Monday, September 1, 2008

Today in Egypt - Episode One

Em hotep. I am Kem, high priest of the Temple of Osiris, in Alexandria, Egypt. This is my story.

I was an orphan who was taken in by one of the priests of the great god Thoth's temple at Khumn. His own son had died, and would have been about the same age as me, so he took pity on me. As I grew, the priest found that I was a clever boy. He decided to train me to make the sacred writing and adopted me as his own son. For many years I studied the many characters of the hieroglyphs until I was a fully trained scribe. I had learned much from my father, seeing that the priests' life was much better than most in the land of Egypt, so I decided to become a priest. I studied for many years and slowly advanced in the priesthood. I dressed and fed the statue of the great god in the temple at Khumn. When Alexander conquered Egypt he renamed the city Hermopolis after the god Hermes, who the Greeks identify with Thoth.

Though they are foreigners the Greeks expanded Hermopolis and made it a luxurious city. All the nobles of Egypt would come there. One day Alexander's successor Ptolemy, who the Greeks call saviour, came to Hermopolis. He came to the temple and while he was there his scribe was taken ill. I was called to attend to his writing. As I was writing a letter for him he made a mistake, and I corrected him. He laughed so heartily, and said that no one ever told him when he was wrong. He said men who would speak the truth to him were more valuable than gold and he decided I should return with him to Alexandria. He also said if I corrected him when others were present he would feed me to the jackals. From that day on I have lived in Alexandria, and now I am a High Priest in the Temple of Osiris in the great Greek city. I am a lector priest, my job is to see to the training of the priests. Though I am still called to the Pharaoh when he feels that there is something that people around him are not telling him.

Apart from these times when Ptolemy calls for my honesty, I seldom leave the temple. I always have my nose in the scrolls and my students call me the grumpy one. They think I do not know this, but there is little that escapes my attention, within the temple bounds anyway.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Most Fabulous Object in the Universe.

Now everyone knows I am a bit of a techno toys aficionado, and today I found a techno gadget that sent me into paroxysms of delight... and consumer lust, a fair bit of that too. Now we all know that mind activated computing is possible. And you have probably seen reports of its use in helping disabled people control computers and fighter pilots control targeting systems, but now mind control has hit the consumer market, well almost. The device in question is the Emotive EPOC, and I most definitely, really want one, but I will have to wait, as it is not set to be released until the end of this year.

Here is a kool photo of the EPOC looking very much like the 'SQUID' from the awesome scifi movie Strange Days. Which makes me wonder how long it will be until they really can record one's experiences.

What does it do? Well it allows you to control your computer by thinking about it. Which is incredibly kool, in itself, but wait there's more. Where it will be amazingly useful in virtual worlds is that it relays your facial expression to your avatar in real time. You smile and your avatar smiles at the same time. Moreover it will move your avatar's head as you move your head and, this bit is a bit spooky, "infer your emotional state". The nice Australian (cummon aussie cummon, cummon) lady explains in a video on the website that this might be useful for altering game play to take better advantage of the players emotional state. Which (to my twisted mind) translated to, give people a chance to scare the bejesus out of you when you least expect it. I never played much Quake, but it left its mark.

This device is amazingly similar to an idea I had for my PhD, which involves real time animation of avatars, not just expressions and head movement, but every body movement. This came about when thinking about the differences one encounters between doing rituals in VW and RL. I posit that there is a causal relationship between the degree to which an experience is immersive and the perception of the participant that the ritual works. Not that it was very hard to posit that really. Common sense actually. Anyway, if one can increase the immersiveness (neologism of the day) of the experience, then one can test this theory. This will enable exploration of the idea of what shared space is. Imagine a bunch of people, geographically widely dispersed and each wearing an apparatus that exactly duplicates their movements and facial expressions onto avatars in a VW, and also 'intuits their emotional state" while they do rituals simultaneously in the VW and in RL. Does this constitute a shared ritual space? If so, where exactly is the space they are sharing? And what does this do to our conception about how rituals work?

Oh, and if you don't get the culture reference in the title, you obviously haven't watched Time Bandits... Go and watch it immediately.

Morgan Leigh

Friday, July 25, 2008

Deeply Disturbed by Lively

I checked out Lively today, and ended up deeply disturbed.

On arriving at I discover that it is yet another brick in the wall of total Google domination. One has to sign up for a Google account before one can download the software. Yet another account and password to remember. Great. Having installed the software, with no option to start it straight after installation, I fire it up, keen to check out a new virtual world and arrive at... a web page? Ok, not what I was expecting. On this web page there is a list of ostensibly 'popular rooms'. "What's a room?" I find myself asking. A quick squiz seems to indicate that they are places one can enter, each with a particular theme. Many of these themes are related to sex. Not being one of those people who read the instructions first, I proceed to click on a likely looking 'room'. Science Fiction. Should be mostly harmless... Might even have conversation on a topic of interest to me. I click and arrive at, another web page. A web page with incredibly loud Star Trek music. Then what I guess is a 'room' materializes.

I am prompted to select an avatar. Not much customization possible. Having selected Jane Doe, I enter to find I am a very perky young woman, and I am in a phone booth. In fact I seem to be imprisoned in the phone booth. I mouseover things, click things, double click things, right click things. Still stuck in the phone booth. I notice speech bubbles in the room, strange disembodied speech bubbles whose point of origin is beyond my view, and so I try the chat box. "How do I get out of this phone box?" One of the mysterious disembodied chat bubbles says "Never get out of the phone box". Is this a warning or a forecast of perpetual imprisonment? Eventually I am cast out of the phone box. I'm not sure if it was something I did or just random luck.

Ok, now how do I move around? I mouse over my avatar and find a four pointed arrow appears, along with some helpful (?) text that says "Welcome to SCiENCE FiCTION... [Hint: There are more places down below. Double cl..." and there it is cut off by the edge of the room. Perhaps if I move I can see all the text? That's when I discover that the place is full of teenagers. Their patois revealing their demographic. The disembodied chat bubbles contain a lively banter composed almost entirely of 'lol', 'later', 'sweet' and 'hi' strung together in various ways. Not a promising start.

I try walking, and I discover why this place is perfect for teenagers. Everything revolves around me. If I hold my left mouse button down and move the mouse, I get a rotating view, centered on me. I still can't see any other avatars so I ask "Where are you all?" "We are over here" - useful. Not. - "lol" "Jump off the edge". "lol". "Sweet". "lol". Note to self. Keep away from the edge. I discover that I can double click on the ground and I will move along. I start walking around checking things out. There's some furniture, what's seems to be a screen for watching things on and a cute cauldron. I take a close look at the cauldron. It seems to be shaking. Then I find if I right click on it a menu comes up. I select the 'play animation' option and the cauldron leaps into the air with a squeal of fright and begins scuttling around as if Beelzebub himself is chasing it. Then it stops and sits there shuddering. Ok... Suddenly Jane Doe is accosted by a male avatar. Someone is kissing my avatar! And she's kissing him back! How can I stop this invasion? Turns out I can't. I figure abuse will only exacerbate the situation, so I ignore it. Now they are holding hands. Now they are... What is that they are doing? I go away and make a cup of tea hoping it will all be over when I get back. But I feel like my personal space has been intruded into. I know Jane Doe is only a graphic on a screen. But in some way she is me. I know its weird, and intellectually I can make the separation between myself and the girl on the screen, but I feel violated.

Jane Doe ponders the pig's predicament.

Settling down again with my nice, hot cup of tea, I notice a cute looking pig in a glass enclosure. I move closer and see he is not a happy looking pig. This is where things start to go really downhill. In my naivety I right click on the pig, thinking the animation might let the pig out of the jar. He is clearly not happy being in there. Then I notice the object is called 'Piggy Bomb'. Ok... maybe it will explode and release the pig? I start the animation. What happens next is ten seconds of sheer terror. Red spikes shoot out of the side of the pig bomb. The pig's eyes bulge in terrified anticipation. Clearly it is aware something very bad is about to happen. It starts running around in circles in the enclosure. After that, well I just can't bear to write about it. Watch the video. Stunned at the outcome I say to the room "This Pig Bomb is totally sick!". The room replies "Yeah isn't it great!", "Sweet", "Isn't it good". Terrified cauldrons. Exploding pigs. Teenagers into animal torture. Clearly this is not the world for me.

Morgan Leigh

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Merryn joins the fray

Hi there.

It occurred to me that I should jump in and pull my weight in keeping this blog up to date, following the excellent entries from my colleagues, Helen and Morgan, and their respective avatars. My name is Dan Walker in real life, and in Second Life, I'm known as Merryn Beck. In both lives, I'm an educator, a student, a researcher, and many other things. Officially, I’m a PhD candidate in the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics at the University of Queensland.

When Helen Farley and Rick Strelan first started talking about the possibility of starting a Studies in Religion Second Life project, over coffees and hallway chats, I listened in awe. Being so new to SL at the time, I could only begin to imagine the amount of work ahead of them. However, their vision paid off, and they were awarded a T&L grant to get things underway. A short time later, I had joined the team, and Helen and I went through a steep learning curve, as we explored the growing world of religion in Second Life, and started to take undergraduate students along for the ride.

And we’re still learning. I think that’s one of the really great things about SL—there’s always more to learn. Every time I go in-world, I learn or discover (or am shown, by one of my SL friends) something or somewhere new. Also, we now have Morgan in the team, and her technical skills in SL far outweigh mine and Helen’s (check out our cool machinima, which Morgan shot, directed, produced and starred in!!)

The religious possibilities in SL are pretty exciting (see Helen’s post of 13 July), and we hope to explore what some pioneering folk have done. Seeing as my particular area of research is Vodou (and a big shout out to my Vodou family in New Orleans, at La Source Ancienne Ounfo – I miss you guys!), I thought I’d check out the Vodou places in SL.

Usually when I do a search for Vodou anywhere, I mentally prepare myself for disappointment. Firstly there are multiple spellings (Voodoo, Voudou, Voudoun, Vaudou, etc). Also, Vodou is a grossly misunderstood religion, and the name gets tacked on to all sorts of things. SL is no exception. Hence the Voodoo Lounge, various design companies, and of course, Voodoo Village, a rental area where BDSM is welcome and encouraged. Not what I was looking for...

There are two actual Vodou areas in SL at the moment. The first, “The Bayou” is an area set up with a bonfire, and a poto-mitan (centre-post, for dancing around and offering gifts). It has some lovely Haitian flags, but no notecards or information. The other, the Vodou House Museum, has been around for a while, but has not changed in some time. It has a couple of notecards, and some nice pictures, but nothing really meaty for the budding Vodounist in us all. The main notecard suggests an ongoing project, so I hope they get back to it soon:

Welcome to Second Life's first and only Vodou Museum...

The museum
is placed within a Louisiana styled house and tells the story of Vodou as a
religion, and the history of Haiti the country in which it is most actively
practiced. Haiti was the location of the world's first successful African
slave revolution, and its history and religious practice shows the pain and
anger felt during those times. Added to this is a distinct sense of
revelry and celebration - making Haiti a country of stark contrasts.

Vodou is a religion that envelopes the lives of those who practice
it, and this is reflected amongst the exhibits shown within. As you are
making your way around the museum, please click on the different objects that
you are interested in and you will be given an explanation as to their meaning
and context within Haitian life. Please understand that this is a dynamic
exhibit and things are likely to be added or updated, so please visit again in
the future to see the new things that we have in store...

As the running of the G.:L.:P.: lots is not free, we ask that visitors to the museum
please give a nominal sum at the door to help with the maintenance and running
of the museum. The amount given is up to you and could range from 1L -
1000L; but we recommend a donation of 20L as this is an amount that costs the
individual very little but can help us out in the long run a great deal.

Thankyou for your visit and we hope that you enjoy the

G.:L.:P.: Council

I’m in the middle of classes all this week (an intensive week for a course in my Museum Studies programme – my other research ara, and one with enormous potential in SL) so I’m a little short on time, and haven’t had my usual exploration time in SL. So, more to come, maybe even with photos and links. Until then...

Dan Walker.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Temple of Inanna

All kinds of religious spaces have been created in Second Life. There are all manner of churches and cathedrals, temples and so on. But there are also those spaces that take us backwards through time. I attended the Stepping into History conference last month and was given the opportunity to discover Babylon.

This build was created by the Federation of American Scientists Learning Technologies Project, UCLA’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, Escape Hatch Entertainment, and the Walters Art Museum. It's a very detailed recreation of the ancient city of Uruk which was to be ruled by the legendary figure of Gilgamesh around 2700BCE. It's yet to be finished but it promises to provide a fascinating glimpse into an ancient culture.

The Temple of Inanna forms part of this build. The temple itself is surrounded by a number of other buildings which are more mundane such as barracks, kitchens, archives and workshops. Inside the temple, a statue of Inanna presides from the altar. It's certainly a very atmospheric space. Lamps flicker, casting their light on the rich red walls. A notecard gives you more detailed information about the build:
'Most of what is known of the ED I [Early Dynastic] period holy buildings comes from the domestic areas of a city- the equivalent of a modern day neighborhood church. A temple on the other hand, would have been more like a cathedral. Evidence for Early Dynastic temples come from the Diyala region, which is just outside of Mesopotamia along the Diyala River. The Oval Temple of Khafaje is the best known of these and is the primary model for the temple complex.

'ED I period temples were typically self contained within a perimeter wall. Shrines to the gods were often placed on top of steep sided terraces. These were, over time, repaired and enlarged. A new shrine was then constructed on top. The surrounding buildings were more utilitarian than holy in nature. Workshops, barracks, kitchens, minor shrines, and archives would have been located inside the complex.

'Though the temple and its structures were made primarily of sun-dried and fired mud brick, scholars generally agree that temples were plastered white. This would have made them look brilliant in the desert sun. The terrace and principle shrine reconstruction have been given an even more pristine coat of plaster, because this structure, of all the other buildings in the complex, would have been maintained best. The others were given a more worn look to reflect their utilitarian nature. The walls of the complex are old and its plaster is cracked and peeling. Some of its underlying bricks can be seen. These bricks, called plano-convex, are an important archaeological time marker for the ED I period. They were laid out in what is often termed as a herring bone pattern. Limestone flooring was typical, and those found in archaeological excavations are usually laid out in squares. However, because stone was at a premium (there is no good building stone in southern Mesopotamia—it had to be imported), much of it would have been reused over time. This pattern reflects older stones of various shapes and sizes that have been reassembled for the tile.'
I'm eagerly awaiting the completion of this project. It promises to offer a truly immersive experience (you even get to outfit your avatar!) If you'd like to learn more about this project, point your browser to Discover Babylon.

Helen Farley

Greetings from Rupert and Helen!

In real life my name is Helen Farley. I’m a lecturer in studies in religion at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. In Second Life, I'm Rupert Uriza; all 7 foot 2 inches of him!

First, some about where I come from and what we do in the Antipodes. Studies in Religion is a small discipline at the University of Queensland. We cohabitate in a School with history, philosophy, classics and ancient history, nestled in the Faculty of Arts. We have about 1000 students through our doors each year, over three semesters. We offer a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses but also offer research higher degrees in studies in religion but also in Islamic studies.

In recent years we’ve moved away from courses about the major world religions (and even ones about more marginalized religions) and our offerings tend to be more thematic. For example I teach about the history of divination and I teach about that in a variety of religions and religious contexts. Similarly, I teach about secret societies and esotericism, again in a wide variety of contexts. We do have the generic ‘World Religions’ course which every good science student feels they need to really round out their degree. We do offer a major in religion as part of the BA or Bachelor of Arts degree, and even a double major, but most of our students are from other faculties looking to do an elective (and an easy elective I suspect!)

As you can imagine, religionists can be a fairly conservative lot, but guess what? Our students aren’t. Our students are regularly checking their Facebook and MySpace accounts (in one of my classes of 50, only 2 didn’t have a Facebook account!) They’re blogging, editing Wikipedia (for generations of other university students to inappropriately reference) and spinning the latest tunes on their iPod Touch (how I want one of those!) Then we ask those students to come to class, forget the excitement of their multimedia lives, watch a lecturer talk to a PowerPoint presentation and magically develop higher order thinking skills, as well as social and ethical responsibility, empathy and so on. Well, it worked for us didn’t it? It’s time we thought about how we teach studies in religion. And it’s time we thought about who we are teaching. Could Second Life be the answer?

Second Life provides an unparalleled opportunity for people to interact with each other and their environment in unfamiliar and innovative ways. Though educators have been quick to spot the potential, many have merely created replicas of conventional learning spaces that exist on real-life campuses. Indeed, this approach reduces the cognitive dissonance commonly experienced by both educators and students in unfamiliar environments, but it also fails to fully leverage the unique qualities of this infinitely modifiable setting to provide truly immersive learning experiences. I was intrigued by the immersive learning possibilities afforded us by Second Life. And in fact, I think studies in religion can lay special claim to this environment. The motional avatars that populate Second Life take their name from a Sanskrit word, which in Hindu mythology means ‘the descent of a deity to earth in a visible form’ ;-) The choice of avatars can reflect a player’s gender, ethnicity, and personality – or allow a student to assume a completely different identity, in itself a unique learning experience.

So what can this environment offer us? First and foremost it provides immersion: that feeling of really being there. Of not being aware that you’re watching a computer screen. Instead you are in that scene: walking, talking, and taking communion. As a result of this immersion, engagement is enhanced, flow is supported, collaboration becomes both possible and supported and new identity development and exploration affords positive effects.

And the downsides? Well, we’re all familiar with the technological glitches that can make a thorough nuisance of themselves when one would rather be cavorting around Second Life. For some, the inconvenience and frustration is just too much. But I hope (and pray) that those issues will become less frequent for everyone.

Blah, blah, blah … I’ve given you good, sound reasons for taking students to Second Life, but I suspect you’re most interested in what we’re going to do. And what we have already been doing. Well …

I can stand in front of a class and tell them about the Hajj. They’ll get some idea about it. I can show the students photos and maybe some news footage (what isn’t available on YouTube?) They’ll find out more. We might be able to have someone come and talk about their own experiences. Wow, that would be great but how does it compare to being there? Well, that’s rather an extreme example, Mecca is a long, long way from Brisbane.

At the moment we send our students out to various religious spaces. Students are told to be respectful, stay out of the way and document all they see. But there’s transport and insurance and timing. And I’ve already told you Mecca is a long way from Brisbane. Well, Hindu temples aren’t plentiful either in this relatively conservative, mostly white community. So how under these circumstances am I going to counter the images of Apu of the Simpsons and show my students the wondrous complexity that is Hinduism? Or even Orthodox Christianity among a Protestant majority? Or how is a woman ever going to see what happens within a Freemasonic temple (assuming that she wants to of course)?

In Second Life this all becomes possible. There are already so many beautiful religious spaces here. The peace and tranquility of the Buddhist Shrine of Varosha or the gothic awe of the cathedral on Epiphany Island. Head down there on any Sunday and hear Arkin Ariantho deliver a sermon to a church full of avatars, many whose real life counterparts can’t comfortably or safely leave their homes. Here they are engaging with their religious community. Who am I to say that this isn’t a genuine expression of devotion? So, I can send my students to those religious places already extant in Second Life. Can’t I? Yes, and I do. So they can go and listen and learn, ever documenting their experiences (maybe through a BlogHUD). I’m still uneasy about this and the problem I have with this is that students are going along and observing genuine religious worship and watching participants like zoo animals. Most don’t mind for sure but I’m still not easy with it. I’m certainly not at ease with them participating more fully in religious rituals as outsiders, even in Second Life.

The solution that we’ve come up with is to create a UQ Studies in Religion island, which we’ve affectionately called ‘Religion Bazaar’. My colleague (and Discipline Convenor) Dr Rick Strelan and I successfully applied for a pot of money set aside for strategic teaching and learning initiatives. We’ve tried to represent as many traditions as we can squeeze onto one small space. We’re creating a church, a synagogue, a mosque but also a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a Freemasons Lodge (to satisfy my urge to know what goes on!) and some natural spaces too. One of our staff members is involved in researching spirituality and the environment. For her we'll have a rocky outcrop overlooking a sea full of brightly coloured fish. Did I mention our very distinguished and ancient-looking Greek temple?

So beyond attending an existing service, students will be able to adopt an identity (an avatar we’ve already created) and enter into one of our religious spaces to participate in a ritual or a re-creation. Students can swap roles; walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins (or however that saying goes!) They must observe the traditions of that religion: shoes off, wash before entering, appropriate clothing only – male and female. Respectful, always respectful. And unlike real life spaces, there will be plenty of notecards to give students the information they need. These are not genuine religious services – that’s not the point - but through them students can learn what they are like.

That leads us right here to this blog. We want to document our progress through this fascinating environment. We'll be writing about our own Second Life project - Religion Bazaar. But we also want to discuss some of the religious spaces already existing in Second Life (and there are lots of them!)

Check back regularly to monitor our progress but we would also ask you to contribute to the conversation. Second Life is all about collaboration and so are the best blogs!

Helen Farley

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


The Forgan Smith building in Second Life

Salutations to you honoured reader. And welcome to the inaugural post in our humble but superlative blog. We, being the team of happy religion researchers at the University of Queensland's School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, have established this blog to share with you our amazing adventures in Second Life.

In the not too distant future we shall be pleased to offer you the opportunity to visit our very own island, the Religion Bazaar, after which this blog is named. On the island will be a replica (pictured) of the Forgan Smith building that is at the heart of UQ's St Lucia Campus, (I know, I know, why replicate real life in Second Life? - for one thing, it helps people to realise the quality of building possible in Second Life) as well as a collection of religious buildings from a variety of groups. We plan to use our island to offer students immersive educational experiences that are just not possible in real life. While you wait with bated breath for that exciting eventuality, we offer you these first few posts, which shall serve to introduce to you the members of our group.

One of the things I enjoy the most in SL is the opportunity to explore various personas. To facilitate this I have more than one avatar, some of whom (it never does to give all your secrets away) will be illuminating this blog with their various presences from time to time.

The real life me is writing my PhD on religion in Second Life, focusing on pagan and magical groups. Being, as I am, particularly interested in the intersections between science and magic, I plan to scout the boundaries of these two by examining the religious practices found in Second Life. I hope to establish whether or not one can do a 'real' initiation in a virtual world. To do this I need to try to work out what it is about virtual worlds that make them less, or more, real than the world that we call the real one. A big ask I know, but I am prepared to give it a go.

To whet your appetite
here is a machinima we made to give you an idea of what to expect once our island comes online.

Morgan Leigh