will become and it will be more likely that their inventory will increase as they discover artefacts that are relevant to them. It has been argued that those developing solutions for different generations should take into account the difference between them in the relevance of information technologies, as N-Geners are more likely to be accepting of these than older generations.
Members of the different generations have different aspirations, though the thing they may have in common is that they regularly experience them. This factor is particularly affected by the principle of ‘marginal utility’, which is the extent to which the exposure to a particular stimulus leads to demand for a re-exposure or reuptake of that stimulus. It is at this stage that actors become unaware of the externalities of their wants. They are driven purely by responding to existing relevant opportunities and going on to create new opportunities, even if this is only to be re-exposed to desirable aspects of the environment.
Different actors will respond differently to the principle of marginal utility and this will effect their judgement on whether to take up another unit of exposure, which is affected by the universal value of ‘choice’. Choice goes beyond the right to choose, as the basis for exercising choice is according to the perceived needs or values of an individual or group of individuals of different generations.
Like the opportunity factor, the expression factor is affected by opportunity cost. While an actor is using a specific product or communicating with a specific actor they may be missing out on the opportunity to do so with an alternative actor or product. The need for expressing oneself is evenly distributed across generations, but the means for expression should be expected to vary, as would means for entertainment. This suggests that it would be beneficial to map the differences between generations when it comes to activities that they carry out.
In making recommendations based on an analysis of virtual worlds and these factors I would suggest that it is possible to use a range of techniques to manage conflicts between different generations as part of a strategic policy and planning process. Specifically these are ‘the distraction board’, the ‘behaviour contract’ and ‘the displacement room’.
THE DISTRACTION BOARD
The social networking service Facebook displays notices to users as they are using the system notifying them of other things going on. An artificially intelligent virtual world could detect conflicts between actors and suggest alternative activities for them to engage in. While this may be treating users as if they were pet animals needing to be distracted with a special toy, it would be effective and avoiding conflicts and promoting harmony between generations at the stages of opportunity and understanding.
THE BEHAVIOUR CONTRACT
The online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, has a range of policy documents that users can edit and agree on. While it has difficulties, such as not having multiple versions that people can vote on, the wiki format whereby people can edit documents and form a consensus could be effectively implemented into virtual worlds to produce a behaviour contract. This contract, would affect the stages of relevance through to choice and impact on the sorts of decisions actors would make affecting their behaviour, potentially resolving some of the intergenerational multicultural conflicts between them.
THE DISPLACEMENT ROOM
The sports software that comes with the Wii games console and the ‘sand-box’ on Wikipedia are ideal examples of the sort of tools that could feature in the ‘displacement room’. A virtual world with such a room, would have things like punch-bags, sand-boxes and other means of expressing frustration that would allow actors to displace their anti-social plans and make them feel like their intergenerational conflicts have been resolved.