Wiz Nordberg

Ryder Asylum in Second Life is not your average role-playing game. It engages and teaches the players because they built it themselves.

Hands-on in the cuckoo’s nest

In 1985 I visited the Exploratorium in San Francisco for the first time. The idea of immersive, interactive learning was on everyone’s mind back then. The advent of the videodisc training industry, and “authoring systems” of all types were heralding a new age of education, an age in which people would learn by doing, by touching, by experimenting. The Exploratorium was no disappointment, especially for somebody like myself with an intense interest in science.

Back then, and for a long time since, it has been difficult and expensive to create immersive education. It is not an intuitive activity, and generally requires discipline, knowledge of educational principles, and the ability to take abstract ideas and turn them into entertainment. That’s right, entertainment. Marshall McLuhan said “Anyone who attempts to distinguish between education and entertainment does not understand the first thing about either.” I wonder how much interest in dinosaurs was inspired by Jurassic Park compared to the inspiration of school textbooks?

It’s not expensive any more, and it’s becoming less difficult and more intuitive thanks to environments such as Second Life. Tateru Nino just wrote a great article about the opening of Ryder Asylum, a role-playing sim based on the historical (and horrific) State Insane Asylum at Danvers, Massachusetts. The intent isn’t exactly educational, but the creators, who are ordinary Second Life residents, called upon history as a backdrop for a scary and entertaining environment for role-playing. It has a creepy realism, and is done as well as any commercial effort to fashion a game environment out of a historical context. Reading the article, you can see the iterative, exploratory way in which the residents arrived at their current masterpiece.

You might be tempted to compare the Ryder Asylum with any of the many “role playing” games you see in the stores. But there is a big difference. The ones in the stores usually cost a million dollars or more to produce, and take a large team of trained experts. Ryder Asylum was built by people like you and me, using tools available for free and skills that anybody in your house could learn. This is leading to an explosion of creativity and discovery.

So, these days, not only do we have the Exploratorium, but we no longer have to wait for exhibits to be created for us. We create them ourselves. This idea captures, more than anything, the reason why so many people are excited by Second Life. What corporations miss in their attempts to build “their dream marketing presence” is that the buzz is about having your customers create things. Not you. The days of one-way marketing, where a corporation hires a big design agency to “build their presence”, are ending rapidly in the online world. If you see anybody doing that, they’re looking backward, not forward.

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