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10:03am on Wednesday, 15th February, 2006:

Students Online


Yesterday evening I spent the promised 50 minutes in EQ2 chatting to students from Trinity University. These things normally take a couple of hours, and although I'd liked to have stayed longer I was stuck in my younger daughter's bedroom and she wanted to go to bed (correction: she'd have stayed up until midnight, but my wife wanted her to go to bed). I was using her PC due to my not having a decent enough graphics card on my own PC, and my elder daughter needing hers for homework when I was doing the download.

Having 15 or 16 people sitting in a semi-circle around two others (me and Aphasia, aka Aaron Delwiche) attracted the attention of passers-by. Some came along and sat down, waiting for something to happen (but nothing did as we were using a separate channel). Others came along and stood bemusedly in the centre before running off. One did a dance, making use of his captive audience to impress us with his ability to type /dance. I got some interesting questions, to which I gave rambling, incoherent answers which you'll be able to see when the log has been made available.

The thing is, I couldn't do this for my own students.

The first reason I couldn't is that I'd have to require them to have an account on EQ2 or WoW or pretty well any other graphical venue except Guild Wars or Second Life. I think the university's regulations probably do allow for that, but I don't suppose the students would be entirely happy about it, given that next year they'll be paying full fees.

The second reason I couldn't is that the university has a firewall. It doesn't allow unapproved programs (which is to say anything not a browser or telnet) to access the Internet after it suffered a nasty rash of virus activity a couple of summers ago. This means that although I teach virtual worlds, I can't ask students to play them and write reports about them unless it's a textual world, a browser-embedded world, or one they've built themselves. Even worse, students can't play these games recreationally — they have to go to the bar and get drunk in their leisure time instead.

There's a movement among my students for a lab to be set up which allows them to access pre-approved games. I'm in favour of this. From a student welfare point of view, the provision of some Internet café-style locale for them to play games under the watchful eye of a coffee vendor would be good all round. The Department are up for it, although whether the Student Union is up for it or not is another matter (games don't figure in sociology or politics at Essex University, therefore they may be considered A Bad Thing on that basis).

Even with everyone's support, though, it's not that simple.

I seem to recall that because of the virus threat, every night there's an automatic sweep of every lab computer to re-image the hard drive. Students keep their stuff on networked drives. Now although it's easy enough to put the code for games in the image file, there's a problem with patches. Most virtual worlds have an update pretty well every week, with substantial changes monthly. Those updates would have to be put into the image file, otherwise players could find they have to endure a 250M patch every time they wanted to play. Getting them onto the image file isn't going to be easy, though. We'll see.

On the non-academic side, it's slightly easier in that general access to recognised games could be made available campus-wide. Students could then use their own PCs or laptops to play WoW or whatever, keeping their own local copies of the software up to date through the normal patching service. Given how popular online games are right now, the University would be foolish not to adopt this fairly simple measure, although I'm sure that the Computing Service will find some reason why it could conceivably compromise security.

This afternoon, I'm speaking to the student organising the appeal for access. Given the glacial speed of the university's decision-by-committee system, let's hope he succeeds before he gets his degree and moves on to better things...

Referenced by Setting up a Game Lab.

Referenced by Wirefall.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).