Creative Code

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Want to support the development of young creative coders in South Africa? You can make a donation via our crowdfunding campaign on Thundafund.

Creative Code is a prize-winning World Design Capital 2014 recognised project. Winner of a WDC2014  “Best Pitch” award (27 May 2014), Creative Code introduces school kids to computer coding, making coding and visual design more accessible through youth media, gaming and mobile phones. You can see some of our lessons here.

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Winning pitch: The Creative Code team at a World Design Capital 2014 pitching session

A low-cost media literacy coding curriculum is presented through weekly lessons and longer workshops during summer and winter vacations.

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Khazatown Blues: A localised version of Super Mario

Projects  emphasize youth culture (mobile photography, pixelart games) and local visual languages and media  (beading, patterns and fabric design) to engage students with the logical and procedural dimension of visual design.

In contrast to the ‘black box’ approach of most digital literacy curricula, Creative Code emphasises tangible programming, embodied learning, web-making, visual design, FOSS development processes, and game design and development.

Our goals

Code craft

A central goal is to engage young people in meaningful creative digital design projects. Over the past eighteen months, the Ikamva Coders have produced several   original games and many visual designs. These experiences and learning processes  have been documented with the aim of producing curricula, learning materials,   and research into the representational and conceptual processes at work as   young people learn about coding and digital design.

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Logo for Khazatown Blues – a game developed by Grade 12 students from Creative Code.

Careers and further study

We also encourage and assist the coders in applying to courses of study involving digital media and Computer Science.  The Coders learn about various opportunities that are open to them – not only Computer   Science (where Maths can be a big barrier) but also the many creative career   paths which today require digital skills or coding.

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We mobilise code

Our key long-term aim, is to make our coding lessons accessible to young people via low-cost mobile phones and tablets, and to use our research to improve the accessibility of such introductory materials. Right now we’re experimenting with our own tablet apps, and with the great resources available for mobile coding from TouchDevelop.

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Why coding lessons?

Only the most privileged young South Africans have opportunities to study Visual Art or Information Technology at school level. According to the Department of Basic Education, in 2013, only 4 874 of SA’s 562 112 Grade 12s studied Information Technology and only 6 755 studied Visual Art for the National Senior Certificate. This means that only around 1% of matriculants are getting a foundation in the subjects which would help lead them to careers in Digital Media or Computer Science.

Who are we?

Creative Code is run in partnership between the Centre for Film and Media Studies from the University  of Cape Town, and Ikamva Youth, a multi award-winning youth development  non-profit organization. Ikamva Youth relies on volunteer tutors and equips learners from disadvantaged communities with the knowledge, skills, networks and resources to access  tertiary education and/or employment opportunities once they matriculate.

We often work collaboratively with staff and postgraduate students from Computer Science and UCT’s Centre in ICT for Development.

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Bhavana Harrilal from the Centre in ICT4D and Paul Mesarcik from Thingking

The Ikamva Coders are twenty eight members of Ikamva Youth, ages fifteen to eighteen. They   participate in a volunteer-run after-school programme, attending extra-mural   homework and tutoring  sessions and holiday workshops.

Contact Us

Our Facebook page

https://www.facebook.com/creativecodeSA

You can make a donation via our crowdfunding campaign on Thundafund

https://www.thundafund.com/creativecode

We publish our artwork and games on our website

http://ikamvacodes.wordpress.com

More about Ikamva Youth

Ikamva Youth   http://ikamvayouth.org/

Programming with Processing – CFMS course

I convene a Production Programme in Interactive Media at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. The second semester of the course centres around an Introduction to Programming unit. This is definitely the most difficult part of the programme for the students, as it is where the course shifts from a design course to one which emphasizes the need for students to grapple more seriously with the development, systems and coding of online media.

When I started teaching this course, I taught ActionScript. This was easy for students in certain ways, but I never felt it really produced the kind of technical learning that I aimed to facilitate. Apart from the cost of the software, the fact that Flash was a closed proprietary system did not assist the students with learning from other programmers’ code. The visual interface also meant many code-shy students were able to avoid really engaging with scripting, and the distributed code could be extremely confusing. Finally, the programme is built for industry workflows, and thus also assumes that the user is a skilled scripter who is familiar with concepts such as object orientation. Last year, with the assistance of Lyndon Daniels, who put together some open content learning materials I ditched Flash and shifted the curriculum to the Processing language.

Robot mini game by Paige Aupiais
Robot mini game by Paige Aupiais

This alien game by Paige Aupiais is an example of the kind of mini game which students are able to develop after four weeks (16 hours) of classes in Processing. While it is not a playable game just yet, it does show how Processing makes it possible to master basic concepts such as variables and operators, functions, controlling program flow with loops and conditional statements, and even objects and classes  (You’ll need to have Java installed on your machine if you want to try out Paige’s game.)

So where did this wonderful little language and ecosystem originate?  Processing is a language that was developed by Ben Fry and Casy Reas, initially as part of an award-winning project intended to introduce programming to visually trained artists and designers.

Processing works as a kind of wrapper for the Java language  which simplifies students’ first experience of programming and also makes it (relatively) easy to program visual output. This makes it an excellent introduction to programming for artists and designers since it immediately gives complete novices the ability to generate graphical effects and interactions. (In Processing, Hello World is a one-line sketch which draws a shape such as a line, ellipse, or rectangle.) Unlike other beginner environments though, when the training wheels are ready to come off, students have access to the massive resource of libraries developed for the Java language, such as for example the OpenGL libraries, and to the physical computing possible with the Arduino micro-processor.

Another key advantage is the active and helpful community centred around the processing.org site, the detailed reference materials, demos, and downloads. This community is particularly helpful to beginner programmers because many other users are novices who are likely to be asking beginner questions.

Basic programming concepts do not change very much between languages and so the course provides a foundation of ‘procedural literacy’ for keen students who want to launch into an exploration of other languages or of scripting in object-oriented languages.

The Return of Pacman by Robin Combrink
The Return of Pacman by Robin Combrink

That said, Processing has several disadvantages in comparison to Adobe’s Flash, another environment where non-technical beginners often first dip their toes in the water as scripters. The absence of a visual interface or timeline for Processing means it is more suitable for producing procedural images than for conventional drawing or animation workflows. Another is the disappointments and difficulties associated with publishing Processing sketches. The need for a Java plugin (less common than the Flash player), the slow loading times and relatively processor-intensive Java applets are all additional hurdles for beginners and their users.

Here the Processing.js project (a sister project to Processing.org) is a response to the widespread support for Javascript by most browsers. Processing.js conforms to web standards, and is immediately viewable in modern browsers without the need to install any plugins. The example above is a mini game created by my son Robin (twelve). He has recently taken an interest in programming (mostly by looking over my shoulder as I prepare for class) and wrote this little game. I published it for him as a Processing.js sketch, using the HTML5 canvas element.

Source code: here

Built with Processing

 

Grand Theft South Africa? Local game literacies

”]GTA meets ZA in the imaginations of SA's young suburbanites

Here’s the abstract of a paper Nicci Pallitt and I just had accepted by the journal Language & Education:

‘Grand Theft South Africa’: Games, literacy and inequality in consumer childhoods

By Marion Walton and Nicola Pallitt

Discussions of ‘game literacy’ focus on the informal learning and literacies associated with games but seldom address  the diversity in young people’s gaming practices, and the highly differentiated technologies of digital gaming in use.  We use available survey data to show how, in South Africa, income inequalities influence consumption patterns, shaping experiences of digital games. Two case studies of young people’s play practices involving digital games in Cape Town suggest the fragmentation and inequalities of contemporary play practices and the need for a more inclusive understanding of digital gaming. Mobile phones offer more accessibility than other digital gaming platforms and local appropriations include display of micro-commodities, concealment of outdated technology, control strategies and deletion of functionality. Digital games articulate between multiple overlapping communicative spaces and hence complex cultural articulations arise when global game narratives are appropriated to make sense of racial otherness, crime and politics in South Africa. Since educational curricula cater for highly fractured publics, we ask whether it is advisable to speak of ‘game literacy’. We suggest the need to validate less strongly mediatised forms of play, and to address diverse identification practices in consumer culture, including prestige and status as well as othering and shame.

Here’s a prepublication version of the full article.

 

Games studies goes South

Our games panel proposal has been accepted for SACOMM 2011

This panel reports ethnographic approaches to play practices and digital gameplay in different sites in Cape Town, in the context of the regulation of the games industry in South Africa. Contributors explore the significance of games as commodities in the local context, identify digital literacies shaped by local socio-technical practices and differential levels of access, and theorize how commercial games produced in the North are being interpreted, reconfigured and appropriated in these South African contexts.

List of participants

Marion Walton, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town, Marion.Walton@uct.ac.za

  • Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies: University of Cape Town, mz.pallitt@gmail.com
  • Anja Venter, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town anjaventer@gmail.com
  • Muya Koloko, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town muya.koloko@gmail.com

Rationale

Digital games are an increasingly important part of consumer culture and feature particularly prominently in the lives of children and young people around the world. Game studies has only recently begun to address the ways in which gaming is a situated social activity (Buckingham, 2006, Burn, 2007; Pelletier, 2009) and to apply the insights of cultural and gender studies to gaming (e.g. Dovey and Kennedy, 2006; Carr et al., 2005) Nonetheless games studies researchers have not yet explored the significance of global differences in access to digital games, consoles and other consumer electronics, beyond an interest in how gaming in public access venues such as cybercafes can provide a pathway to ICT use in developing countries (Kolko & Putnam, 2009). Existing scholarship does not address the global diversity in gaming and play cultures, neither does it account for local cultural appropriations of games or explore how young people experience substantial inequalities in access to consumer goods, electricity, communicative infrastructure and bandwidth and how this shapes their play with digital games. In South Africa, basic mobile phones or public access computers are the most common digital gaming platform, while more expensive consoles and smartphones remain the preserve of a relatively small middle class. Different regimes govern access to leisure time and to spaces for leisure in these contexts, and this plays a role in shaping distinctive modes of gaming. This panel reports ethnographic approaches to play practices and digital gameplay in different sites in Cape Town, in the context of the regulation of the games industry in South Africa. Contributors explore the significance of games as commodities in the local context, identify digital literacies shaped by local socio-technical practices, and theorize how commercial games produced in the North are interpreted, reconfigured and appropriated in these South African contexts.

Buckingham, D. (2006). Studying computer games. In D. Carr, D. Buckingham, A. Burn, & G. Schott, Computer games: Text, narrative and play (pp. 1-13). Polity.

Burn, A. (2007). The case of rebellion: Researching multimodal texts. In Lankshear, C, Knobel, M, Leu, D & Coiro, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Research on New Literacies. New York: Laurence Erlbaum

Carr, D., Buckingham, D., Burn, A., & Schott, G (2006). Computer games: Text, narrative and play. Cambridge: Polity.

Dovey, Jon and Helen W. Kennedy. (2006) Game cultures: Computer games as new media. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Kolko, B. E., & Putnam, C. (2009). Computer games in the developing world: The value of non-instrumental engagement with ICTs, or taking play seriously. 2009 International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development ICTD, 46-55

Pelletier, Caroline. 2009. Games and Learning: What’s the Connection? International Journal of Learning and Media 2009 1:1, 83-101

Mobiles, games and play in South Africa

Marion Walton, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

In South Africa, sharply unequal levels of access to consumer goods, the internet and electrification all co-exist in the same country. Studying games in this context is a reminder of the complex ensemble of material and economic resources required for digital gameplay, which are not available to all young people around the world. This paper reports ongoing research with young people in the Makhaza section of Khayelitsha, and explores the significance of mobile games in their media ecologies and orientations to consumer culture. Like the large majority of South African gamers, they play free games, often those preinstalled on basic mobile phones or downloaded from WAP sites and passed around via bluetooth in a peer-to-peer commons or proximate social network. In their mobile gaming, a focus on local and social interactions and shorter bursts of casual gameplay reflects the fact that airtime, phone processors, screen space, memory, and electricity are often scarce resources.

Screen Play: Children configuring gender through character customization in The Sims 2TM and Little Big PlanetTM

Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies: University of Cape Town

Digital games are semiotic domains that offer a variety of options for customization, which in turn allow players to personalize gameplay. It is also a common form of player control, yet little is known about this game feature and even less about how children employ such tools and choices in their gameplay. This paper offers a multimodal analysis of children’s character customizations in two games – The Sims 2TM and Little Big PlanetTM – informed by theories of gendered performance and interaction with configurable media. The children’s choices demonstrate that such avatar transformations are influenced by gender and wider patterns of gendered consumption. This discussion allows for a more nuanced understanding of children’s gameplay and how digital games become a stage for performing social identities. Additionally, it highlights how children engage with games as a form of digital media which challenges outdated ideas of the television as text. This paper describes how television and laptop screens become virtual playgrounds where hegemonic discourses around gendered identities are a site of struggle and play, but often reaffirmed in the process of play.

Games and Learning: a perspective on low-income, resource-constrained youth and PC gaming in a public access venue in Cape Town

Anja Venter, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

This paper reports on pilot findings from a ethnographic study of PC gaming amongst low-income, resource-constrained, urban, teenage males in a public access venue in Cape Town, South Africa. Framing their activities using the communities of practice model as outlined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, I explore how the popular definitions of “gamer” and traditional gaming communities of practice are challenged in a resource constrained environment. Findings include evidence of gamers re-appropriating technology and social relationships to create learning communities, exploration of the material and social limitations and challenges for successful collaborative play, and describing the socio-technical ecology currently found in this venue.

Sex, violence and harm in games: An analysis of the guidelines for classification of the Film and Publication Board of South Africa

Marion Walton, Muya Koloko and Nicola Pallitt, Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town

Game ratings are intended to protect children from potentially harmful experiences of media by targeting particular categories of disturbing, violent or sexual material. This paper analyses assumptions about video game play as revealed in the policies and practices of South Africa’s Film and Publication Board. We focus specifically on the interpretation of guidelines used to rate games according to the presence of ‘classifiable elements’ such as violence and sexual content, the use of public input, and raters’ interpretation of the guidelines. In particular, we identify how rating practices and policies make particular assumptions about games – what games are, the contexts in which gaming takes place and how they construct a specific narrative of childhood. We compare regulatory policies to some actual gaming practices in South Africa, and situate both in relation to current discussions of children, media, vulnerability and agency.

Second Life skins

I hate shopping. For example, if I find a t-shirt that I like, I usually buy three or four, just in case I don’t go shopping again next year. So it’s pretty hilarious that I’ve indulged in a quiet binge of virtual consumerism over the last few weeks.

Andrew Burn and Diane Carr from the Institute of Education in London asked me to present a graduate seminar for their students in the virtual world, Second Life, as part of their research project, Learning from Online Worlds. In the process of getting ready for this class, I bought an animated set of vampire fangs, got patronised for having a black “skin”, hung out with an Admiral, and started smoking. As if that wasn’t enough to feel embarassed about, I could have fed my family for a week with the amount of bandwidth I splurged while “preparing”. In South Africa we pay through the nose for every MB of data, and Second Life is the proverbial bandwidth hog.

Virtual smoke
The venue for the Second Life class was this rooftop with striped dirigible in a steampunk sim called "New Babbage"

The experience of teaching in Second Life has given me a new perspective on my job as a lecturer. Once you’ve taught in a medium which requires you to construct your physical appearance entirely from pixels and code, and where so many aspects of your identity are customisable, down to the very last freckle and eyelash, you learn to be grateful for the simple user interface of the skin in which you were born (however imperfect and wrinkly it may be). And the overhead it takes to function in this collaboratively illustrated carnivalesque chatroom means that you look back at chalk and talk with a certain nostalgia.
That said, it’s been a fascinating experience. For one thing, I’ve learnt quite a bit about how Second Life character artwork or “skins” are put together and I thought I’d write it down before I forget.

Skinning the self

Texture map

The image above is a texture map, a graphic which is mapped onto the low resolution three dimensional pollygonal “mesh” and used to create the artwork seen in most computer games and virtual worlds. In game jargon, these texture maps are referred to as “skins”. In Second Life, you can either make your own skin, buy one made by another resident, or make do with the defaults issued when you start playing.

When I first drifted into Second Life back in 2005, I made do with the default “newbie” skin, a free skin which all residents get on arrival in the world. You can then edit your appearance, by changing the default shape, adding more shine to your lipgloss, changing the colour of your eyeshadow, adding freckles, etc. I spent some time doing this, and I remember being totally horrified at the unbelievably ugly result. I’m pretty sure that this was one of the reasons I ran away to World of Warcraft.

His nubcakes

This time round, I seriously considered showing up for the seminar wearing the outfit above, one of the  default male skins. But, before I’d even finished the training level tutorials, I realised that this butt-ugly default skin was going to drive me insane. And then, later, when I encountered the seasoned residents touting their perfect skins on Help Island I got a very severe attack of pixel envy. (The default skins given to newbies are a lot lower in resolution than the considerably more detailed skins produced and sold by Second Life residents.)

I teach animation and 3D graphics and have an ongoing quest to investigate better ways of teaching 3D concepts. I was really intrigued to know how Second Life had implemented a 3D modelling and animation system for novices, and how easily the characters could be customised. I’d read a bit about Second Life, and understood that if you wanted to move beyond the defaults, you needed to use real money to buy the in-game currency, Linden dollars.

So, I took a deep breath, pulled out my credit card and bought a stash of Lindens (A thousand Lindens trades for about $4). After all, Second Life is where ugly people go to be beautiful, or if that seems too trashy, to be tastefully ugly at high resolutions. Why should I be the only one to be left out?

Virtual consumption

We usually think of consumerism as being about people buying things, but that’s only part of the picture. In Second Life, people spend real money to buy representations of islands, clothing, cars, and so on, primarily so that they can interact with other people. (Um, ok, money is also virtual I guess, but you know what I mean.) What better evidence for the argument that consumerism has very little to do with buying functional objects. Instead, it is a theatre for us to enact our fantasies about ourselves, in relationship to others. In Second Life, as elsewhere, consumerism is also about being able to flaunt the cultural capital which tells the world who we are, says that we are worthy, that we belong somewhere, or (unfortunately) that we are better than someone else.

Cyberpunk author, Neal Stephenson, created a kind of prototype for Second Life when he wrote his novel Snow Crash. This novel explores a vision of how class differences would come to be expressed in a virtual world which Stephenson called the Metaverse. By spreading a science fiction meme among geeks, some of whom went on to design the software that could turn the vision into code, the novel became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stephenson’s version of a three-dimensional cyberspace, the Metaverse, certainly inspired Linden’s design for Second Life. It’s just a pity that the designers don’t seem to have gotten the critique implicit in Stephenson’s depiction of the US as a fractured, corporate-ridden society with a huge gulf between rich and poor. Here’s the voice of his narrator, Hiro Protagonist.

This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world.

In Stephenson’s vision of cyberspace as the Metaverse, the cruel social differentiation of US society continues in the virtual world, where it is signified by thousands of subtle cues, differences of taste, and differential levels of access to customisable high res, realistic avatars.

The couples coming off the monorail can’t afford to have custom avatars made and don’t know how to write their own. They have to buy off-the-shelf avatars. One of the girls has a pretty nice one. It would be considered quite the fashion statement among the K-Tel set. Looks like she has bought the Avatar Construction Set(tm) and put together her own, customized model out of miscellaneous parts. It might even look something like its owner. Her date doesn’t look half bad himself.

The other girl is a Brandy. Her date is a Clint. Brandy and Clint are both popular, off-the-shelf models. When white-trash high school girls are going on a date in the Metaverse, they invariably run down to the computer-games section of the local Wal-Mart and buy a copy of Brandy. The user can select three breast sizes: improbable, impossible, and ludicrous. Brandy has a limited repertoire of facial expressions: cute and pouty; cute and sultry; perky and interested; smiling and receptive; cute and spacy. Her eyelashes are half an inch long, and the software is so cheap that they are rendered as solid ebony chips. When a Brandy flutters her eyelashes, you can almost feel the breeze.

Clint is just the male counterpart of Brandy. He is craggy and handsome and has an extremely limited range of facial expressions.

Hiro wonders, idly, how these two couples got together. They are clearly from disparate social classes. Perhaps older and younger siblings. But then they come down the escalator and disappear into the crowd and become part of the Street, where there are enough Clints and Brandys to found a new ethnic group.

In the novel, the understated classiness of Hiro’s realistic avatar is set against the garishness of  “white trash”  avatars – the Clints, Brandys and other outlandish personas:

Hiro’s avatar just looks like Hiro, with the difference that no matter what Hiro is wearing in Reality, his avatar always wears a black leather kimono. Most hacker types don’t go in for garish avatars, because they know that it takes a lot more sophistication to render a realistic human face than a talking penis. Kind of the way people who really know clothing can appreciate the fine details that separate a cheap gray wool suit from an expensive hand-tailored gray wool suit.

Skin for sale

Philosophical dilemmas aside, then, when skin is for sale, what does one buy? To buy a new, non-newbish skin in Second Life, you go to one of many large warehouses, which all display rows and rows of huge naked avatars, in all shades, colours, sizes, and (I kid you not) degrees of oiliness. And looking around these warehouses, it appears that, indeed, Stephenson’s ethnic group of Clints and Brandys has gone forth and multiplied. The second life skins may be higher res than Stephenson imagined, but the majority are specialised for the skin-flick genre, exactly as he predicted.

Skin on the menu - Nomine
Thinking about nipples as you’re preparing for a class just seems wrong to me on so many levels. Especially when you’re the teacher. So, after my first visit to a skin shop, dazed and a bit nauseated, I fled from the warehouse, popped into a Star Wars sim, and grabbed a nice asexual, genderless, raceless Master Yoda. He came with skin, shape, shoes, hair and accessories, including light-saber, and at first I thought he was a very good solution to my lack of time and general squeamishness about being a Clint or a Brandy. He also seemed to offer a shortcut past a whole lot of interesting identity dilemmas.

Master Yoda visits the vampires

While Yoda was just great for zooming around and had a brilliant falling animation, once I started finding more coherent environments where flying was banned, I began to notice his limitations. Firstly, his other animations were very lame. Secondly, I started to feel like those interesting but very strange people on the Trekkies movie who show up at work in their Star Trek uniforms. I needed to mod Master Yoda.

Home-made skin

I managed to mod the Yoda skin so that he looked like a really ugly little old man (see picture below). The name I’d chosen to use in Second Life was “Ossie Pienaar”. I’ve worked on game textures before, and figured that with a bit of Photoshopping, I could probably do a “quick and dirty” skin for Ossie and upload it to Second Life. It took me about 30 minutes to create the new skin. It was a bit of a pain because of having to test the artwork in-game, though it is very easy to upload the skin and you can test it on a model face before you have to pay $L10 to upload the artwork. After paying for the upload, it’s a pretty simple matter to apply the texture to the skin’s head (Look in the Skin tab of Edit> Appearance – Second Life calls it a “tattoo”. Then drag the uploaded texture from the Textures folder in your Inventory window onto the “tattoo”).
I later discovered that the skin I used was low res compared to most Second Life skins and so the new Ossie looked a bit out of focus, like someone had smeared makeup all over his face. And of course the home-made skin didn’t help improve his horrid animations. The best I could say of this virtual embodiment of myself was that he was unobtrusive and non-threatening. On the other hand he was a little creepy.

I used the home-made Ossie skin to attend one of Diane and Andrew’s classes in Second Life (see Diane’s screenshot of the Alt-Zoom theatre below). As the class got going, I had to lol. My avatar, Ossie, and Andrew’s avatar, Juniper, inadvertently sat down in the same seat at the same time. When I’d gotten over that embarassment of being the creepy little old man who sat down on other people’s laps, I could relax and enjoy the fascinating discussions of making machinima in Second Life. You can read about it here in Diane’s write-up.

Old manIn-game machinima class

At some stage, I decided that I wanted to experiment with a female identity too and made another login. To be frank, the female avatars in Second Life are a lot better than the male ones, although I preferred to combine the female skins with more modest designs of the “male” clothes. I created a new character with the name “Marigold”. Marigold seemed a good name for a spoilt doll, which is what most of the SL females look like.

Only problem was that, after splurging on Master Yoda, I’d burnt through all my Lindens. Oh and then there was that unfortunately rather expensive newbish misclick on a Wookie. So my next skin would have to be another home-made one. I had no intention of making an avatar that looked anything like myself. This is a fantasy world, after all. I didn’t much care to look like a pretty pink spangled Barbie with flowing yellow candy-floss hair, or like her big sister Brandy, (who is really just Porno Barbie, anatomically correct and prepetually horny). The default shapes are all cousins of these two feminine archetypes of our age, and so, from the available options, I chose a lanky Goth chick, who seemed to be a good starting point for the character I had in mind.

I had realised during the Ossie misadventure that if you adapt your shape too much your animations look odd (I haven’t figured out if there’s any way of re-rigging the 3D puppet). Also you don’t fit into some of the clothing on sale (particularly the skirts and cloaks, which have their own geometry) and you have to resize everything you buy. So I resigned myself to the sad fate of having a supermodel build with gravity-defying boobs and skinny legs. (I could get so used to this.) As a minor sop to the nagging feminist who follows me around everywhere, I did flatten the boobs and fatten up the tummy and butt a bit. Just a bit.

Homage au Molly

Molly
Marigold with a portrait of Molly that I used in my SL seminar

I had decided to model Marigold on Molly from William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer. In the novel,Molly is a hired assassin with the surgically implanted mirrored glasses over her eyes, and ten retractable blades set beneath the nails in her hands. (After a bit of shopping in cyberpunk sims I found a suitable set of blades, but am still looking for the mirrored eye implants.)

It was really a double tribute, as one of my favourite player characters in World of Warcraft is an undead rogue assassin also inspired by Molly. Molly’s player and I were guildmates in WoW, and a couple of months back, I’d interviewed him via IM, and used the interview in a chapter from my PhD. Andrew and Diane had asked me to present this chapter at the seminar. I figured it would be great to have this player there so that the students could ask him questions directly. He muttered a bit about how Second Life sucked compared to World of Warcraft, but eventually he kindly obliged and made a SL login. I’ll call him T.

I was very happy that T had agreed to come along. In tribute to his Molly, I decided to use the WoW undead appearance as a starting point for Marigold and see what emerged. I’ve used programs like MPQ Editor and Xnview to rip textures from World of Warcraft, in the past. I wanted to see how Blizzard puts together the artwork. WoW texture maps are amazingly economical and elegantly designed. They are very economical with filesize and use the maximum amount of mirroring, very different from the SL textures, which don’t seem to use mirroring at all. Of course this means that SL avatars can be more realistic, as too much symmetry is disturbing, and it is probably also easier for novice users to create content if they use a simpler system of UV mapping.

When I started painting Marigold’s skin I took a careful look at an undead female texture from the WoW mpq archive, which was only about an eighth of the resolution of the Second Life skins. I used the same colour scheme as the greenish undead skin and some Photoshop templates and a tutorial from Chip Midnight, when I painted a new skin for the face. Marigold ended up having one of those unnaturally pallid goth complexions which makes whiteness look like some form of skin disease.

With the template as guide, it was a pretty easy job, the only part which went beyond colour by numbers was using alpha transparency to do eyelashes. You can use GiMP, the free open source image editor to open a layered Photoshop (.psd) file if you don’t have a copy of Photoshop. Subsequently, I found better Photoshop CS2 templates If I ever need to do the full skin I’ll use this in-game UV suit to help with the tricky seam-matching. Apparently it can be found in Second Life in  Benten (17,105). Oh, and here’s a blow-by-blow illustrated guide to making your very own Corpse Bride.

three such images – one for the head, one for the torso, and one for the legs (and those are downloaded again every time they change outfits). (In the case of your own avatar, it’s a lot more. When you log in or change clothing, you download all the textures for each piece of clothing individually. Once downloaded, these are composited or “baked” into the head, torso, and leg textures. (For example, you might have a tattoo, a shirt and a jacket composited over your torso skin) Head, torso, and leg files are then uploaded to the server for other players to access. They don’t see you properly before they have downloaded these files. Apparently at this stage, you then have to download your own baked textures yet again! Objects such as houses and furniture also have their own textures, although they are not as complex as those on the avatars.

All this downloading takes its toll. All South African ISPs all buy their bandwidth from local Telco giant, Telkom, and so all local ADSL contracts are subject to a 3GB bandwidth cap. In contrast, Second Life was designed around the unlimited bandwidth contracts that most US web users enjoy.  Users from many countries outside the US have capped or metered bandwidth contracts, but those in the UK and Australia are likely to be more generous than the South African ones. Nonetheless, I’ve found a couple of desperate posts from such users who complain that Second Life is a “bandwidth hog” and that they burnt through all their bandwidth in a week, or in another case, in a day. Here’s a complaint from a distressed user:

The day after I had explored the world of second life, I logged onto my ISP’s main site to check my bandwidth useage, and I was shocked that out of my 10G that I have for monthly usegage (yes I have high speed), I had used nearly 3Gigs already! And this is just after roughly 8 or so hours online! I had to stop, because if I went any further, my ISP would end up charging me 3$ for every additional Gig that I downloaded over 10!
I called up the Second Life support and they weren’t very helpful. When I asked roughly how much bandwidth useage I should have for second life, he reccomended an “unlimited amount” http://www.sluniverse.com/php/vb/archive/index.php?t-378.html

Given the South African system of  metered and “capped” bandwidth, an average ADSL user would only be able to spend a couple of hours in Second LIfe before the ISP would cut off their internet access. Gasping for oxygen, sorry, bandwidth, they’d need to swipe the old credit card again before they could even send an email. Whereas the distressed user above had to pay $3 for every additional Gig, South Africans are more likely to pay about US$12 per Gig when they exceed their cap, which can be as low as 1 or 2 Gigs.

Second Life’s 1MB targa files seem outrageous for an online medium. To put it in perspective, when I assess my students’ web design projects I insist that they should be no more than 40-50KB per page, including all images. Flash and rich media projects obviously need to be bigger, but most of the 30 second Flash animations my students submit are smaller than 1MB (1024KB).

Obviously, the more environments you explore in SL, the more of a hog it will be. So you can reduce your bandwidth use by not going anywhere much. Hrm. There are also settings on SL that can  limit the downloading, such as the Edit>Preferences>Graphics>Draw Distance setting, which won’t download  distant objects, and you can also skip all the audio and video under Edit>Preferences>Audio&Video>Streaming Preferences . If you change the Edit>Preferences>Disk Cache Size, cache to 1GB, to store the images on your hard drive, it should also save on downloads.  After a week or so of ignorance,  I figured out how to set Second Life to use a 1GB cache (the maximum), but, infuriatingly, it still seems to need to download environment textures all over again every time I teleport backto certain sims, even when I’ve visited there just a few minutes before, and the textures should all be in the cache. So clearly the textures in the better environments must be pretty high resolution as well.

The Second Life support staff’s ignorance about global bandwidth issues is reflected in the design of the software. Apart from the few options above, there is very little attempt to give users control of their bandwidth use, features which web users have come to take for granted. Although there has been talk about Second Life charging more Lindens for large uploads, nothing seems to have come of it. For example, I accidentally uploaded a couple of 1024*1024 versions of Marigold’s skin, (which weigh in at 4MB each) when I forgot to shrink it down before uploading. It uploaded fine, and there was no warning message or any extra charge. It would be interesting to know how many content creators use such large sizes, and if there is an upper limit on texture resolutions.

molly_with_guides

Dressing up

Technical issues aside, in Second Life, clothes and skin are gear. In games, gear is a form of social capital, and it signifies the player’s knowledge, status and experience. And, there’s the girl thing of always fussing about what to wear. I imagine this is because, for girls, clothes are gear in the game of real life. (Nerf girls.)

I met a friendly vampire in a roleplaying sim, who helped me accumulate some additional goth credibility by giving me a set of landmarks for interesting places to go shopping and buy myself a better outfit. This is when I purchased the hilarious vampire fangs, and discovered Nomine, which is now officially my favourite mall, since it’s themed like a Gothic cathedral. I bought the outfits designed for male goths, as the female versions looked a bit chilly and definitely NSFW.

At this stage my character design drifted from homage to pastiche. I couldn’t resist adding a Horde tattoo to some shoulders I bought, and then I stole a cloak off the back of an old WoW enemy. (I de-encrypted the .blp texture for Prince Kael’thas’s cloak from the WoW mpq archive, converted it to a jpeg, shuffled it about a bit so that it didn’t use mirroring. Then I saved it as a targa, uploaded it, and applied it to my cloak.) This was really just for fun, and to compare the UV mapping systems.

Before you report me to the IP police at Blizzard, this little experiment was in the interests of science. I wouldn’t sell or share my fannish creations, unlike the horrid WoW sims I found where Second Life residents are selling ripped Blizzard artwork – at the moment there are sims where, alongside the usual infinitely looping porn clips, there are “Ork”(sic) or elf “houses” for sale. The vendors also promise to provide Blood Elf avatars sometime in the future. Predictably, in a world where skin is property and a status symbol, Second Life texture theft is a growing problem – you can read about it here if you don’t mind looking at naked Clints and Brandys.

Kael'Thas's CloakStolen cloak

The last step was to choose the hair – and I settled on a set of long dreads for the African mlungu (honkie). Aint it funny that Mattell never brought out a Dreadlock Barbie?

Tattoo

Choosing clothes was really the fun part. I may have been avoiding the Barbie look, but I suspect that’s really just been an elaborate form of denial. I’m well aware that choosing and trying on all these new outfits harks back to the not-so-innocent childhood pleasures of doing unspeakable things to my long-suffering Barbie and Ken dolls. (I’m absolutely sure that’s why Second Life has so many female residents.)

Anyhow, whatever. I was talking about how much I enjoyed going shopping. These were some of the cool things I found on my travels:

  1. Arch demon pixie wings in bright red, by Material Squirrel.
  2. Unisex thigh scar, by Auntie Entity
  3. Cossack boots – guerilla style, by Ambush
  4. Viscount jacket and pants by AVid
  5. B&J Tri-claws
  6. Eye-patch from the Groll Inn pirate hideout
  7. EBT tribal accents tattoo undershirt
  8. Mask, scarf and bandana for upper left and right arms for Female Ninja Scout
  9. Flexi Dreads, by JH Dreads

The Russet Bindhi

As a South African, I’m sensitive about skin colour. In fact, I’m hyperallergenic on that topic. In the skin shop, I looked up at an expanse of skins, saw the whole rainbow nation was on sale, and laughed at the oddity of it all. Quite an amazing feeling – the freedom of being able to choose whether my avatar should be white or black, with a whole lot of additional options, including green and pink. In true Imelda Marcos style, I couldn’t choose and simply started a collection.

That said, I really hate the fact that the default colour on the Second Life avatars is white, and that you just never see dark-skinned avatars in these online environments. Most people in the real world are dark-skinned, dammit. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, global economic and geographic inequities mean that you don’t find many Africans playing online games. For another thing, a version of the doll test might be coming into play here.

And of course, it doesn’t help that even the simulated lighting in Second Life makes darker avatars look, well, bleh. There are a couple of tricks to photographing darker-skinned people, and photographers I’ve spoken to say that they need to use different techniques than when they photograph whiteys. You bring in specular highlights from both sides to bring out the detail in the faces, and I can imagine that this applies to a 3D world as well.

White wedding

I bought “Russet Punk Bindhi” by Nomine, a dark skin with green patterns around the eyes, named after the Hindi forehead decoration for married women. When I wore that skin I got lots of patronising comments from residents who found it worth commenting that a black person (they thought) was playing Second Life. When Andy Carvin observed last year how few African avatars there are in Second Life, he decided to create an avatar based on a former child soldier from Somalia. Apparently he was consistently ignored by other players: “people tended to just act as if I just weren’t even there”.

I didn’t have that experience, which suggests that people’s lack of interest in Carvin’s avatar may have had more to do with some factor (gender? lacking in the “Clint” department?) other than the colour of its skin. Still, it was interesting (and yet very uncomfortable) that so many players assumed that only someone who was black in real life would want to choose a black skin. I enjoyed making people take notice of a black avatar, but often I felt like I was masquerading, pretending to be something that I wasn’t. An interesting response, because I’m a seasoned roleplayer. I’m not a skinny goth chick, or an ugly old man, but it really didn’t bother me to assume either of those roles, although the persona vs character distinction is not well established among second life users. I suppose it also felt worse because identity tourism and sex tourism are never too far apart in Second Life.

In the Russet Bindhi skin, other residents applauded me for even being in Second Life, and several offered me free things when they heard I was from South Africa. I did see a couple of other avatars with dark skins. None were very dark, and (surprise) most were criminal and thug types in a Mafia sim. I found one or two sims that sold African-styled clothing, and I visited one “African village” where visitors could rent (oddly geometric) grass huts, or dazzle with their African dance animations on the psychedelic dancefloor. Oh, and then there was the seemingly obligatory bubbling hot tub. Simply a must for any self-respecting African village.

In another sim, one very chivalrous chap in a top hat, who claimed to be an Admiral, offered Marigold free lodging in his dirigible. It didn’t seem to put him off that I had dressed her in a horribly blood-soaked wedding dress. I might be wrong, but this attitude seemed to be a variant of the way male players often patronise female players in online games – whereas females are all assumed to be incompetent, dark skinned avatars are assumed to be indigent. (And no, I didn’t take up the Admiral’s offer of accommodation.)

Flying

Meeting up

In Snowcrash, the Metaverse had a complex pecking order for avatars, from the custom-made avatars of movie and rock stars down to the  low res, “black-and-white-people”  right at the bottom of the avatar food chain. These are the avatars of people who access the Metaverse through cheap public terminals, and they are rendered without embellishment in grainy black and white, like an animated fax or photocopy.

In the novel, the character Juanita is Hiro’s former flame, and a revered hacker (programmer) who designed the system of communicating  realistic facial expressions through avatars. She now rejects the inauthenticity of her own creation, and in an ascetic move, appears in a “black and white” avatar. Stephenson suggests that the player can bring life and beauty to even such an unworthy vehicle.

Hiro turns around. Juanita is right behind him, standing out in her black-and-white avatar, looking good anyway. “How are you?” she asks.
“Fine. How are you?”
“Great. I hope you don’t mind talking to me in this ugly fax-of-life avatar.”
“Juanita, I would rather look at a fax of you than most other women in the flesh.”

I can’t say I experienced this kind of transcendence with anyone I met in SL yet, but I can relate to Hiro’s sentiment. When it came to the day of the seminar, I stopped thinking about skins. I honestly couldn’t tell you what everyone’s avatars looked like during the class. My attention was focused almost entirely on the chat window, to the extent that I totally forgot to take any screenshots.

The seminar focused on  the roleplaying subcultures in World of Warcraft. I’ll always remember the amazing experience of meeting Andrew and Diane’s interesting students. Tand I talked about our experiences, and then the students asked some very thoughtful questions. For example, we discussed the meaning of roleplaying, and they contrasted the fantasy genres of play with  the documentary impulse in some Second Life projects which create virtual equivalents for real-world places.They also tried to make the connections between our accounts of in-game roleplaying, and their understanding of roles in games generally, and with children’s fantasy play. I also loved meeting Diane and Andrew’s online personas – they were very warm, funny and engaging, great facilitators of the discussion, and they came across as very much in tune with their students.

The screenshot below gives an idea of what the class looked like. T and I are the pale sickly looking ones in black, (I’d taken him shopping with me in the Nomine cathedral, and so he also assumed a pale vampirish persona.) Andrew has the downcast bald head, and Diane is the shortie in front.  The white, blue, and black-haired avatars in the foreground are students. (Thanks to Diane for the screenshot!)  For most of the session everyone just stood in the same place on the top of a building in the steampunk city of New Babbage. Retrospectively, I feel bad about not providing more seating (I only had time to make one crate before the class, and so everyone except T had to stand around for the whole session). .

Second Life class

I’m not altogether sure what the Second Life environment added to the educational experience, and I would love to hear what the students have to say.I did think that running the classes in Second Life was a brilliant way of allowing students to experience the staggering creativity and interesting conventions of fan subcultures. To be honest, I was worried about how to run a graduate seminar in such a garrulous, distracting medium (which is why I chose the rooftop setting for the class), and I found myself resorting to the rather traditional teacherly device of presenting a sequence of images on an over-sized screen. That said, there was not much about the class that couldn’t have worked equally well in a chatroom.

Looking at the whole thing a bit more cynically, education is not separate from our consumer society, and the choices we make in education are also used to project our identities. I know that “Innovative technologies” is a signifier used by universities like my own to claim higher quality education and to differentiate us from the herd on the street. For this reason, in the field of educational technology, technologies like chatrooms that would have been cutting-edge ten ago are now passe, deserted by researchers and the proselytising e-Learning pundits who turn their attention to newer and shinier technologies.

Less cynically perhaps, the immersion in the Second Life setting did make a difference. In a strange kind of way, during the class I did feel we were all together in one space, a cohesive group. I was always aware of all the students who were there, even when they weren’t participating in the conversation, and that’s not always the case in a chatroom, where the lurkers tend to disappear from everyone’s awareness. Seeing me dressed up in my vampire cloak and assassin garb was probably a good introduction to my general attitude in online environments, and that might help the students to read my research paper in a more contextual way (or encourage them to dismiss it out of hand!).

Teaching South African students in Second Life

My skinning experiments suggested that Second Life could be a great way to introduce 3D animationconcepts to beginners, if you made sure to introduce them to the correct vocabulary while showing them how to use the interface. (e.g. talk to them about texture maps, UVs and scaling rather than “tattoos” and “stretching”). Although I really didn’t have time to explore modelling and building in Second Life, I’m sure that the plethora of player-created objects could be used to learn about construction techniques, and I imagine that students would be hugely motivated by the presence of a built-in audience (and potential customers) for their creations.

Africa is more than just a setting for Westerners’ sexual fantasies, but if you do a search for “Africa” in Second Life, I challenge you to come up with anything else. I can imagine some great projects that would help to expand the representation of Africa in Second Life.That said, it is probably a waste of energy to put a lot of work into something that few from this continent will be able to afford to access. There’s the issue of needing to buy Linden dollars in US currency, and added to that the cost of bandwidth here at the toe-end of Africa. (Stephenson’s novel didn’t predict how the cost of bandwidth is such a significant barrier to online participation for many people around the world.)

Sadly, neither my university nor my individual students would have access to the kind of bandwidth needed to make such projects feasible for a large number of students. I’d probably need to arrange some kind of special permission for small production classes. This is not really ideal, because they’d be “speaking to the other”  or addressing themselves to audiences in the developed world, without a  sense of a significant local audience, unless I made it a machinima project.

Possibly the bandwidth issues can be circumvented in the future. For one thing, increased competition is slowly bringing down the cost of broadband, and 2006 saw a sudden leap in the number of broadband users in SA. I’ve also read that certain Australian ISPs provide unmetered access to certain Second Life IP addresses.(Although this is probably a pipe dream right now for South Africa, I can imagine that in a more competitive telecommunications environment, it could be in the ISP’s interests to offer this kind of deal. I suppose Second Life users are likely to go online more often, and create more revenue for the ISPs via the metered video and audio they download from other users.)

Alternatively Second LIfe could change, and try to cater for a more global audience. I could imagine a minimalist design movement in Second Life, sims which are the equivalent of Stephenson’s “black-and-whites” which make accessibility a virtue,  thus encouraging broader access. Or else a sim which promoted the exploration of the aesthetic potential of a stripped-down modernist aesthetic and made imaginative efficient use of available bandwidth and textures. There are strong precedents for both these approaches to design on the Web, and it would really be interesting to see how they transfer to 3D

At the moment though, in Second Life, there are no “black-and-white people” to remind residents that not everyone enjoys equal access to the networks of power. I’m not such a technophile as to think that it will be too much of a disadvantage to my students for them not to have access to a Second Life. That said, it will be to the detriment of Second Life and our society as a whole not to have them and others from this continent representing themselves as a part of the virtual world.

It’s been both a hilarious and rather thought-provoking experience. Next time I have a moment, I’ll write more about the fun I had while scouting for locations in Second Life fan subcultures.