By Ali O’Shaughnessy
It’s easy to associate virtual worlds with escapism. I probably make that connection because of my own experience. When I was going through a rough time in middle school, I may or may not have been slightly addicted to The Sims. It gave me a feeling of power and control that I didn’t have in my real life. Hearing Donna Davis, Assistant Professor at SOJC, speak this week opened my eyes to the access and connection virtual worlds can provide to those with disabilities.
Donna Davis along with her partner Tom Boellstorff are currently undergoing a research project called “Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self.” The goal of this research is to explore “the experiences of people with disabilities in virtual world” and “what their creative uses of and adaptions to online social interaction can teach us.” Part of this research study is creating a virtual world through Second Life, a platform where users can create environments and avatars and connect with others around the world. Professor Davis took us on a tour of “Ethnographia Island” where the researchers can gather and share ideas. Watch a virtual tour of the island below.
My favorite part of the lecture was when Davis shared stories about Second Life users that credit the platform with connecting them to a world that is otherwise shut off to them. She told a story about a person that posted their gratitude for the virtual world because they couldn’t leave their house. Someone else commented on that post saying they can’t leave their room. Another said they couldn’t leave their bed. Without this technology, they might be deprived of social interaction. Now, they can walk and even fly around and chat with people in similar situations from around the world. As technology gets better and better and augmented reality becomes more advanced, the access for people with disabilities will only grow.
Technology has so much potential to both foster connection and alienate us. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “technology is distracting us from our real world relationships,” but what if your real world relationships are fostered in a virtual world? What if you have severe social anxiety and the only connections you make are online? What if you are bed ridden and without Second Life, you would be restricted to those that visit you in your home? While considering the implications of these online platforms, we also must examine the positive influences they have on people that crave access to these communities.
I’m going to admit, before I heard Professor Davis speak, I had misconceptions about virtual platforms like Second Life. I thought they discouraged real-life connections and pushed people farther apart. After hearing the stories about the lives that were positively affected by this technology, I’m thrilled it exists to serve those communities and excited to see how it can help those in need in the future. .
To read more from Ali O’Shaughnessy, see her blog at causechangecomms.com.