Spotlight Interview – James Morgan

VCARA Blog

Published: February 22, 2016

VCARA Spotlight interview with James Morgan, instructor in Digital Media Art at San José State University and director of Ars Virtua, a new media center and gallery about virtual 3D worlds.

Spotlight Interview with James Morgan

~Katie Dixon, author

Disclaimer: In an effort to retain the integrity of the blog’s format, interview questions and answers are abridged. Every effort, however, has been made to preserve the spirit and integrity of the discussion.

James Morgan is an instructor in Digital Media Art at San José State University and is the director of Ars Virtua, a New Media Center and Gallery located primarily in the synthetic world of Second Life.

We asked James a series of questions regarding his innovative course geared at teaching students the world of “virtual worlds.” Through this interview it becomes clear the importance of virtual worlds, what they mean to “real” life and what the futures holds for them.

How did you become interested in virtual worlds?

I had been involved with the art department for over 10 years. It began when I was a graduate student. I checked out Second Life, and it was clunky even back then. I quickly became bored with what the world did. However, this was a blessing because it pushed me to create a media gallery and art center. As I created this, I realized I went through all the same real world steps as if I was opening a real gallery. I created expos, did international calls for artists and even brought in artists who would normally not be in a public environment. I created a Residency Program for artists with the goal of not just art but mentorship and connections. Looking at my creation I realized this wasn’t just a virtual art gallery, it was a real gallery. It was astonishing to me to see the power and possibility of virtual worlds and environments.

Tell us about the class you are teaching at San Jose State?

CS185 is a class that introduces students to virtual worlds. We have looked at Minecraft, World of Warcraft and Second Life. The goal is to get the students to see the differences each world has and how they can have different purposes. I have students take a survey that allows them to rate the ease of use, etc., but it is a subjective survey as each world offers very different things depending on what you are seeking to get from it.

What do you think about using virtual worlds in K-12 classrooms?

I have seen Minecraft used to teach younger children, and I have used it for my art students. They exported, did 3D, used CAD and CAM software. Using it in schools teaches younger students computer science and about making objects. Younger students may use it to develop a love for the industry or as a way of connecting to something. It affects learning and experiences, and it creates a new type of stimulation.

How do your CS185 students respond to the course?

Mainly my students have responded well to the course. I used to teach it in one environment (virtual) for the entire time, which allowed students to settle in and get a deeper understanding. But now I teach it as a hybrid course of virtual and in-person classes.  I always want to make sure the environment is allowing us to accomplish something.

For a person who is just learning programming and coding, it is profound when you see your world spring into life. They have seen the complexity of interlocking systems and how they are layered and how they function through exploration of the three virtual worlds.

Tell us something about the three different worlds and what they offer?

Each world offers a different level of flexibility. For Second Life, you can code and build but you cannot archive it.  You can, however, instantly be there.
World Of Warcraft is easy to get started but at times you may need to download a 30 gig program just to get going since it is archivable. This world is gentle and eases you in. For me, this has the most effective on-boarding I have ever seen. Minecraft is a mix of both. You have access to servers and code to use the data, but you lose the same granular experience of building that Second Life offers.

What is the most important thing about building virtual worlds?

The social connection is the strongest and most important experience to provide in a virtual world. When you have that you find that people will embrace the world right off the bat and work with whatever tools are there. It is not a beautiful experience without connecting with others. In the 1960s the options for worlds was all hardware based but very expensive, and while the virtual reality hardware prices have dropped the social interaction has not increased. Multiplayer games came to play in the 90s and virtual reality fell to one side because it separates us socially. Graphics are also important. In the case of Second Life, the graphics haven’t improved hugely, but the system thrives because of the social connection. That says a lot about what people are looking for and what it means to them.

Do you see virtual worlds in the corporate realm?

Companies using virtual worlds won’t overtake Skype, but they will be used in ways that work really well, such as sharing models. Technology and manufacturing has shifted almost completely to digitally produced designs. This allows for collaboration and even modifications to objects, projects, etc., in a live environment. A virtual world can even be an environment that has designing tools brought into the space for that purpose.