Monthly Archives: January 2012

Is iAuthor a Learning Management System?

By Dr. Suzanne Kissel

This was the question I found myself asking this weekend as I attempted to move my robust ENG 201: Writing About Literature course into the format.  Compare iAuthor to any LMS feature list and the application fails, miserably.  It doesn’t have a gradebook, discussion forum or chat; it isn’t designed to integrate with any SIS or offer any sort of Single Sign On capabilities.  In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize that comparing iAuthor to any LMS on the market is like comparing apples to oranges — quite as frustrating and quite as futile.

Of course, iAuthor isn’t meant to be an LMS.   It’s an alternative; not a competitor.   iAuthor takes one aspect of putting a course online and does it extremely well.  It manages content.  This makes sense as that is what iAuthor is meant to do.  Arguably, iAuthor puts content online better than any LMS out there.

There’s definitely a learning curve.  After a short weekend investment, I had all of my pre-written content divided into sections and up in an iAuthor template.  The table of contents was created automatically and the use of styles allowed me to change all of the formatting in a single swoop.  This is also one of the main attributes of the template.  Much more time would be required to make my course content unique and a true showcase, but the time I invested was a good enough start.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what the iAuthor interface looks like and what I was able to do in about five hours over the weekend:

In doing one thing, and doing it extraordinarily well, iAuthor exposes another chink in the armor of the traditional LMS.   There are single products out there for almost every function of the LMS; they do it and do it better.   This is one reason why some contend that the days of the LMS are numbered.  iAuthor does a great job of presenting content, even more so because it allows for the seamless incorporation of Creative Commons and other open materials.

However, the reason why iAuthor’s powers of disruption are limited is that it is tied to the iPad.  In order to invest the time it takes to learn the full capabilities of iAuthor, you had better be sure that your students have access to this technology.  As far as academic use is concerned, the fate of one seems tied to the fate of the other.  All we can do now, is to keep testing the viability of the iAuthor + iPad in the classroom to see if the utility of the two together is enough to overcome the cost.

In the coming months, we will be posting on one experiment of designing a course on iAuthor and using that course in the face to face classroom.  Stay tuned… it’s going to be an exciting ride!

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Filed under eBooks, education course content, education technology, iBooks, Learning Management Systems, online education, Suzanne Kissel

President Obama’s State of the Union: The State of Education

by Hap Aziz

I admit the title of this blog entry is misleading; that is, President Obama did not actually provide a deep state-of-education speech last night. However, he did provide some insight into the direction he feels is important for the United States to map out regarding the education of our students, and he specifically called out higher education in some instances. One of his concerns is the cost of higher education, and the control that higher ed institutions should exercise over those costs:

“So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury -– it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

What this might mean for institutions, both public as well as private, was not entirely clear from the context of the speech. Certainly, the cost of obtaining a quality education is very important to students (as well as the families of those students that are helping with financial support). Additionally, this theme has been important to the Obama administration historically. In a meeting held in early December of last year, both the president as well as the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, met with several college presidents and some leaders of non-profit education organization to discuss the topic of rising costs (and graduation rate improvement).

Jane Wellman is the founder and director of the Delta Project, which is a non-profit organization that studies the costs of college education. She commented that there “was good discussion on how we drive down tuition, and what the right role is for the federal government.” It’s the role of the federal government–and how it will chose to execute that role–that represents a big question mark to a lot of people and institutions. As a companion piece to the State of the Union speech, the White House released the document An America Built to Last that serves as a blueprint outlining the themes of the speech. Take a look at page 6 of the document and you’ll find this interesting piece: “The President is proposing to shift some Federal aid away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value.”

How that statement transforms into policy is a wide open question, but there could be some significant conditions and additional expectations attached to federal funding for higher education. It is not necessary to enter into a political discussion of the appropriate role of the federal government in order to see the possibility of a shifting funding landscape. And it doesn’t take much prognostication power to see that institutions that act proactively regarding costs are going to be standing on a much better foundation in the years ahead. Certainly, the informed use of technology in the teaching and learning environment will have a great impact on how institutions are able to move forward. I, for one, am very interested in seeing how this all unfolds.

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Filed under Congress, cost of education, U.S. government

The Real Apple Education Gamechanger… iTunesU?

by Dr. Suzanne Kissel

When reporting on Apple’s entry into the educational space, most commentators lingered fondly over iBook and capabilities offered by iAuthor.  However, the new iTunesU App may be the real game changer in how institutions offer and students interact with course content.

It’s easy to understand why the new iTunesU App played third fiddle to the other initiatives.  A mostly bypassed button on iTunes, iTunesU offered free-to-watch lectures and audio podcasts.   In Apple’s iPad-centered view of education, the capabilities of the iTunesU App for content delivery and interaction could render technologies such as the Learning Management System, obsolete.

Here are some of the reasons why:

1)   Ease of Use:  Quite simply, materials offered in iTunesU look like the typical course binder where learners can view course information, posts, notes, and materials.  The only “electronic” thing about this is that it’s offered on an iPad.  This is a far cry from current electronic delivery methods that require elaborate help mechanisms and student orientations.

2)   Single Point of Access:  From the iTunesU course binder, learners can download all course materials whether they’re videos, apps, or books from iBooks.  This also includes lecture, notes, study sheets and PDF’s that can be attached to the syllabus.  Moreover, instructors can create materials in iAuthor and make them available in their iTunesU course binder.  iTunesU is not only the glue that holds iBooks and iTunes together, but it’s the mechanism that could weave these applications into the very fabric of education.

3)  Interaction:  We’ve already seen how iTunesU allows the instructor to gather materials in one and offer them, possibility even free of charge, to students.  What hasn’t been apparent is how the applications offers students the same capabilities.   Learners can synch their notes and course information between devices, all kept in their iTunesU account.  In addition to taking notes on the material, iTunesU offers students a checkbox for each course section, allowing them to track their progress.

Although there are many questions still to be answered, iTunesU holds enormous promise for the delivery of content.  Not only does it promise to be the venue for integrating low-cost textbooks in the lives of students, it offers instructors the means to tap the endless customization promised by iAuthor.  Anyone who has witnessed a learner pay over 90 dollars for a textbook and than another fee on top of that for access to electronic materials knows that textbook cost is an issue.  Anyone who has seen instructors pour hours into revamping a course when publishers release new editions or ask students to buy several textbooks, only to read a chapter from each one, can see problems in these practices as well. It could be, with iTunesU, that the revolution is finally at our door.

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Filed under eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, Learning Management Systems, online education

From eBooks to iBooks: Apple Repositions Itself in the Education Space

Dr. Suzanne Kissel provides thought leadership to a number of higher education institutions in the Teaching & Learning areas. She has been in instrumental in developing Academic Technology Strategies for colleges and universities throughout the United States, and she provides valued leadership in program development, academic assessment, and strategic planning. Suzanne joins the Learning Through Play & Technology blog with her first post here on Apple’s announcements of the day regarding the education market.

Upon hearing the word eBook, most students and faculty members imagine lines of text with an intermittent picture or two.  Purchase models for these books vary, with some available for lease.  Despite a decent amount of hype in 2011, eBooks had what can best be described as a very uneven reception in pilot programs across the United States.

In a much anticipated announcement, Apple positioned itself to make the eBook story a very different one in 2012.

Speaking from the Guggenheim Museum, Apple representatives announced two new applications.  The updated version of Apple’s popular iBook application, iBooks2 is free and available from the app store beginning today.  The other of the two applications, iBooks Author, allows any interested party to easily create interesting, interactive iPad lessons.  Rather than simply putting a book on the screen, iBooks Author allows authors and publishers to harness the multimedia advantages of the tablet to transform text into experience.  For instance, learners can electronically “mark up” their iPad books and keep those annotations, along with the books, after the conclusion of the course.

In addition to the two applications, Apple announced that it was expanding iTunesU beyond the realm of higher education to reach into elementary and high schools.

Apple iPad with iTunesU – Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

To support this initiative, Apple has formed partnerships with Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  These three publishers are responsible for 90 percent of the textbooks used with courses taught in the U.S.  In addition, DK. Publishing, which offers vividly colored books for younger readers is also joining the team.

The promise of this announcement is that it could pave the way for the release of highly customized, interactive, and inexpensive textbooks.  According to Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, the new, interactive iPad books would cost $14.99.  Whether the low cost of the textbooks could outweigh the comparatively high cost of the iPad itself (beginning at $499) remains to be seen.  Regardless, the announcement certainly pulls the eBook to the foremost of the new advances promising to change the face of education.

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Filed under eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, iBooks, technology

Jane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World

by Hap Aziz

I’ve always been a proponent of the sentiment that people learn best when they play. In fact, people of all ages can learn some very significant things when they are playing–things about the world, society, each other, and themselves. Learning is, of course, a prerequisite to doing. By encouraging game play, we can expect some very good and important changes to take place within the game playing community in terms of what they have learned how to do. And if we spend enough time playing the right kinds of games, we might even be able to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.

Ready for some brilliant inspiration? Take a look at Jane McGonigal’s TED video below.


Filed under computer games, games, simulation

The Deceptive Attraction of Emerging Education Technologies

by Hap Aziz

In his recent EmergingEdTech blog post “When It Comes to Education Technology, Video Won’t Kill the Radio Star,” Andrew Clark* paints a compelling picture of emerging education technologies being used by teachers in boldly innovative ways, empowering them with new tools and techniques to improve learning outcomes. Like many that have presented the potential for positive disruption, he begins with an exciting illustration:

“Imagine a class of 50 students preparing for a biology exam on a digital learning platform. Patterns emerge from the students’ annotations in the cloud: perhaps more students are highlighting and discussing sections in the book related to Mendel’s Model of Inheritance than any other topic. From course analytics, the instructor can see which discussions are more likely to lead to an improvement on the exam, and which ones are correlated with discussions and exam outcomes in other subject matter. The result: the instructor can tailor his or her course curricula, and student understanding of Mendelian inheritance improves.”

How likely is such a scenario, given what we know of the prevalent culture within higher education? Do our colleges and universities have the resources and infrastructure in place that are required for this kind of forward movement? Walsh provides examples to make his point regarding the kinds of initiatives and benefits that are being realized; for example, the measurement of online activity to predict student performance with a relatively high degree of accuracy. However, as practicing educators, we all know the more common situations and stories: the struggles of moving course content into a learning management system (and when it gets there, it looks like a text-heavy website from 1998); the lack of an institutional strategy to develop online courses other than to hire a couple of instructional designers who are then tasked with running Blackboard or Moodle workshops for faculty; the institutional purchase of hardware and software without a clear vision of how or why the tools should be implemented in the teaching and learning environment. While there are some pockets of exemplary work being done at a relatively few number of institutions, the broader landscape reality is much more chaotic and confused, with significant progress coming almost accidentally and certainly much more slowly.

So while I agree with Clark’s overall premise, let me mention three institutional characteristics that tend to get in the way of any real, systematic progress regarding the use of emerging tech in education.

  1. Lack of incentive – What are the incentives for faculty to develop more interactive online environments for their students? Whether there are contractual performance clauses or professional development opportunities that provide clear benefits (along with institutional commitment for that support), there is little reason for faculty at most institutions to do much more than place syllabi online (if teaching residential courses) or to do more than place a lot of course notes in the LMS shell and respond to some discussion posts (if teaching online).
  2. Lack of support – If the incentive piece is addressed (or an institution is fortunate enough to have innovative and enthusiastic faculty), how will the use of emergent technologies be facilitated and ultimately supported? So much of online instruction at institutions has relied on having faculty with technology outside of their areas of subject matter expertise. But for those faculty that are willing to incorporate serious gaming techniques into their courses, there is little, if any, support to make it happen. And even at institutions that have instructional designers available for course development, the majority of those instructional designers may be familiar with navigating through the complexities of a learning management system, but they are not prepared to develop interactive software that leverages social media, video games,  and other robust methods of engagement.
  3. Overabundance of inertia – Finally, even if the first two characteristics are adequately addressed, there is still inertia across an entire institution that can restrict the process of innovation before any changes are made. This type of inertia is comprised of several factors including inconsistent communications between academic and technology constituents on a campus, fear of negative budget impact, weak academic leadership, poorly framed and articulated mission regarding the role of academic technology, and an ambiguous governance structure when it comes to making technology decisions that will have an impact within the teaching and learning environment.

Where does all of this leave the future of education technologies? Clearly people outside of the institutional environment are greatly enamored by the promise of what the future might hold in education. But this is the deception of that compelling attraction to emergent education technologies–this group of people is unaware of the challenging realities. Still, there are people inside the institutional environment as well, and they are aware that such potential exists. However, because of the characteristics listed above, it is much easier to maintain the status quo or move forward taking tiny steps, while letting the innovators elsewhere take the giant-leap risks. Is this mechanism that we as educators can accept? Perhaps a good way to answer that question is to take a look at how the state of education technology has changed over the past 50 years or so, and consider whether or not the transformation that was promised was the transformation that was realized.

*This updated post corrects the cited author of “When It Comes to Education Technology, Video Won’t Kill the Radio Star” as being Andrew Clark, and not Kelly Walsh as originally named.


Filed under education technology, emerging technologies

From Skylanders to Arena: Board Gaming Gets a High-tech Twist

by Hap Aziz

In the last post, guest blogger Martin LaGrow discussed the online education potential of the new Activision computer game Skylanders. Martin’s premise in part was related to the compelling nature of the real-character and virtual-environment combination in game play along with the observation that the virtual environment is actually engaging beyond the typical collection of text-heavy web pages. Skylanders represents the first of a new wave of interactive software, and that will prove to be extremely valuable in the context of mastering educational content. Provided, of course, that game designers and publishers are able to “get their act together” when it comes to designing and delivering game content.

At the website, Chris Morris has written about a new product technology demonstrated by ePawn at the Computer Electronics Show called Arena that will connect to a computer in order to facilitate greater interaction between player and game system. Arena potentially goes one better than Skylanders by providing a reconfigurable game board surface in the form of a 26 inch interactive screen display surface, and physical objects placed on the screen surface will be tracked in real time. Thinking outside of the box from the education perspective, one can imagine a variety of scenarios in which the Arena display can be used as an extension of course content. The first question that comes to mind, though, is, “What game development company would be willing to take the lead on this content development for the education marketplace?”

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Filed under education, education technology, games

Skylanders and Online Education: Flying the Friendly SkyEd Skies

by Martin LaGrow

Recently I posted a blog called Reimagining Online Education in which I proposed that academic institutions should emulate social media games and take learning management systems in a more interactive direction ( After writing the blog, I purchased the Activision game Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure for my kids (OK, maybe for myself too), and quickly became enthralled. It is engaging, self-directed, self-paced, rewards mastery, and progressively scaffolds on previous achievements—everything online education should be. It begs the question, “Are there elements of Skylanders game play that would translate to a new online learning environment?”

First, a little background on the game. Skylanders is a first of its kind—a toy based role playing game that works across multiple platforms including an online component. What make Skylanders unique is the “Portal of Power” and action figure-type characters that bring life to the game.  The characters work through RFID. Each one stores in its memory statistics, points earned, unlocked features, etc. This enables the game player to use their figurines on multiple systems, all well progressively advancing its statistics and abilities. The character can be reset at any time if the user wishes to start over.

Aside from the portal and characters, game play is very much like any other RPG. The game plays out in a structured order—users must accomplish one chapter before proceeding to the next (but can repeat chapters at any time). The game player is accompanied by a number of additional characters that provide guidance and direction, even reminders if the user seems to lose focus on the objective of a challenge. And interaction consists of more stimulation than just arcade-game style action, though that is abundantly available. The user must complete several logic-based puzzles and solve problems along the way, keeping the game mentally stimulating. Various tokens, gems, and rewards push the gamer to travel every path, seek out and defeat every challenge, and ultimately provide a sense of achievement by rewarding mastery.

Finally, there is an online interactive piece that is separate from console play. By plugging your portal in to your Mac or PC, you can participate in a Sims-type world, where you develop your own living space and interact with other Skylanders in real time.  Challenges exist there as well, but the game play does not relate to the console version of the game.

The possibilities for leveraging this kind of interaction in online education are limitless. Imagine an online program where each course is a software ‘world,’ accessible via game console or live online environment. Each course world consists of chapters including content and application. Students demonstrate mastery of a level by completing quizzes and solving problems. Success and achievements are stored locally in the students RFID based avatar, which can be uploaded centrally at regular intervals. Interaction and guidance are provided by guide characters. In an Algebra course: “I see you’re having trouble solving the equation.  Why not try balancing before solving?”  “It looks as though you’ve mastered slope/intercept. Would you like to practice again or do you accept the final chapter challenge?”

For students requiring real interaction, an online commons area can provide as much or as little as they’d like. Different areas would be opened to students based on which courses they take. Instructors could host live office hours by meeting with students in pre-established meeting areas of the commons.

Today’s student is accustomed to interaction in virtual worlds for recreation. Menu and text presentation are not easily engaging them in course work. But from Mario Brothers to Zelda, they are no strangers to spending hour after hour mastering skills and garnering achievements on a console or computer. Present learning management systems are not tapping into this intrinsic trait. When they do, you may see a whole new level of achievement and mastery from students who just don’t want to turn off their Algebra course and go to bed


Filed under avatars, children, education, education technology, future technology, games, online education, simulation, technology, virtual worlds

Establishing Avatar Believability

by Hap Aziz

In my last entry, I began exploring the topic of what makes an avatar believable: I considered abstraction as a piece of the equation. The responses I received to that post encouraged me to dive deeper into the subject, and I pulled out some research I did for believable non-player characters in computer game/simulation environments that I think is applicable to this discussion. My thinking now is that there is a threshold of believability and therein lies the key—abstraction and concreteness are secondary issues. So what is the threshold of believability, and how do we create avatars that pass it? Ultimately, it’s important to realize that if avatars are to effect the behavior of the people that drive them, how avatars interact with other avatars becomes important–and we can greatly enhance the virtual environment by populating it with autonomous (non-player) avatars. So I’ll spead to that here as well.

While creating avatars that pass a requisite threshold of believability will present multiple design and implementation hurdles to overcome, it is important to keep in mind that the threshold is one of subjective perception rather than objective reality. Pimentel and Texeira (1993) observe that the realism of created avatars does not have to appear as actual people in the physical world; rather the idea is to achieve just enough realism so that disbelief can be suspended for a period of time. They state, “This is the same mental shift that happens when you get wrapped up in a good novel” (p. 15). Loyall (1997) states, “Believability is similar to the intuitive notion of adequate characters in traditional non-interactive media such as animated films or books. In these traditional media, characters are adequate if they permit viewers to suspend their disbelief” (p. 113).

Reaching the threshold of believability will depend upon several factors including the subjective perception that an avatar’s behavior is independent of external directives (i.e., the avatar should not obviously be programmed if it is non-player driven), the avatar should be predictably rational (or justifiably irrational as appropriate), and the avatar should be able to communicate naturally with other avatars. Taken in combination, these factors establish intelligent behavior as a foundation for believability. In addition to the behavioral characteristics of believability, there are the physical characteristics of believability such as avatar appearance (including the level of animation realism within the simulated environment) and quality of voice synthesis (if voice synthesis is used rather than a text-based or live voice communication system), as well as unique cultural characteristics applicable to the avatars within the context of the simulation scenario.

An initial review of the literature indicates an innovative approach to modeling avatar behavior. In her 1998 text titled Affective Computing (p. 2), Rosalind Picard of the MIT Media Laboratory states “The evidence is mounting for an essential role of emotions in basic rational and intelligent behavior. Emotions not only contribute to a richer quality of interaction, but they directly impact a person’s ability to interact in an intelligent way. Emotional skills, especially the ability to recognize and express emotions, are essential for natural communications with humans.”

Picard goes on to create a framework that she terms “affective computing”; that is, a form of computing that relates to, derives from, or otherwise seeks to deliberately influence the emotional state of the user. In creating a system by which avatars may interact with users within certain emotional contexts, we address a critical component of the problem of making the avatars “personalized, intelligent, believable, and engaging” (p. 184). Loyall asserts that an avatar’s ability to problem solve intelligently and competently is not important as whether the avatar is “responsive, emotional, social, and in some sense complete” (p. 113). As described by Picard there are five emotion components of a completely affective computing system:

  1. Emotional behavior;
  2. Fast primary emotions;
  3. Cognitively generated emotions;
  4. Emotional experience: cognitive awareness, physiological awareness, and subjective feelings;
  5. Body-mind interactions.

The third emotion component, cognitively generated, is especially useful within the context of affective computing. The current state-of-the-art and experimental systems (including several popular computer entertainment RPGs and simulations) are based upon models that synthesize non-player avatar emotions through cognitive mechanisms. Computational methods facilitated through numerical analysis, database manipulation, and probability and statistics are well suited to negotiating the rule-based systems that are the most common functional inputs for cognitive emotion synthesis. It is therefore logical to conclude that emotion synthesis through “computationally friendly” cognitive mechanisms represents the best approach to implementing avatars that are capable of intelligent interaction with human-driven avatars. Specifically, there are two theoretical designs germane to computationally facilitated emotion synthesis: the Ortony Clore Collins (OCC) Cognitive Model and Roseman’s Cognitive Appraisal Model.

The original intent of Ortony, Clore, and Collins in publishing their 1988 book, The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, was to delineate a cognitive appraisal model of emotions. While they felt there was a necessity for AI systems to be able to reason about emotions, they never contended that machines would come to have or need to be able to programmatically represent emotions. Perhaps ironically, their model is ideal for programmatic synthesis of emotion and representing avatar emotional response; in fact the OCC model is considered the standard for synthesizing emotional responses in computers (Picard, 1998). They proposed that there are three aspects of the world that elicit either positive or negative emotional responses from people: events that are of concern to us, the actions of those individuals or entities that we perceive to be responsible for those events, and objects in the world around us. This structure is the basis for the specification of 22 emotional types as well as a rule-based system used to generate these types. Consider that once an emotion appropriate to a situation or in response to a player action is synthesized, the non-player avatar will be able to react believably in response to the emotional condition established.

Where does this all lead? I’m very interested in establishing what I call a “Believability Quotient” to measure avatar believability. I’m going to propose to do this within a Dungeons and Dragons-like point system where avatar characteristics are listed and ranked. I’ll thank my friend David Arneson for leading me down that path. Look for that in the next blog post.


Loyall, A. B. (1997). “Some Requirements and Approaches for Natural Language in a Believable Agent.” In Trappl, R. & Petta, P. (Ed.), Creating Personalities for Synthetic Actors: Towards Autonomous Personality Agents. Berlin: Springer.

Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Picard, R. (1998). Affective computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Pimentel, K. & Texeira, K. (1993). Virtual Reality: Through the New Looking-Glass. Intel/Windcrest McGraw Hill.

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Filed under avatars, believability quotient, ego-investment, games, simulation, virtual worlds

Avatar Effectiveness Requires the Suspension of Disbelief

by Hap Aziz

The concept of avatarial experiences modifying human behavior in some sort of reverse feedback loop is likely a necessary part of the requisite believability factor. That is, if we as real people are to be manipulated (or at least behavior modified) by our created avatars, we need to be able to suspend disbelief regarding their virtual identities in order to accept them and to succumb to their influence. I think that our disbelief can be mitigated through the use of technological advances in the areas of display and interaction.

Let me start by framing the counterpoint with an exaggerated example of abstraction: a game of strategy and warfare, a game where royalty commands armies with the mission of decimating the enemy. The game is ancient and known the world over; the game is chess.

The point that I’m making is that chess is very much like the games played on modern computer and console systems in terms of challenge, value of play, and so on. The substantial difference is that chess is completely a game of abstraction and intellect. The pieces are representative of the positions of power they occupy in the game, but they do not evoke any particular emotional response based on appearance, mannerisms, etc. As a result, there is little emotional connection with the pieces as other than chits in the negotiation of play. And this means that there is no (or very little) avatarial connection between player and piece.

Maia Garau (2006) asserts that mediated interaction between person and avatar in a virtual environment is improved by leveraging our ability to communicate non-verbally. Simply put, people want to see character expression, and the more highly defined the expression, the better able we are to connect and identify with the avatar as well as understand and empathize with it. So back to our Chess pieces: there are not non-verbal cues; no expressive eyes, no posture of fear or bravery, and so on. There is only abstraction of the piece’s role, and this is not compelling for us to develop a relationship with the piece.

My take:

The application of technology to entertainment has yielded ultra-realistic game characters that are able to communicate intent and action through visual and auditory cues that are natural to human beings. While this trend was a logical outgrowth of regular improvements in technology, there has been the unintended consequence of people becoming emotionally entangled with these onscreen characters–hence their classification as avatars rather than game pieces. Without thinking, we become involved with our game characters to some degree, and that degree appears to be increasing as the level of sophistication in avatar appearance increases. This is not a coincidence, and at least some preliminary research suggests why this is happening.

The thought that now strikes me is that there may not be any requirement for the physical form in order for humans to establish, build, and ultimately nourish relationships–at least beyond a certain point of physical development (i.e., for babies, toddlers, etc.). In other words, we value a form and an image that we can conceptualize and hold in our minds, even if we cannot hold that form in our arms. Could it be that we are hard-wired to actually value the “content of our character” above those physical aspects–race, gender, age–that lead to bias?


Garau, M. (2006). Selective fidelity: Investigating priorities for the creation of expressive avatars. Avatars at Work and Play, v. 34: 17-38.

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Filed under avatars, games, simulation, virtual identity