Our demo avatar stands in front of a debit card giver. The giver is labeled with instructions.

Debit cards in Second Life

A Second Life project involved creating a debit card system so students couldn’t use Lindens to complete their assignment.

One of my favorite clients, the team from Landscape Architecture, came to the table with an idea for an isometric drag-and-drop garden design game.   They wanted to supply students with garden items like plants and fountains so students could form gardens.  The project goals were to help build vocabulary and to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of garden design characteristics in specific historical periods. They also wanted to gamify the experience with a leaderboard and possibly badges.  As an additional incentive, students would receive points they could use to buy garden decor based on their performance in class.  Better grades would result in fancier gardens.

At the time I didn’t have the tools to build an isometric app, so I asked if they would be interested in developing the game in Second Life. We decided to give each student a plot of land and a few buildings and garden elements to arrange.  Students needed to bypass as much of the complexity of Second Life as possible, so they could complete the project quickly and successfully, so I decided to limit the required skill set to a few specific Second Life skills including

  • creating an avatar
  • navigating to our island
  • joining a group
  • managing the avatar’s inventory
  • moving and scaling objects
  • creating simple prims
  • texturing prims
  • using in-world chat

We also needed to avoid using Linden, the official currency of Second Life.  Since people can buy Lindens using a credit card, we needed to find a way to control the environment so students couldn’t buy their way to a good grade.

I felt the project would invite students to be more creative than the isometric game would allow, and that over time many of the students would pick up extra Second Life skills to make the garden match their visions.  I also felt working in a multiplayer environment like Second Life could encourage collaboration among students, and ultimately be more engaging and rewarding than an isometric game.  The Landscape Architecture team took a risk on my idea and purchased an island.

These 3 instructional videos we placed in the classroom will give you a taste of what students experienced.  After the videos, I’ll discuss the project development.

My first goal was to find or create a currency system. shymus Rofflo’s RolePay System almost met our needs, but it didn’t have a way for the instructors to reward individual students different amounts of money in return for good grades. shymus wasn’t available for custom work at the time, so my only (daunting) alternative was to script my own system. After several weeks of sporadic effort, I made it work!! We had a PHP web form for instructors to use to award our currency, Seed. When students visited the island, they could obtain and wear a debit card that would show their Seed balance. Wearing the card also allowed the students to use Seed to purchase garden items from our nursery.

Our next step was to stock the nursery. We needed to be sure anything in the nursery was something we could legally allow students to copy and use, so we had to acquire full-permission prims and textures. We purchased a few “make your own store” prim sets featuring water fountains and other elements. We also imported a few models from Google Sketchup, but on the whole found it was easier to work with low prim items made specifically for Second Life.

[justified_image_grid ids=”1418,1423″]

The Landscape Architecture team also wanted to incorporate buildings into the landscape. I knew from experience that dragging full-size buildings around Second Life isn’t always easy. Additionally, I didn’t have the skillset to construct a Second Life building. The prim count was also a concern. Most buildings are very high in prims, so if we used large avatar-sized buildings we would be in danger of exhausting the island’s prim balance. As a compromise, we decided to scale everything down and use tiny buildings that our avatars could not enter. This meant the buildings didn’t need to be complicated at all. Their construction would have much in common with a set of children’s building blocks.

We hired an artist, Willie Irene (aka Charlotte Beimler), to make the buildings.  Her first building, the Parthenon, didn’t have much detail and on reflection, Willie and I decided all the buildings should share this ‘sketch’ style.  This would give all the gardens visual unity, and also keep the garden elements from being overshadowed by great architecture.

[justified_image_grid ids=”1417,1415,1421,1420,1418″]

For our pilot, Willie created about fifteen buildings.  She also created parterres, some topiaries, and several textures students could use to create paths, flower beds, vegetable gardens, and ponds.  I assigned plots of land to all students, and we waited with baited breath to see what they would create.

The pilot was the week before finals, and we hit an almost insurmountable snag right off the bat.  The computer labs, where most of the students planned to work, hadn’t updated their Second Life client in ages, so many students could not log into Second Life, let alone get to our island.  Tech support did not respond quickly to my pleas for help, so the instructors developed an alternative assignment.  As a result, only three students completed the exercise. Two of the resulting gardens, however, were successful!

[justified_image_grid ids=”1413,1414″]

Pleased with the results, we started making plans to continue the project. The Architecture Department, however, had other plans. Linden Labs discontinued their educational pricing, so the department decided to forgo renting an island for another year. This was, of course, disheartening. The team had spent a considerable amount of time on the project, and it hurt terminating it when we were so close to success.

I’ve stored all the nursery items in my inventory, along with the debit card system. Maybe one day we’ll get to revisit this.  I’ve been hearing since 2008 that Second Life is about to die, but so far it hasn’t happened. Maybe there is hope for this project, too.