Carr, D. and Oliver M. (in press 2009) ‘Second Life, Immersion and Learning’ in Social Computing and Virtual Communities, edited by Panayiotis Zaphiris and Chee Siang Ang, published by Taylor and Francis.

Second Life, Immersion and Learning

Diane Carr and Martin Oliver, Institute of Education, University of London

Keywords: Immersion, immersive, immersionist, voice, learning, education, augmentationist, engagement, realism.

In this chapter the online, virtual world Second Life is introduced. The interconnectedness of the social and the technical aspects of this virtual world are explored through a discussion of learning and education in Second Life and, in particular, through a consideration of the concept of ‘immersion’. The capacity for virtual worlds to engross participants has consistently interested educators. Often the term ‘immersion’ has been used in relation to this affect. We do not wish to take issue with any particular definition of immersion, or to argue that there are correct and incorrect definitions. Rather, we wish to sound a note of caution in regards to what at times looks like a wholesale and uncritical adoption of a term with multiple definitions and a complex history. Before discussing immersion, we will introduce this particular virtual world via a short account of avatar design and customization, and review some existing educational resources and practices within Second Life.

What is Second Life?

Second Life ( is an online, graphically-rendered, 3D virtual world that is accessed with an ‘avatar’ or online personification. Users, or ‘residents’,  explore and build neighbourhoods, make and model fashions, build spaceships, design gardens, run businesses, exhibit pictures, meet others at conferences and throw parties. As this indicates, there are many different ways to participate. Second Life is a toolset, a virtual world, and it supports social networks. It is a platform for various forms of play, and a place where people gather to create or play games. Unlike a game, however, Second Life does not present the resident with a set of goals to be pursued according to rules in order to achieve a winning outcome (goals, rules and win/lose states generally feature in definitions of ‘game’ as distinct from ‘play’, see Salen and Zimmerman, 2004). Second Life residents might not be confronted with a set of game rules, but there are constraints in place, including the developer’s Terms of Service, and social etiquette. While there might not be a specified mission or goal, there are still goal-oriented practices and aspirations, in the form of expertise, display, reputation or popularity, for example.

Figure 1: Editing appearance

Figure 2: Jelly wearing a human female ‘look’.

Figure 3: Jelly wearing a different look

Figure 4: Window-shopping for a body

After downloading Second Life, a new resident (newbie) is presented with a generic avatar. There is a convention that an unmodified avatar is a sign of inexperience (see Boostrom 2008). By going to an edit menu, a resident can access a set of sliding scales to alter their avatar’s ‘shape’ (height, arm length, bottom size, etc.) and ‘skin’ (figure 1). The desire to further individualise an avatar may lead to shopping expeditions, or a resident might prefer to take a ‘do-it-yourself’ approach. For example, in the case of the avatar shown in figure 2, Jelly, a translucent layer has been added to her face – a ‘skin’ that was created using graphics software and a downloadable template. Make-up, freckles and a ‘beauty spot’ were painted on, and the resulting image was uploaded to Second Life, and applied. Body shapes, like skins, can be modified. Residents seeking something more sophisticated or less humanoid (see figure 3) than the default options might go shopping (see figure 4), or create a shape for themselves using a 3D modelling application (guides and templates can be found here

As this suggest, an avatar might be a composite of found, made and purchased elements. In figure 2, for example, Jelly is wearing hair purchased from a wig shop. The glasses are from a spectacles shop. Her grey shirt was purchased, but her dark jacket, hoop earring and eyes were all promotional ‘freebies’. Freebies are objects or scripts given away by residents and businesses within Second Life. Thanks to freebies, an intrepid new resident can equip themselves for little or no outlay.  Jelly’s facial expression is the result of an animation; a piece of script (or programming) that means that she smiles. Fortunately the smile comes and goes, rather than remaining fixed. She walks a certain way because a script attached to one of her shoes triggers a particular animation. Different walks (‘sexy walk’, ‘power walk’) are available for purchase or from freebie warehouses.

Residents seeking something particular in a script, skin, body, outfit, vehicle, facility or environment, have the option to build or create it for themselves. Learning the relevant skills may involve trial and error, accessing tutorials within Second Life, or following online guides created by Second Life experts. While only landowners (residents who choose to pay a subscription rather than access Second Life for free) can create permanent installations, anyone can use open-access areas known as sandboxes in order to experiment on a large scale and meet fellow builders.

While some residents choose to spend their time building, others prefer to meet for socialising, sex or themed role-play. This variability is one of the reasons that Second Life is difficult to define, and it is also one of the reasons why Second Life can be disorientating or even alienating for new residents. The new player of an online game such as World of Warcraft (see Chapter 11) is introduced to the game and the interface through a set of tips and a series of missions of increasing difficulty and complexity. The game gives players instant feedback on the activities undertaken in the form of points. There is room for free exploration and playful experimentation, but the player is also provided with a clear series of goals. These kinds of guidelines are not present (or present in the same way) within Second Life, which new arrivals might experience as comparatively confusing or even pointless.  It is interesting to think about these potential pleasures and frustrations in terms of affect, space and navigation.

Janet Murray has described navigation in virtual spaces and the pleasures they evoke, using the model of the maze and the rhizome. The maze is a relatively directed experience that has the disadvantage of moving ‘the interactor toward a single solution [. The] desire for agency in digital environments makes us impatient when our options are so limited.’ Murray draws on the philosophy of Deleuze to propose the rhizome as a contrast to the maze. The rhizome, like a complex root system, allows for unrestricted exploration. The disadvantage of the rhizome is that it may lead to disorientation. Thus, argues Murray, both ‘the overdetermined form of the single-path maze and the underdetermined form of [the rhizome] work against the interactor’s pleasure in navigation’ (2000 p 134).

Murray proposes the labyrinth as version of navigation that incorporates the freedom of the rhizome with the purposefulness of the maze. The labyrinth is ‘goal driven enough to guide navigation but open-ended enough to allow free exploration’ (p 135). Our early outings in Second Life were given a minimal, labyrinthine structure by our desire to modify and personalise our avatars. This goal led to motivated exploration, and our experiments generated instant results. The sense that our avatars were ‘self contained’ and customizable offset, to some extent at least, the rhizomic disorientation we experienced on arrival.

Second Life and education

Second Life is not, of course, the only virtual world available, nor is it the most popular (, yet it is the virtual world that educators have  focused on recently, apparently because it offers ‘a relatively stable, relatively accessible, inexpensive and inhabited, persistent world where it is possible to build simulations, labs or locations’ (Carr, 2008). These potentials are reflected in the variety of approaches currently taken by educators working in Second Life. Some educators focus on technical aspects (running classes on scripting, for example), fostering collaboration, or designing educational simulations. Others might teach specific curriculum content through discussion, demonstration, role-play or practical exercise. Some might approach Second Life and its community as phenomena – as something to learn about, rather than simply a venue for learning, or a tool for teaching. In other contexts, or at other times, educators might simply regard the virtual world as a convenient location for a class meeting.

Within Second Life there are numerous examples of sites, buildings, installations and simulations that are intended to serve a teaching, learning or research agenda. One example would be the Social Simulation Research Lab [1], which hosts a collection of materials on Internet research and social networking theory. There are museums dedicated to arts or particular sciences, as well as didactic models and simulations that address issues of health or anatomy, and various themed areas designed for language learning. Virtual versions of real-world colleges and universities are scattered throughout Second Life.

Of course, learning is not limited to classrooms, and curriculum attainment is only one indication of learning. Alternative notions – for example, that learning is a social achievement and is evidenced through competent activity within a community (see Wenger, 1998) are also relevant. Communities form around particular sites (such as sandboxes) and practices (such as machinima). People learn by asking each other questions. Residents create expert tutorials, and design facilities to teach their fellow residents Second Life specific skills. A well known example would be The Ivory Tower of the Primitives, which avatars can explore while accessing note-cards, exercises and tutorials in order to learn how to build in Second Life.

Those researching education and learning in Second Life come from range of disciplinary backgrounds and, as a result, they employ a variety of research strategies. Methods include forms of textual analysis, observation, interview, surveys, and tests of various descriptions. These later, more positivist styles of enquiry might be instantiated within Second Life through the development and use of context specific data collection methods – such as survey booths, for example. Interaction logs or recordings of behaviour in specific settings might also be used as evidence. All research involves considerations of ethics and ethical practice, and this is obviously of particular concern when humans (via their avatars) are asked to participate in experiments, not least because the situations they encounter are the direct responsibility of the researchers who design them. There are several determinants of what currently counts as ethically acceptable research in Second Life, including the Terms of Service specified by Linden Labs (Second Life’s developers) as well as more conventional points of reference such as the codes of conduct of relevant professional organisations and the guidelines that have been produced by various associations (such as Ess and the AOIR, 2002).

Image 5. Chatting via text at the Social Simulation Research Lab

Another strand of research into education in Second Life looks to issues of access and inclusion (Sheehy, 2008). Second Life is not accessible to everyone, for reasons of geography and broadband, hardware requirements, or disability. Some disabled people, however, have found it empowering (Boellstorf 2008 p 147), and residents have created resources to facilitate participation (see more information at In addition to issues of usability and access, Second Life allows researchers to examine the social dimensions of disability. During 2007, for example, an integrated voice feature was added to Second Life. Until this point the default mode of conversation within Second Life had been text-based chat (‘talking’ by typing – see figure 5). The new feature raised the possibility that voice (the spoken voice of the user input through a microphone, heard through headphones) would become the ‘normal’ way to communicate in-world. This new feature was assumed by some to be an asset for education and commerce, but protests were lodged and concerns were raised by various groups, including residents who identified as deaf (Carr, Oliver and Burn 2008).  Dismayed deaf people posting to Second Life forums found themselves on the receiving messages of support, as well as hostility and accusations of selfishness. As such tensions make apparent, disability can be considered a social as well as a technical issue within virtual worlds.

Defining Second Life, Describing Participation

The introduction of the integrated voice feature to Second Life during 2007 was controversial. At the heart of these tensions was a debate over who it is that Second Life is ‘really for’, and what Second Life is, or should be. At times the discussion was framed in terms of different types of participation. The impact of these debates on Second Life’s community has been noted. As part of our recent research (see ‘acknowledgments’) into learning in Second Life, for instance, we interviewed researcher Greg Wadley about his investigation of voice in Second Life, and the manner in which the new feature was being received by Second Life (SL) residents:

Greg: I am detecting two distinct groups of SL users. Some of the “old school” users (I don’t really have a good name for them as a group) live in SL as an alternative fictional world. But SL is being taken up by a newer group – business and education people primarily – who treat it quite differently.
Some people call these two groups “immersionists” and “augmentationists”. Over-generalizing, the former dislike voice while the latter welcome it.

It appears that these terms, immersionist and augmentationist, were proposed by Henrick Bennetsen (Bennetsen, 2006). Elsewhere the classifications have been elaborated upon by Second Life commentators including Akela Talamasca, who wrote that:

The Immersionists believe that SL is a complete and discrete world in itself, and should have no truck with anything to do with RL [real life]. One could gather roleplayers […] into this camp. Immersionists tend not to disclose any of their RL information […] The Augmentationists view SL as an extension of their RL, more as a tool to be used to interact with others. These residents see nothing wrong (in general) with more interaction and connectivity with RL. (Talamasca 2006).

Yet, for other commentators, this differentiation is problematic and inaccurate. Tateru Nino, for example, has asserted that:

The whole seeming-struggle between augmentationists and immersionists is just so much smoke. There aren’t two camps going on here. They’re not duelling to death over the future of the platform. It’s mostly a false Us and Them distinction that distracts and diverts quite unnecessarily. (Nino 2007) [2]

As educators interested in Second Life, what strikes us as important in the ‘augmentationist versus immersionist’ debate is not the defining of particular kinds of SL users, so much as the evaluative tone of such categorisations. The debates offer us an opportunity to look at conflicts over what constitutes legitimate and credible participation in Second Life. These debates are associated with a technical feature – the introduction of the integrated voice feature – which was regarded by some as an appeal to education and business sectors at the expense of ‘real residents’ [3]. So, it is not the definitions per se, that are interesting, but the way that people choose to use these terms, and the evaluative connotations that these terms accrue through this use.  It is possible to extrapolate, and imagine the strategic employment of such connotations. What if, for instance, an educator describing him or herself as an ‘immersionist’ in particular contexts was not just a statement of preference, but a way of staking a claim to legitimacy-by-association with the ‘real’ Second Life community; with the progressive, the utopian, the credible and the alternative?

This debate may be ‘old news’ in the Second Life community, and the terms augmentationist and immersionist do not appear to have had much of an impact within Second Life and education circles. However, the terms ‘immersion’ and ‘immersive’ appear very frequently in conferences and journal articles on topics pertaining to virtual world pedagogy. Again, it is not just definitions that interest us. Rather, it is the idea that a term relating to a form of participation in Second Life can be vaguely defined, and yet accrue evaluative or positive connotations. For these reasons we believe that it would be productive to take a closer, cautionary look at the terms ‘immersion’ and ‘immersive’. Theoretical models of immersion drawn from computer game studies make this closer examination possible.


By our count the terms ‘immersion’ and ‘immersive’ appear approximately 15 times in the ‘2008 Autumn ‘Snapshot’ Report on UK Higher Education Research in Second Life’ prepared for the Eduserv Foundation by John Kirriemuir, more than 40 times in the 2007 proceedings from the Second Life Community Conference’s Education Track, and approximately 180 times in the proceedings from the Open University’s Conference ReLive08: Researching Learning in Virtual Environments (where contributors focused almost exclusively on Second Life). In many cases the term is used simply to mean a 3D environment – as in the phrase ‘immersive worlds’ – and we have no argument with the term being used in this vernacular or general sense.

What is of greater concern would be instances where immersion remains only vaguely defined and yet is assumed to be ‘good’, or ‘good for learning’, or where it is only broadly or generally defined, and yet approached as something that can be measured; as a phenomenon that will be supported by or undermined by particular input devices or interface designs rather than others; as a property of the software, or as a form of participation associated with particular styles of pedagogy or learning. Clearly, in the context of such research, a vernacular definition is inadequate.

Clarity matters, because immersion is more complex, and more paradoxical, than is being supposed. For the sake of argument, let us begin by noting that immersion is associated with presence – with a sense of ‘being in the virtual world’ (Lombard and Ditton, 1997). Based on this, a hypothetical research team might decide that immersion correlates to some degree or in some way with realism, and follow this by asserting that realistic and detailed 3D worlds where avatars with photo-realistic faces communicate while lip-synched to a user’s real-time voice will be ‘more immersive’. While recognisable features or landmarks in a virtual campus might orientate new students, (Carr, 2008a) anyone equating increased realism with increased immersion would do well to consider Masahiro Mori’s work on androids and the ‘uncanny valley’. Mori pointed out decades ago that ‘as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley’ (Mori, 1970). If a robot is ‘too lifelike’ it moves from being familiar, to being disconcerting, strange or scary. Recent games technology has borne out Mori’s theory. Players and game critics have noted that insistently ‘life-like’ avatars can be creepy or downright frightening (Thomson, 2005).

When considering realism and detail, game and simulation designers have noticed the value of a ‘less is more’ approach, and it has been demonstrated that

Selective exclusion has its benefits. In a paper titled ‘Does Simulation Need a Reality Check?’ Swartout and Lindheim (2002) write that military training simulations aim for exact replication (of a cockpit, for example), and that this thorough inclusiveness is actually counterproductive. They argue that the entertainment industry’s more selective style of simulation evokes a suspension of disbelief that can enrich the pedagogical value of the experience. Gaps and omissions stimulate engagement. Wright, the creator of SimCity, understands the value of leaving things out. Frasca (2001 p 2) has noted that Wright’s design of The Sims was influenced by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, “particularly the section when McCloud explains how the reader fills in the gaps of what happens between each panel of the illustrated story”. (Carr, 2004).

Computer games analysis has shown that while various forms of design cohesion are undoubtedly important to satisfactory participation in games and online worlds (see McMahan 2003, Krzywinksa and King 2007), it does not follow that more realism or detail will lead to a greater level of immersion. Consider also these comments concerning realism, immersion and the use of voice in virtual worlds made by Richard Bartle in 2003:

If you introduce reality into a virtual world, it’s no longer a virtual world: it’s just an adjunct to the real world. It ceases to be a place, and reverts to being a medium. Immersion is enhanced by closeness to reality, but thwarted by isomorphism with it: the act of will required to suspend disbelief is what sustains a player’s drive to be, but it disappears when there is no disbelief required. Adding reality to a virtual world robs it of what makes it compelling – it takes away that which is different between virtual worlds and the real world: the fact that they are not the real world.

This is not the first context where the term immersion has proved problematic. It is probable that the term arrived in Second Life and education circles from Virtual Reality research. As Sherman and Craig explain in Understanding Virtual Reality (2003), the term has been vaguely or even contradictorily defined within VR studies.

The state of being mentally immersed is often referred to as having “a sense of presence” within an environment. Unfortunately, there is not yet a common understanding of precisely what each of these terms mean, how they relate to one another, or how to differentiate between them. (We have found one book in which chapters written by different authors give exactly the opposite definitions for immersions and presence). (2003 p 9)

In the discussion thus far we have employed a rather skeletal definition of ‘immersion’ or ‘immersive’ in that we have discussed it in relation to a user being in some sense drawn into (or ejected from) a virtual environment. It is possible to consider the term and its applicability to Second Life and education in greater depth, by referencing computer games scholarship in more detail.

Immersion and computer games scholarship

Within computer games studies, considerations of the term ‘immersion’ often begin with a reference to Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, in which it is proposed that

The experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself […] We refer to this experience as immersion. Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water.  (Murray 1997 p 98).

In later games analysis, the notion of immersion is discussed in relation to a more critical form of attention, that of engagement. Drawing on VR studies, Alison McMahan (2003) has used Lombard and Ditton’s review of the literature on presence (1997) to propose that immersion and engagement be attributed to different aspects of computer games. Immersion, in McMahan’s analysis, is associated with the fantasy and narrative aspects of a setting, whereas engagement is linked to the challenges posed by the game-play.

In other accounts (Hargadon and Douglas 2000, Carr 2006) engagement and immersion are not linked to particular aspects of a game or a text. Instead they are imagined as attentive states that sit along a continuum and that suggest a particular stance towards the game at a given moment. Immersion is experienced when a player is simply absorbed, and it is countered when the player is presented with a challenge that requires a more thoughtful ‘stepping back’. This stepping back involves a more consciously critical or searching form of attention: engagement. The point is not that one mode of attention is ‘better’ than the other, or that the two are mutually exclusive. Instead, an engrossing gaming experience will involve constant attentive shifts. Players

slip between immersed, close absorption and an engaged, critical distance. Thus it would not make sense to value engagement over immersion […] the two states are complementary. The game is compelling, not because of its capacity to evoke either immersion or engagement […] but because it allows the player the constantly move between the two. (Carr 2006 p 55)

It is easy to imagine how these shifting states of attention might be present in the processes of avatar customization we outlined at the beginning of this chapter. Toying with the slider to manipulate the avatar’s facial features or body type might be highly absorbing. The limitations of such manipulations might result in frustration that motivates the user to access alternative information or resources. These resources might in turn prove compelling. For example, a Second Life user might download a template and use graphics software to create more pleasing facial details for an avatar. These shifts ‘in’ and ‘out’ of Second Life, and between less and more conscious forms of participation would be set off by various triggers. These triggers would alter in line with the user’s level of expertise, because a task that is initially engaging might become a more immersive pleasure once the user attains competence.

In Rules of Play game theorists and designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman discuss ‘the immersive fallacy’. Salen and Zimmerman define the immersive fallacy as the idea that

The pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality. According to the immersive fallacy, this reality is so complete that ideally the frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imagined world.  (p 451)

Salen and Zimmerman take a strong position on this topic because they consider that game designers too often take the desirability of immersion, and the association of immersion with photo-realism for granted, and innovation suffers as a result. Salen and Zimmerman argue that falling prey to the immersive fallacy entails ignoring the dual nature or double consciousness of play. The player manipulates an avatar in a game-world but, at the same time, the player is pursing game goals while considering various obstacles and the rules of the environment. Thus ‘the player is fully aware of the character as an artificial construct [and this] double consciousness is what makes character-based game play such a rich and multi-layered experience’. (p 453)

Obviously we should query the direct applicability of this argument to Second Life, because of the generic and structural differences between this virtual world and games. In terms of unexamined propositions and ‘fuzzy’ definitions, however, there is much here that is pertinent to current debates within the Second Life and education community.

We would add that it is certainly not the case that immersion has been consistently regarded as a neutral or positive phenomenon. At times, and in various contexts, the term has been associated with non-critical or passive pleasures that have been linked with reactionary ideologies. Consider, for instance, the influential 20th Century critiques of popular music, conventional theatre, and mainstream, narrative cinema, and the subsequent championing of concepts such as estrangement, reflexivity and alienation (see Stam 2000, pp 140-153, for a discussion of relevant theorists including Adorno, Brecht, Wollen and MacCabe. See also Ryan 1994, Dovey and Kennedy 2006).

In a similar vein, Gonzalo Frasca’s work on computer and video games draws on drama theory to distinguish conceptually between immersive, passive pleasures, and critically conscious, active participation. In  ‘Videogames of the Oppressed: critical thinking, education, tolerance and other trivial issues (2004) Frasca draws on the writing of Augusto Boal, particularly Theatre of the Oppressed (which was in turn influenced by Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Brecht’s theories of drama) to propose a particular approach to the design of politicised games; one that involves the player moving into an active and critical position in relation to a simulation’s design.

This, then, is another issue that educators speaking of the immersive power of Second Life have tended to omit from the debate: the suggestion from older theory that immersion is not inherently transformative. At times it has been regarded as the ‘opposite’ of learning. According to such arguments, immersion would only be useful in pedagogical terms when it is combined with interruptions of various kinds that are designed to facilitate critique. This recalls Kurt Squire’s comments about the use of commercial games in classrooms, and the need for teachers to supply a critical framework (Squire, 2002).

From the discussion so far it should be clear that different takes on the notion of immersion (and different definitions of the term) are present in computer games literature. Clearly, immersion is complex. We are not interested in asserting that there is one ‘right’ way to conceptualise immersion, but we would propose that attempts to prove, facilitate or measure immersion must be clear about what it is that is under investigation.

Two points have now been raised: Firstly, that immersion is one form of attention, and that it exists alongside alternative modes of attention (such as engagement, for instance). Secondly, that players simultaneously operate from two perspectives – they are ‘in the world’, and yet outside it. If this is the case with players, we suggest that it would also be the case with students accessing Second Life within a particular course in a formal learning context. Together these points indicate that any theory of pedagogy in virtual worlds that linked learning to immersion as if the two existed in a self-evident, mutually affirming manner, or that conceptualised immersion as a sort of monotone, mono-directional state, might not survive close inspection.

The various theories of immersion referred to above offer a useful starting point from which to explore the complexity of this concept. We do not want to argue that immersion is equivalent to audience passivity, and thus ‘bad’, while other modes of participation are active and hence ‘good’. Rather, we would propose that experiences in Second Life involve various forms of attention and pleasure, and various kinds of affect, which are triggered by a range of factors, depending on the user, on their level of expertise, and on the context of use. To explore this issue we will briefly refer to our teaching in Second Life.

Teaching and Immersion in Second Life

The two taught sessions here under discussion took place in the middle of a 10 week course on Computer Mediated Communications, on an MA in ICT and Education at the Institute of Education, University of London [4]. The course was taught via distance learning, the students are adults, and often teachers themselves. As noted, Salen and Zimmerman have argued that playing a game involves operating with a kind of ‘dual consciousness’. The feedback that we got from our students was very positive, yet it suggested that (regardless of how ‘immersive’ Second Life is) they experienced similar shifts in perspective, and moved between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ frames of reference.

Consider ‘role’ for example. Despite attending class in the guise of an avatar, feelings about the roles of student and tutor were carried into Second Life, while performance in Second Life was regarded as having real-life ramifications – as this student’s comments suggest.

[…] What was playing on my mind on that session was the tutor’s perception towards the students’ participation. Did they give credit to students who answered most of the questions [?…] How about a few students who sometimes give long answers and short answers? How about if one of the students had problem with the computer, like Second Life crashed and it took a long time sometimes to restart? The tutor might think that this student participates less and not very active in the session.

What is notable here is that, in this context, Second Life was not necessarily experienced as a ‘place apart’, where role exists to be played with or subverted, or risks taken with no repercussions. Clearly, users’ bring their existing expectations to class with them. We did, however, see indications that real-time, virtual space contact with fellow students felt more ‘real’ than other online contact to that point. In the following comments, for example, a student distinguishes between the ‘real class’ and the rest of the course, which had been taught via distance learning and Blackboard (a more conventional virtual learning environment than Second Life, where communication was primarily through forum-styled exchanges). For these distance learners, the Second Life sessions were felt to be particularly compelling for social reasons:

I could feel the ‘real class’ when I saw bunch of you gathering at the outside of the ground floor. I felt that finally I would meet all my classmates (even though it was not real). Can you imagine in real life when you meet your classmates for the first time and you will automatically introduce and ask around about people?

The students had in some sense already ‘met’ one another via online discussions and posts on Blackboard before the Second Life sessions. Thus a particular set of relationships was already in play prior to their meeting in the virtual world. For most of the students, then, the sessions succeeded not because the virtual world itself was intrinsically engrossing, but because of what it offered in contrast to the more conventional learning platform, in the context of a specific course, within a set of relationships, and while performing particular roles.

For us this suggests that it would be a mistake for educators to invest too heavily in the notion of immersion for its own sake.  Instead, it would be more productive to consider learning in Second Life in terms of multiple forms of participation and a range of possible attentive states, which might be more or less suited to specific learning contexts, and which may be facilitated and supported by different pedagogies and practices.

Our students were ‘newbies’ and this may be one reason why they tended to make sense of proceedings according to external references, including the education context, the institution in which they were enrolled, our roles, and eventual assessment. There might be various ways to argue that all these factors could be circumvented, or designed to be ‘more immersive’ by becoming more integrated into Second Life – but it is not immediately clear what that would achieve, educationally. Our experiences suggest that it would be problematic to assume that ‘more immersed’ is ‘better’ for learning or teaching, especially if such an approach is not sensitive to the students’ expectations, contexts, and interpretive frameworks.


In this chapter we have introduced the virtual world Second Life, and explored some  aspects of the debates concerning Second Life and education. This has involved tracking some curious twists in relation to the currency of a particular term: immersion. While the term has positive association within the Second Life and education community, older literatures have proposed that immersion can be understood as an uncritical form of participation that facilitates the transmission of dominant ideologies by the powers-that-be. We have no wish to underestimate, demonise or dismiss the pleasures of immersion, but we would query the pervasive and often uncritical use of this term within the Second Life and education communities.

There are various ways to experience, learn in, or learn about Second Life, and thus there can be no single ‘best practice’ model for educators. We have mentioned the variability of Second Life, and noted that there are different ways it might be used, enjoyed or defined. Second Life can, in fact, be a disorienting, ambiguous place, especially for new users (Carr, Oliver and Burn, 2008). This ambiguity should not be regarded as an obstacle to be overcome in order for learning to be successful. Indeed, while Second Life can be used as a place to build virtual seminar rooms or otherwise replicate elements of real world education, it is also an opportunity to upset the roles of both educator and student, and to expose the conventions that inform these roles in the process.

When theorising virtual world pedagogy it is important to appreciate that various forms of participation, attention and affect may be part of the learner experience. Education in Second Life involves multiple frames of reference – personal, social and technical – each of which may have implications for learning. To further our understanding of the pedagogic potentials of Second Life, we need to be clear about which of these frames we draw on when making particular claims, and be specific about the concepts that we employ in our research.


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1: In addition to the Social Simulation Research Lab (Hyperborea 218, 90, 24), well known examples of educational sites would include the International Space Flight Museum (SpacePort Alpha 47, 82, 23), and Virtual Hallucinations (Sedig 26, 43, 21). For a list of places to visit, see, accessed February 2009

2: Nino’s comments recall the ‘ludology verses narratology’ debate within game studies. This debate has been important in terms of the emergence of the field, yet it suffers from similar problems of specificity and definition.

3: For more on this issue, see ‘World or Platform: The Reality of SL’ an in-world meeting reported at Note how the title of the meeting recalls Richard Bartle’s comments about the use of integrated voice features in virtual worlds quoted elsewhere in this chapter. See also ‘The Big Controversies in Second Life’, written in 2006 by Gwyneth Llewelyn, online at, accessed November 2008

4: For a much longer account of these sessions and student feedback, see ‘Learning to Teach in Second Life’, an online report (Carr 2008a)

Acknowledgements: Elements of this research were undertaken during 2007-2008 with the support of the Eduserv Foundation. Full details of this research project, which was titled  ‘Learning From Online Worlds; Teaching in Second Life’ can be found at the project blog:

2 Responses to “9. Immersion and SL”

  1. Kathy Robinson Says:

    Thanks for sharing the link to this article. I particularly liked the idea of conceptualising immersion and engagement as different states and the implication this might have for the design of learning activities in virtual worlds. The reference to presence was a bonus for me as I grapple with what the concept of social presence.

  2. […] Carr, D. and Oliver M. (in press) ‘Second Life, Immersion and Learning’ in Social Computing and Virtual Communities, edited by P. Zaphiris and C.S. Ang. Taylor and Francis. There’s a copy of the draft online here. […]

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