Monthly Archives: December 2011

Welcome, 2012!

Another year over, and a new one about to begin! We wish you all the very best, and we look forward to sharing thoughts and ideas on education, technology, and playing games. And speaking of games, we highly recommend Skylanders by Activision. It’s a wonderful combination of avatars, virtual worlds, and in-game guided tutorials. This is the way online learning should be.

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Filed under avatars, games, simulation, virtual worlds

Creating Custom Avatars with

by Hap Aziz

I’ve made quite a few posts in the last week or so on the subject of avatars, and I thought it might be a fun New Year’s activity to create my own custom avatar. While browsing through old posts at, I came across an informative post on using a freely available web-based tool called Voki for creating custom animated speaking avatars. The post demonstrates the ease of using Voki, and it also provides resources that are useful for educators. I hope to experiment with Voki for some content that I could actually use in this blog, but in the meantime, I’ve provided the video tutorial that provided–you can see it in the video feature area on the right side of the screen. It’s about six and a half minutes long, but it’s well done, so that’s meaningful time spent working through the tutorial.

If you do happen to create any custom avatars, please feel free to share their locations on this blog. I’d love to take a look.


Filed under avatars, education technology, simulation, virtual identity

The Two-way Street of Player-Avatar Relationships

by Hap Aziz

When dealing with the subject of avatars, we can think of identity in at least two ways: there is the non-virtual form of identity, in which the player thinks of him or herself in the traditional sense of self. That is, “I am me.” This concept of identity predates any thoughts of the modern avatar, and is not at all technology dependent. Then there is the virtual identity, perhaps most commonly thought of the identity of a player-character within a game environment (also more broadly thought of the identity an individual has built for him or herself through all manner of computer interaction: through social media, online communications, interactions through online courses, and so on. My blog entries have helped me shape my virtual identity in the education space, for example). For the context of this discussion, we want to examine virtual identity as that which facilitates the player-avatar relationship.

In addition to virtual identity and non-virtual identity, Zachary Waggoner identifies a third type of identity—projective identity—which he frames as the transitional state between virtual and non-virtual identities. That is, it is the phase during which the game player makes the mental leap from his or her own non-virtual natural behavioral state and the state that the player adopts for the game environment. It appears that the required amount of transition time is related to the level of identification the player has with the avatar character—back, again, to the concept of ego-investment.

I find this exchange between Waggoner and one of his study subjects (identified as Shiva) to be of particular interest (pp. 150-151):

Shiva: You get so much control over that character. I got to do whatever I wanted. I felt very connected with that character I guess and it was just, I don’t know, that’s what’s with you the whole time, the character. You kill things, you wander, you’re stuck in the wilderness, and you have to talk to people, but you’re always with your character so that is what stuck out to me.
Waggoner: Who was [Shiva’s avatar] in your mind?
Shiva: I guess mostly an extension of me.

The game Waggoner chose for his study (Morrowind) is a large, open-ended environment that allows players a tremendous amount of freedom to act in either ethical or unethical ways. It even distinguishes between (and appropriately rewards or punishes) similar actions, such as murder (not a good behavior) and killing in self defense (an acceptable behavior). Waggoner found that his study participants made some efforts to determine the limits of the ethical engine within the game so they knew what their boundaries would be within the game.

In this context, it was the avatar’s environment that modified the non-virtual behavior of the game players, at least during the time period of game play. I am very interested in going a step further and determining if in-game ethical boundaries ever have an effect on player behavior in non-virtual situations. In other words, does a player’s existing sense of self always trump his or her avatar’s identity?

In a practical sense, this behavior modification could take place; after all, if a player learns a fact of history inside a game environment, that bit of knowledge sticks with the player regardless of any game play participation. It is entirely possible that an attitude or behavior acquired in-game could just as easily stick with the player after the game situation is over.


Waggoner, Z. C. (2007). Passage to Morrowind: (Dis)locating virtual and “real” identities in video role-playing games. Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, United States — Arizona.


Filed under avatars, ego-investment, games, simulation, virtual identity

SOPA, PIPA and their Effect on the Intersection of Education and the Internet

by Hap Aziz

There is a lot of buzz right now about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA: H.R. 3261) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA: S. 968) that are making their way through the legislative process, and tomorrow morning (about 7:45 am Eastern time) I will be on Fox 35 News in Orlando to discuss the implications in general. Congress will pick up the debate again when it reconvenes in 2012; in the meantime, this is a good opportunity to examine what effects the legislation may have on Internet use in education. The potential impact for educators is great, as the bills if passed into law would deal directly with the use and distribution of copyrighted material over websites–including institutional and faculty run sites.

First of all, what are the two bills? The first one originated from the Senate, which is PIPA, and it’s intent is to give the U.S. government and content copyright holders more legal tools to help prevent access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods,” especially those sites registered and operating outside of the country. It defines infringement as the distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-DRM technology (which can be used to circumvent copyright protections). SOPA is very similar in its intent, but it is much broader in terms of implementation and consequences; SOPA can additionally target companies that provide Internet connectivity and force the rerouting of what is currently secure traffic between users and websites.

The most vocal supporters of SOPA/PIPA have been the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, while vocal opponents include companies that are based on Internet activity, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and eBay. It’s interesting to note that over the past two years, the supporters have outspent the opponents by about 10-to-1 in terms of lobbying dollars in front of Congress.

While researching information for this blog entry, I came across quite a few video clips that explain the bills and their potential ramifications, and perhaps it is significant that nearly all the clips that are out there are produced by opponents or present the case that passage of the legislation would have an overall detrimental effect. The following clip appears to offer a fairly straightforward interpretation of the bills (it was produced before SOPA was introduced, but there is supplemental narration at the end directed at some of the SOPA consideration. It is worth viewing to gain some contextual understanding of the issue.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

What would passage of SOPA/PIPA mean to the education community? Clearly, modern teaching and learning environments make extensive use of web-based content from a variety of sources and through a variety channels. While much of the content is licensed from publishers with appropriate accommodations for academic uses, a good deal of content may reside on websites that do not have the proper copyright permissions for every image, audio, or video clip to which they provide access. These sites are vulnerable to a forced shut-down order issued by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) hosting the offending website would have to comply within five days.

Quite a few educators associated with projects such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, the Internet Archive, Creative Commons, Harvard University, and Stanford University, for example, are concerned about the legislation, and they have been involved in pointing out how SOPA/PIPA could adversely effect technology innovation in the teaching and learning environment. In a signed letter to Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member John Conyers of the House Committee on the Judiciary, the interested parties state:

These bills would undermine this framework and chill the creation of educational content. Sites that host or use user-generated content could be required to monitor their site for infringing material, and could potentially have their domain name blocked by the government if content owners thought that infringement was occurring on that site. This represents an entirely new legal power given to content owners to control the flow of content online and to shape the very foundation of the Internet. Indeed, it could lead to entire sites becoming unavailable due to the behavior of a tiny minority of confused or malicious users.

These concerns are significant, and clearly they are not merely the expressions of uninformed and unsubstantiated fears (for the full copy of the letter, click here). There are many opponents of SOPA/PIPA representing both the education and commercial spaces, and these people standing against passage have been very vocal in their opposition. We do not have much longer to wait until 2012 to see whether Congress is listening, and how it will weigh out the arguments pro and con.

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Filed under colleges and universities, Congress, copyright, education, Internet, technology, U.S. government

Avatar Growth through Ego Investment

by Hap Aziz

In terms of computer games, much of my interests lie in the relationships that players have with their avatars, as I am of the belief that these relationships can be of educational benefit in a number of areas including remediation and tutoring. Some time ago I observed that players are willing to learn a great deal of information so that their avatars might succeed in virtual environments, while those same players have a much more difficult time learning material for their own success in real (school) environments. So I want to focus on that player-avatar relationship, with the thought that students may have greater success in educational environments if they are responsible for the success of their chosen avatars.

While avatar-based computer game characters have been around for nearly 30 years in some form or other, research on avatars—even agreement on a precise definition of avatars upon which to base research—has really just started to develop in the past decade. One thing that I find encouraging is that more of the recent research demonstrates collaboration between the education/research community and the professional game development community. This should drive innovative thinking moving forward.

In his research, Zachary Waggoner cites an interview with Tim Schafer, a LucasArts game designer who suggests that the relationship between player and avatar change during the course of the game; in the early stages, the character “cares about” things that the player has yet to see as important, so the player needs motivation. As the game play progresses, the player will come to care about these same things, and that’s a process that Schafer terms “ego-investing” that “implies a reciprocal relationship between user and avatar” (pp. 11-12).

This notion of “ego-investing” rings true to me, and I find that it is an accurate representation of the game-playing learning curve that accompanies more complex simulation and role-playing games. Waggoner goes on to assert that the ego-investing process is related to the concept of identity and he asks the question of whether or not game-play can have an effect on the formation of a person’s identity. I would argue that the player’s identity can be impacted based on the emotional investment the player has in his or her avatar, and that is, in turn, related (at least in part) to the depth of the narrative. The significance to the simulation or role-playing game as a vehicle for the development of ego-investment is that these forms of games allow a wide variety of player choices in an equally wide variety of conditions and scenarios. Additionally, the amount of time a player spends in a sim or RPG environment is much greater than that of other game genres, and time is required in the development of the player-avatar relationship.

At this point, one of my new questions is “how deep does ego-investing go?” I hope to explore further whether or not this is a universal phenomenon or it is an artifact of a particular kind of player being thrust into a particular type of play scenario. If there are definable boundaries to this type of relationship, we can start to understand how to foster it in the pursuit of improved educational experiences.


Waggoner, Z. C. (2007). Passage to Morrowind: (Dis)locating virtual and “real” identities in video role-playing games. Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, United States — Arizona. Retrieved March 29, 2009, from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text database. (Publication No. AAT 3258183).

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Filed under avatars, colleges and universities, education, education technology, ego-investment, games, remediation

No Funding for ARPA-ED in 2012 Omnibus Spending Bill

by Hap Aziz

Back in March of this year, President Obama discussed several programs in his 2012 proposed budget with the intent to promote innovative programs for “winning the future” through education. Included in the 2012 budget proposal was $90 million to fund a new competition called the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED). Modeled on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA-ED would have funded both public and private research within higher education as well as industry, and projects could have ranged from widely diverse areas such as game-based learning to personal digital tutors.

The competition would be open to industry, universities, or consortia of other innovative outside organizations and winners would be selected based on their potential to create a dramatic breakthrough in using technology to empower learning and teaching.

As it turns out, funding for ARPA-ED was not included in the $1 trillion omnibus spending measure that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. The idea itself was promising, but funding new initiatives is always problematic in this tighter budgetary climate. Perhaps this is something the private sector could take up on its own. The question is, how much merit does the idea actually have?

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Filed under Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, education, government funding

More Avatars: Playing with Gender in Simulation and Narrative

by Hap Aziz

In considering the “classic” definition of the term “avatar” of vessel for God on Earth, we are immediately put into the frame of mind of a one-way relationship or control, much like a puppet-master and marionette: the one pulling the strings while the other gives expression to direction received. However, in the play environment, we find that there is a more sophisticated relationship between gamer and character. When the gamer becomes immersed in the simulation environment and the narrative unfolds, he or she sees events from the perspective of the avatar. It is as though these events exist for the avatar’s life, separate from the gamer… and as though the events would continue even without the gamer’s participation.

Steven Poole argues that gamers learn to care for their characters to the point of feeling grief at their loss. This may be driven by the fact that gamers see events through their characters’ perspective most often (Poole, 2000). This phenomenon is not limited to computer games; Gary Fine found that table-top role playing gamers became very invested in the “lives” of their characters to the point of cheating to protect the favorites (Fine, 1983).

So we see that there is a relationship that changes or affects the gamer in potentially significant ways. This becomes even more interesting when we consider the willingness of many male gamers to “try on” female forms in the games they play. Carol Clover considers this process a way to play with pronouns, so to speak, during the course of a narrative (Clover, 1992). And we do see this quite frequently: the Tomb Raider series of games features a female character, while the Virtua Fighter series is nearly half female characters — and both games are played predominantly by males.

Yet there is a disconnect between the simulation and the narrative where the willingness to swap genders ends.  In considering the original Battlestar Galactica versus the remake, we see counter-example: a large number of males who were unwilling to accept the Battlestar Galactica remake cite that the characters Starbuck and Boomer were originally males as reason for their reticence.

Gonzalo Frasca argues that “unlike traditional media, video games are not just based on representation,” and that, “even if simulations and narratives do share some common elements,” they are essentially different (pp. 221-222). This is a key distinction, and one that explains why while a boy might play as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, he likely would not want to play with a Lara Croft doll. There is some difference, it would seem, in the way gender is considered in simulation versus narrative.

Which leads me to the question: What are the boundaries of those differences, and how might we leverage that knowledge in utilizing avatars to educate and promote awareness of gender roles in the real world?


Clover, C. (1992). Men, women, and chain saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fine, G. (1983). Shared fantasy: Role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frasca, G. (2003). “Simulation versus narrative.” In Wolf, M. & Perron, B. (Eds.), The video game theory reader (pp. 221-235). New York: Routledge.

Poole, S. (2000). Trigger happy: The inner life of video games. London: Fourth Estate.

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Filed under avatars, games, gender roles, narrative, simulation