JOVS 6 n3

Journal of Virtual Studies • Vol 6, No 3, 2015 • ISSN 2155-0107

Editor’s Edifice

Identity is multifaceted. In this edition, we explore the conscious avatar, and its many facets.

Many would argue that an avatar isn’t real. It is a cartoon, a 2D or 3D representation of a person. For others, the avatar is the most real aspect of themselves, the true personality that casts aside the physical trappings.

Regardless of how one perceives the avatar, in this modern world of social media, almost all of us have at least one avatar. Perhaps it’s a picture associated with a Facebook or Twitter account. Maybe it is a three dimensional avatar represented in a virtual world like Second Life, or in a game, like World of Warcraft. Regardless of how we symbolically represent ourselves, these avatars are a result of choices we make.

This issue features research conducted in Second Life, and it presents some interesting concepts of how identity may be shaped by our purpose for using these avatars. Whether we effect a drastic change in appearance or not, ultimately, it is about being true to ourselves.

We challenge you to keep looking at the conscious avatar in yourself and explore the reasons for the choices that you make. It might lead to self-discovery.

Leticia De Leon

Kevin Feenan

Call for Papers

Theme: Cyclicality

Stories of the symbolic journey of self-discovery and renewal are all around us. Whether the themes are complex or simplistic in their telling, these stories connect with both children and adults alike. Some of the most poignant are those that involve the concept of cyclicality.

Cyclicality exists in many cultures and many contexts. Consider an ouroboros. This ancient symbol is a representation of a serpent eating its own tail. On the surface, it appears barbaric. Yet, it represents self-reflexivity and re-creation.

This reflexivity abounds in the way we construct professions and personal lives out of experience. In research and in practice, we demonstrate the cyclicality of reflection and how we sometimes need to adjust old ideas or shift old paradigms to demonstrate more relevant conceptions of the current world. Like the phoenix being reborn from its own ashes, our culture is enriched, feeding back into itself the knowledge, understanding, and wisdom of what came before it.

The Journal of Virtual Studies calls for papers that demonstrate the cyclicality of working in virtual spaces. Send us your research, practical application, perspectives, cultural narratives, and reviews of work that demonstrate some aspect of cyclicality in virtual spaces: reflection, process, trends, best practice, renewal, reinvention.

Expected publication: January/February 2016.

Featured Research

Valerie Hill, PhD

Renne Emiko Brock-Richmond, MFA

The purposes of this research are: first, to explore specific examples of utilizing an avatar as a professional or educational 
representation of self: second, to identify attributes of avatar creation through examination of personal stories in a professional
environment; and third, to determine the impact of the avatar experience through hermeneutic phenomenology. The two 
researchers met in a virtual world and discovered that both had created avatars for professional work in Second Life.  Using 
each other as examples, over the course of five years, the researchers recorded attributes for successful professional branding 
and documented the impact of their experiences. The study used a mixed method qualitative methodology including personal 
storytelling, interviews, and field notes to document the clear purpose, mission and educational focus of personal virtual world 
experiences. The investigation may help other professionals, particularly educators, with decisions about the use of avatars and 
virtual worlds. Illustrating best practices for educational use of virtual worlds, the results include advantages and disadvantages
of using avatars within professional fields.
Keywords: virtual worlds, avatars, immersive learning, virtual reality, hermeneutic phenomenology, distance education, 


Understanding the phenomenon of virtual worlds within the field of education, specifically the utilization of avatars, requires an in-depth look at personal experiences of educators. Hermeneutic phenomenology is a method of examining and interpreting personal stories and lived experiences for a better understanding of meaning in a given context. The term hermeneutics refers to interpretation, often exemplified by interpretation of scripture or written text. A phenomenon can be defined as a fact or situation observed to exist or happen. Phenomenology studies consciousness (or existence) from a first person point of view through intentionality (Smith, 2013). Using this definition of hermeneutic phenomenology, the two researchers in this case study set out to interpret the phenomenon of avatar representation by professionals in a virtual world through examining the experience and personal stories of each other as individuals.

Philosopher Edmund Husserl (1839-1938), regarded as father of phenomenology, described two moments of human consciousness which constitute the basis of phenomenology: epoche (or bracketing) and reduction. The epoche is a moment when an individual is aware (or brackets out a specific moment of awareness) of the acceptance of being captive in a physical body, culture and space (transcends reality) and the reduction is the realization of that awareness as yet another acceptance. The goal of Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy is a descriptive, detached analysis of consciousness, in which objects, as its correlates, are constituted (Cogan, 2015). Other philosophers built upon Husserl’s key concepts of descriptive phenomenology.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) became a junior colleague of Husserl in 1916 and illustrated the influence of Husserl’s concept of phenomenology in his widely acclaimed treatise, Being and Time. Heidegger challenged Husserl’s philosophy of “descriptive phenomenology” through emphasizing “being there” or being present, which he called Dasien (a German word for the existence of a human being). Heidegger’s hermeneutics adds interpretation beyond text to all forms of human understanding, particularly art and lived human experience (Korab-Karpowicz, 2015). Similarities and differences exist within the concepts of ontology (ways of being) and epistemology (ways of knowing) for phenomenology and hermeneutic phenomenology.

Laverty compared Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology explaining while Husserl focused more on the epistemological question of the relationship between the knower and the object of study, Heidegger moved to the ontological question of the nature of reality and ‘Being’ in the world (Laverty, 2003.)

Hans Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) expanded hermeneutic phenomenology as a research methodology through challenging the positivism of the scientific method (Barthold, 2015). Gadamer promoted the “art of interpretation” in application to the scientific method as a way to inquire into the meaning and significance of understanding for human existence, which lends itself well into the social science fields. McManus Halroyd illustrates, “Gadamer identifies that what we learn through our life experiences transforms our earlier views, and after this transformation we can never return to our previously held views (McManus Halroyd, 2007. p. 10)”.

Hermeneutic phenomenology suggests that each individual views and understands the world from a situated perspective that includes our “fore- projections” of ideas and concepts. This means one has a belief about a concept before experiencing it or truly coming to understand it. Lev Vygotsky, a leading child behavioral scientist, suggested that learners have pseudo-concepts prior to fully understanding difficult challenges, which are similar to the fore-projections of hermeneutic phenomenology. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (a continuum upon which learners are seen to grow through interaction with teachers or peers) also corresponds with hermeneutics. Learning does not take place in isolation, according to behavioral scientists like Vygotsky (1978), but through shared experience with others.

The medium through which humans share existence is language—a back and forth game of dialogue, meaning, and understanding. This continuous dialogue is part of the “hermeneutic circle” which philosopher Gadamer continued to explore in the footsteps of Heidegger and Husserl. Gadamer believed truth is found not only through empiricism but more importantly through individual experience.

Applying personal storytelling in the field of health professionals, McManus Halroyd states, “For health professionals who wish to shed some light of their own, the desire must thus exist to move beyond the clinical literalism - the truth, facts, and clinical detail -they have come to associate with individuals facing life-changing events like illness ((McManus Halroyd, 2007, P.4)”. This emphasis on the value of storytelling is set with the field of medicine, but may be just as valuable in other fields where individuals interact. “Therefore, to really engage in the topic, there needs to be a sharing of his or her experiences - a story telling of sorts - and it is in these stories that meaning and understanding are disclosed (Mcmanus Holroyd, 2007, p. 8).”

An example of research using hermeneutic phenomenology as a research methodology illustrates the story of lived experience of a Sioux Indian male adolescent (Kim, 2011). Through a personal narrative, Kim investigated the cause and effect of life experiences in alternative educational settings. Kim writes, “Reading Matto’s story from hermeneutic phenomenology offers an encounter with a student who appears to have failed regular schools and ended up being in an alternative school causing more trouble until he finally comes to terms with himself and others (Kim, 2011, p. 644).” Through the examination of personal lived experiences and the stories told by individuals, a better understanding of phenomena in many fields can be gained. Sometimes phenomenology is misunderstood because often the numbers of individuals studied is quite small. Converse, a researcher in the medical field, says “The goal of phenomenological research is not to create results that can be generalized, but to understand the meaning of an experience of a phenomenon (Converse, 2012, p. 31”. Conducting research in a virtual world is a relatively new endeavor and one, which quite obviously mirrors the physical world, yet is completely symbolic. Only one who has fully experienced the utilization of an avatar can share that experience as something meaningful or “real”. The application of hermeneutic phenomenology to the lived experience of avatars in a virtual world is well matched to Goble’s explanation in an essay, as follows.

“We are enmeshed in our world and immediately experience our world as
meaningful because our world — with its other people, its histories and cultures, and
its events—precedes any attempt on our part to understand it or explain it. The purpose
of hermeneutic phenomenological research is to bring to light and reflect upon the lived
meaning of this basic experience (Goble, 2104).”

This reflection and “bringing to light” requires openness, insight, honesty, and serious contemplation for both the researcher and the participating storyteller. Luft suggests, “Since the phenomenological scientist has to legitimate her actions, she has to give account of them responsibly and ultimately for herself. Accounting for one’s own deepest “self ” is more than just performing another scientific “job”; it is a task of the highest responsibility possible (Luft, 2004, p. 24).”

Research Methodology

Horizon Report shows evidence that global connectivity and virtual immersive learning environments provide opportunities for persistent communication and blended learning (NMC, 2015). The question we might ask is: How can educators present themselves as avatars in immersive learning environments? Using hermeneutic phenomenology to examine the personal stories of two educators, researchers interviewed each other, collected field notes, and wrote personal narratives of the experience. Over the course of five years, the two researchers met in the virtual world of Second Life and several times in the physical world.

[Figure 1.] Valibrarian and Zinnia Zauber at the campfire in Zinnia’s Digital Storytelling Virtual Classroom

Case Study: Two professional avatars

A virtual world can be defined as “a synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers (Bell, 2008, p.1)”. Individuals may create avatars and enter virtual worlds for various reasons ranging from curiosity or role-play, to business or education. Some people enter a virtual world simply to attend an event or view a simulation without personalizing an avatar in any way; however, those who adopt virtual worlds as a platform for collaborative learning often identify themselves through the avatar type chosen.

Wadley (2011) categorized two distinct types of avatars which are created for particular uses: 1) The ‘immersionist’, for whom the virtual world presents an opportunity to anonymously play a fictitious character, and 2) the ‘augmentationist’, who uses a virtual world as a medium to project their offline identity to collaborators whose identities are also known. Individuals who view virtual worlds as an extension of real life identities or as a communication tool, augmentationists, are often seen as transparent online. Both avatars presented in this case study are presented as augmentationists- professional educators whose identity was not hidden within the virtual world environment.

Meet Zinnia Zauber (Avatar 1- The Artist Educator)

Story told by Valerie Hill

Art, encouragement, and educational opportunities motivated Zinnia to participate in the virtual world of Second Life. In the physical world, Zinnia lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, which is somewhat remote and has limited higher educational employment options and art exhibition spaces. After reading about Second Life as an online community for artist, educators, and nonprofit advocates, she signed up for it the day high speed cable was finally installed on her block. Her goal was to harness the potential of this platform to utilize skills as a college instructor, artist, and civic leader in the arts.

When Zinnia entered Second Life, it was very important to her to make her avatar authentic and look like herself in physical life. Throughout her entire existence, being an artist, she had a distinct style, expressing herself through making much of her own apparel. Zinnia believes that her appearance is her “brand” and a great deal of her artistic and academic endeavors have been about expression and identity through integrity and color communication. Although short in stature, her personal mission has been to inspire people through accessibility, projecting professionalism, creativity, and brilliance.

Zinnia has had the same haircut for her whole life, a short bob inspired by the 20’s style and Bauhaus instructors. She has worn bright red eye shadow with warm shades to match since the 80’s with bright red, orange, or magenta lipstick and blush. Her style of dress is classic, modest feminine lines with solid warm colors and bold flower prints. In the physical world, most people recognize Zinnia first by her bright appearance and then get to know her by her actions. She jokes, “you can see me from space!”

[Figure 2.] Avatar Zinnia in the physical and virtual world

Zinnia worked quickly to mold her avatar appearance in Second Life to reflect her personal style because it showcases what she stakes her reputation on: creativity, color, bright ideas, action, and acceptance. Through the pursuit of recreating her appearance, she learned several virtual world skills, such as how to navigate and communicate with others while she shopped for her virtual bob hairstyle. She also learned how to import her own digital files to make original skins to recreate her own real makeup and clothes. Even finding avatar animations akin to her own stance and poise movements was crucial to her virtual representation of self.

Because Zinnia entered Second Life for professional reasons, she found advantages in the honest openness revealing personal identity and public persona. She found her ingenuousness let people open up and discuss their dreams, disappointments, and daily routines. Often in talking with residents of Second Life, they expressed that their avatar is the best version of themselves or “who they really are”. It became clear to Zinnia these avatars desired to be seen as sentient, not little pixels on a screen. Some people were in many ways researching who they could become in the physical world and experiencing the perception others had of them in that form.

Zinnia also soon understood that avatars didn’t have to look like their physical counterparts and they could brand themselves in creative ways. Through their intent and actions, they developed authentic avatars. As an educator in virtual worlds, Zinnia teaches that trust in an avatar will become more important because the avatar becomes our public self throughout the world. After people began calling her Zinnia and Renne interchangeably, she realized that her genuine self was being addressed and trusted.

Besides the constructive and positive impact and engagement Zinnia has had through creating an authentic avatar, she has encountered interesting experiences with Second Life residents that are not using the virtual world for professional or educational reasons. Some people keep their public and avatar lives separate. Others came inworld to “play a game” instead of being themselves or are destructive in their engagement. She found that those hurtful people, called “griefers” stayed clear of her, perhaps because of her colorful, refined appearance or because they read her profile.

[Figure 3.] Authentic Avatar – inspiring trust with your virtual identity lesson slide by Brock-Richmond.

Zinnia came from an old school gaming background, playing Dungeons and Dragons then Champions, as well as computer and video games starting in 1980, and she understands that a degree of imagination is required to truly appreciate the concepts of an immersive experience. She says, “Very few avatars just teleport away from me, most are inquisitive that I work and teach in Second Life”. Students and colleagues often mirror her acceptance and curiosity of how others choose to design their avatars and their purpose to use a virtual world. Through many exchanges, Zinnia learned something from others and quite often started them on a new path of virtual engagement. Because Zinnia had the mission to use a virtual world as a place to create artwork, teach, and support other nonprofits, she quickly made connections and efforts to establish herself with those opportunities. She became an active member of the Nonprofit Commons in Second Life as a mentor, special event producer, and presented in physical and virtual conferences about how to develop successful teams, branding, and marketing for nonprofits. Also to be qualified to teach in this new media, she joined the first class who earned a certificate in Virtual Worlds from the University of Washington. She continued to support that program as the hourly lecturer / mentor for two years and was the chair for her class of the Avalumni, the group of avatar alumni from the classes 2009-2013. While she teaches in Second Life, she is continuing her studies in virtual worlds hopefully toward a doctorate. Always interested to share her transformative work in immersive environments and actively advocating the use of them, she presents at many educational and tech conferences. Some highlights have included teaching at the National Defense University, the New Media Consortium Conferences, Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, Federal Consortium of Virtual Worlds, GeekGirlCon, and Second Life Community Conferences. Her Peninsula College multimedia and entrepreneur students learn about transmedia marketing and harnessing social media networking aspects of virtual worlds. Each student creates a distinct avatar and develops teams who work together inworld and out (Brock-Richmond, 2013).

[Figure 5.] Nonprofit Commons in Second Life Meeting as Zinnia

Zinnia also exhibits her artwork and lessons about color commutation and theory in Second Life. She is grateful to receive lots of positive feedback about her interactive course work on color, superpowers, and teamwork. And, has even had faculty from other colleges tell her when she is presenting at conferences that their students discovered her work. The students tell them that they are the specific colors Zinnia has defined and eager to follow the purpose of those colors’ attributes. This feedback is a shining example of the reason she came into virtual worlds to empower people and the power it has to connect inquisitive and disperse communities.

Meet Valibrarian (Avatar 2- The Librarian Educator)

Story told by Renne Emiko Brock-Richmond

After many years as an educator and school librarian, Valibrarian began to see the “revolution” taking place in libraries through advances in technology, particularly online resources and applications. When she heard about a virtual world called Second Life, she was immediately intrigued and in awe of the potential to create anything one can imagine. Her mind instantly saw applications for education and libraries, such as historical simulations. She was also a bit frightened about “just where the world is headed” with everything moving toward digital instead of physical content. As a librarian, she already experienced the impact of ebooks rattling the foundation of paper books and the purpose of physical libraries. Around 2006, she began to see glimpses of this new digital culture and when she heard of virtual worlds, she really thought she was looking at the future. Nearly a decade later, Valibrarian is surprised that virtual worlds are not yet commonplace and she believes one of the reasons is the rapid rise of mobile apps and the difficult learning curve of immersive environments.

Wanting to be part of the future, Valibarian had decided to try Second Life as a librarian. Her avatar name declared that notion loud and clear. She wanted to enter only as a professional and had never considered coming into a virtual world as a “gamer”. She had heard that

[Figure 6.] Librarians building desks for Land of Lincoln

[Figure 7.] Librarians dressed as Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln (avatars at an historical simulation)

the American Library Association, which she was a member of, had an island and that other librarians were using Second Life to connect and share information. So, in 2006, she created Valibrarian and her mission was clearly to explore the potential for librarianship and for education. Right away, she experienced what hinders many to enter virtual worlds, her computer graphics card was too old to support Second Life, so she was unable to connect! Success came a year later, in the summer of 2007, when she upgraded her computer and remembered her username and password, she gave Second Life another try. Val recalled the moment she entered, there was the “teleportation sound” and she was a bit scared as she entered a virtual world for the first time (Hill, 2007).

After going through a tutorial about how to walk, fly, move objects, and other maneuvers, she did a bit of tweaking to her avatar to look as much like herself as much as possible. Valibarian was a professional and accessible librarian, but not with the stereotypical bun. She had a long braid! In her mind, she was representing herself as a professional from the moment she came inworld. It was a long time before she learned how to create a more realistic avatar with a “skin” and animations and more professional clothing. At first, she was thrifty and only wore freebie clothes.

Valibarian’s philosophy of education is one of balancing tradition and innovation. For example, she believes strongly in a firm foundation of academic basics, like core curriculum, and embrace Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development, which aligns with Constructivism. Vygotsky suggested that learning takes place in a social context, not in isolation. We learn best in a “zone of proximal development” with others: teachers, experts, peers and colleagues. When Val found the librarians in Second Life, she learned about the virtual world from them and with them. She began working on building exhibits, experiencing historical simulations, conducting book discussions, seminars, virtual conferences, virtual reference and numerous other educational experiences. One of the most memorable she said was learning to build desks for the old school house at the Land of Lincoln and sharing a reading of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at a memorial day event in historical attire.

Not just experiencing immersion, but also capturing and archiving educational events has been one of her goals and she has uploaded machinima to Valibrarian’s youtube channel. Realizing these are early examples of educational immersive learning environments, she thinks the graphics will continue to improve from some of her shaky, barely clear early efforts! She enjoys taking visitors through virtual exhibits and historical sims, like 20’s Berlin, Germany, and has been excited to share content in a physical library that corresponds well with the virtual content (Hill, 2012).

Valibrarian believes, after working for 8 years in a virtual world, her impact has influenced others by serving as both role model and advocate for information literacy in global digital participatory culture. She has published research on virtual worlds and presented at numerous conferences including American Library Association National Conference, ALISE, Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, VCARA (Virtual Center for Archives and Records Association), ISTE, Texas Computer Education Association, the European Conference on Information Literacy, and Texas Library Association. Valibrarian has advocated information literacy through Web 2.0 content creation and curation tools, such as webinars and has participated yearly in the San Jose State School of Library and Information Science Library 2.0 Worldwide online conference. She believes that “whether or not one creates an avatar, we all live in virtual worlds in today’s “networked culture”. An avatar, in her opinion, is an excellent tool for an educator’s virtual toolbox.

Because she has been diligently focused on a professional representation of herself online, Val embraced digital citizenship early on, in fact even before the term became commonplace. Teaching young students about digital citizenship, Valibrarian utilized her knowledge of virtual worlds by providing 5th graders in her school library the opportunity to design and build a digital citizenship game in Minecraft (Hill, 2015).

[Figure 8.] Reference desk at the Community Virtual Library in Second Life

Valibrarian is an active participant in the future of libraries. Due to the revolution brought about by technology, information literacy has changed and includes multiple literacies, which might be called metaliteracy or transliteracy, in global digital participatory culture. Her work in Second Life as compatible with her physical work as an information science professional and she has shared new knowledge of virtual world tools with other information professionals and educators (Hill and Lee, 2009). She is the same in both spaces.

[Figure 9.] Valbrarian at the Community Virtual Library in SL


Table 1.

Interview Questions and Responses

Interview Question                             Zinnia’s Response                        Valibrarian’s Response
1.What is the benefit of utilizing             Benefits that Zinnia has personally        Benefits that Valibrarian has personally
an avatar for education or professional        experienced are:                           experienced are:
work in your field?                            To lead by example and live the            Cost Effectiveness - Conferences 
                                               brand.  Being the same inworld and         and workshops on a global scale   
                                               out, instills instant integrity. My        without the high cost of travel. 
                                               appearance embodies my mission,            
                                               passion, and communicate through           Educational Experiences - Histor-
                                               color my intent. When people see           ical simulations like Anne Frank, 
                                               that my avatar looks like me phys-         Berlin 1920, World War 1 Poetry,  
                                               ically, they are inspired to project       the Alamo and many more.
                                               their ideal selves into the virtual        
                                               environment.                               Professional networking, particu-
                                                                                          larly the ISTE campfires with other 
                                               Opportunities to utilize profession-       educators and the Community Vir-
                                               al skills to benefit online communi-       tual Library with other librarians.
                                               ties through education, mentoring,         Meeting these individuals would 
                                               special events, and design work.           not have happened in the physical 
                                               Worldwide access to future forward 
                                               thinkers and contributors on a level       New modes of information delivery 
                                               playing field regardless of location,      - At the Virtual Library reference 
                                               social economic, or academic level.        desk, I had a translator and could 
                                                                                          help individuals in various languag-
                                               Network and support other artists,         es.
                                               educators, and nonprofit advocates 
                                               who may be isolated by vast dis-
                                               tances or innovative aspirations. I 
                                               love working with people who I can 
                                               rely on and Second Life has provid-
                                               ed me amazing teams and friends.

                                               Develop galleries for students who 
                                               otherwise wouldn’t have a physical 
                                               space to exhibit their art or play 
                                               their videos. Having gallery and 
                                               shop to sell my own work.

                                               Build creative lessons that students 
                                               participate in and remember on a 
                                               deeper level because it is a shared 
                                               experience they are actively part of.
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