Facilitating Immersion in Virtual Worlds: An Examination of the Physical, Virtual, Social, and Pedagogical Factors Leading to Engagement and Flow

Facilitating Immersion in Virtual Worlds: An Examination of the Physical, Virtual, Social, and Pedagogical Factors Leading to Engagement and Flow

Helen Farley
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4205-8.ch014
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Virtual worlds, in particular Second Life and Open Sim, are providing welcome opportunities for the development of innovative curricula for tertiary educators, particularly those engaged with distance education. They provide a virtual meeting ground for those students and teachers who are geographically remote from one another, rendering distance irrelevant and enabling the formation of community. This chapter looks at those factors—physical, social, virtual, and those related to pedagogy—which facilitate immersion in virtual worlds; that suspension of disbelief which generates the feeling of presence or “being there,” crucial to promoting student engagement and ultimately, flow.
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Why Virtual Worlds?

A virtual world (VW) – often referred to as a Multi-user Virtual Environment (MUVE) – is a computer-, server- or internet-based virtual environment that allows participants to move around and use various forms of communication (text chat, voice chat or instant messaging). It allows participants to create a virtual identity which persists beyond the initial session (Maher, 1999, p. 322; Ritzema & Harris, 2008, p. 110). The term was coined by Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer in 1990 (see Morningstar & Farmer, 1991, p. 273). Second Life is one of the most well-known VWs in part due to the intense media scrutiny it has attracted, but predominantly because the content is created almost exclusively by users. At the time of writing, it boasts nearly sixteen million user accounts; one and a quarter million residents having logged in during the previous sixty days (Linden Lab, 2010).

VWs are populated by motional “avatars”; the term is derived from Sanskrit and used in Hindu mythology to denote the earthly form adopted by a deity, commonly Visnu (Leeming, 2001). In MUVEs, this term denotes the representation of a character, controlled either by an individual or a software agent in the case of a “bot,” which acts somewhat like a virtual automaton (Duridanov & Simoff, 2007, p. 4). The choice of avatar can reflect a player’s personality, gender or ethnicity. It is also possible for a participant to assume a completely different identity which in itself may constitute a significant learning experience, particularly important in role-playing scenarios. In addition, they are able to communicate with large groups of avatars (via voice- or text-chat or asynchronously with podcasting or inworld, text-based documents called notecards) or communicate more intimately with a single avatar (using instant messaging) (Tashner, Riedl, & Bronack, 2005, p. 6). Avatars are able to interact with and modify the virtual environment and are even able to interact beyond the confines of the MUVE if objects are linked to web pages (called “web on a prim” in Second Life) (Tashner et al., 2005, p. 6).

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