Second Life Physics : Virtual, Real or Surreal?

Renato P. dos Santos


Science teaching detached itself from Reality and became restricted to the classrooms and textbooks with their abundance of standardized and repetitive exercises, while students keep their own alternative conceptions. Papert, displeased with this inefficient learning process, as early as 1980 championed physics microworlds, where students could experience a variety of laws of motion, from Aristotle to Newton and Einstein or even “new” laws invented by the students themselves. While often mistakenly seen as a game, Second Life (SL), the online 3D virtual world hosted by Linden Lab, imposes essentially no rules on the residents beyond reasonable restrictions on improper behavior and the physical rules that guarantee its similitude to the real world. As a consequence SL qualifies itself as an environment for personal discovery and exploration as proposed by constructivist theories. The physical laws are implemented through the well-known physics engine Havok, whose design aims to provide game-players a consistent, “realistic” environment. Going beyond Reality limits, however, the Havok User Guide explicitly encourages developers to use several tricks to cheat the simulator in order to make games funnier or easier to play. As it is shown in this study, SL Physics is unexpectedly neither the Galilean/Newtonian “idealized” Physics nor a real world Physics virtualization, intentionally diverging from reality in such a way that it could be called hyper-real. As a matter of fact, if some of its features make objects behave “more realistically than real” ones, certain quantities, e.g. energy, have a totally different meaning in SL as compared to Physics. Far from considering it as a problem, however, the author argues that its hyper-reality may be a golden teaching opportunity, allowing surreal Physics simulations and epistemologically rich classroom discussions around the “what is a physical law?” issue, in good accordance with Papert’s never-implemented proposal.


Second Life; Physics; realism; hyper-real; surreal

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