Friday, December 29, 2006

Shaping Youth

There are many people who decry the seeming "addictive potential" of virtual reality, and who are afraid of the most banal uses of the medium -- for chatting and pseudo-erotic encounters. I believe that this not only reflects a lack of imagination, but a misunderstanding of how basic human drives (for communication, for sexual gratification, for specific exploration and diversive exploration) in turn drive the development of any given technology. Obviously, if we adhere at all to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we can see that people will generally satisfy their most basic needs first and then attend to the more esoteric. Since virtual environments do not yet provide the affordances that are most basic (food, water, shelter), people will tend to start with the few most basic affordances they do provide: communication and sexuality. And because of these two basic drives, time and money and effort will be invested by an enormous number of people into developing the technologies so that the virtual environment can supply these affordances at a higher quality and with lower transaction costs. But in the creating of the virtual environment and equipping it with the capability to provide these affordances, a very realistic and robust interface between humans and technology is evolving very rapidly that can satisfy a great many other human needs.

To decry the fact that many people are "indulging" in virtual reality to satisfy their more "base" needs is to miss the point of "the environment" and "the psychology of behavior", which is the subject of this course. In my view, the key difference between the real environment and the virtual environment goes back to the old Nature vs. Nurture debate and the battle between those who believe in genetic determinism and those who believe in environmental determinism. I maintain that virtual environments give us a better chance to understand the nature of nurture by giving us the chance to directly shape our environments.

Amy Jussel, on her Shaping Youth Beta Blog, does a great job of exploring how the metaverse is affecting the psychology of young people.

Greenhead Media.

Chapter 2: Nature and Human Nature

Values and Attitudes
Environmental Assessment
Restorative Effects of Nature

On page 41 we return to the concept of affordance, attributed to the perception theorist J.J. Gibson from:

Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Houghton Mifflin, Boston. (Currently published by Lawrence Eribaum, Hillsdale, NJ.)

Our text tells us that the Gibson affordance theory is "central to many modern explanations of human affinity for nature and landscape aesthetics (Summit & Summer, 1999). Briefly, certain features are said to "afford" shelter, food gathering, or an opportunity to survey the landscape." (p. 41).

The idea that environments might appeal to us more when they give us "opportunities to survey the landscape" suggests empirical tests we can do in environmental psychology that modern technology makes possible. There is a scene in the live-action film version of the avant-garde sci-fi "AeonFlux" (2005, starring Cherlize Theron) where she must navigate a hostile labyrinth (the scene was actually filmed in a Nazi-era wind-tunnel complex for testing aircraft in Berlin). To make the environment navigable, a map of the complex is implanted in her forearm. As she arrives she feels disoriented, but when she calls up the map she suddenly gives a smile of satisfaction. You may have felt the same if your car, like our Honda Civic Hybrid, has an on-board GPS system, or if you have been hiking with a hand-held GPS. Suddenly a very confusing and disconcerting landscape is rendered legible by the presence of a map that always shows you where you stand in relation to the environment. Something we thought of as hostile becomes deliciously mysterious instead.

I noticed a marked change in my own attitude toward virtual landscapes when I tested this theory recently using two Sony Playstation 2 games. The first was Resident Evil 4. This game, by Capcom, is a terror fest in which you run through the damp woods pursued by zombies and other killers. It is a point-of-view shooter game, so you are basically always looking through your own eyes. Unlike the previous Resident Evil titles, in which you have a bird's eye view of a threatening burned out, dark urban landscape but thus can see zombies before they start attacking, the new game puts you in what should otherwise be a relaxing environment -- a forest in daylight. The environment, however is threatening precisely because you can't see what's around the corner or what is coming up behind you. You find yourself running up hills and into open spaces from which you have "an opportunity to survey the landscape" and find you can only relax in these sorts of spaces. The game teaches you what it must have felt like when wilderness was a landscape of unknown threats (see pages 26 and 27 of our text: The Changing Meaning of Nature).

Playing Resident Evil 4, you begin to understand what "led the Puritans to view the wilderness around them as a hostile, threatening landscape inhabited by servants of the devil." (p. 27) But something curious happens when you start using the "map" function in the game (which allows you to see an overhead blueprint of the entire landscape). Armed with this extra dimension of knowledge you suddenly find yourself a lot calmer. The effect is even more pronounced in the Sega game "Ecco the Dolphin, Defender of the Future", the second game I have been studying. Playing the part of "Ecco" the dolphin, you must face "The Perils of the Coral Reef". The environment is alien and hostile -- filled with marauding sharks, stinging jellyfish and deadly piranhas, and, to make things worse, for a marine mammal, the undersea world lacks the affordance of oxygen, meaning that if you stay under too long, you drown. This gets particularly daunting when you are trying to navigate through tunnels and dark caves without knowing just how far you must go before you can get to the surface to take another breath. I found the game incredibly threatening and frustrating until I discovered that you can press the x and the square key on the game pad and call up a map of the coral reef. The map not only shows you where you are, which direction you are heading and how long the tunnels are, but indicates threats in red and goals in green blue and yellow. Forewarned is forearmed. With this knowledge the coral reef suddenly felt a lot less intimidating and I found myself able to relax and enjoy exploring the beautiful marinescape.

I found the same to be true while playing HalfLife and Area 51, where you spend most of your time in uncomfortable underground bunkers being attacked by aliens and mutants. Then I tried something new -- I went on line and started reading the "walk-throughs" on . Ign provides not only great text descriptions of each stage of the game, but provides great screenshots so you can get to know your virtual environments before you plunge into them. Other sites have video walkthroughs. The upshot is that you can get yourself familiar with the environments and their threats and affordances and all of a sudden they don't seem so frightening, even when they are ugly and filled with monsters (as in Resident Evil, HalfLife and Area 51).

In this way, education about an environment can be demonstrated to make a crucial difference in our attitude toward it. Roderick Nash (1982) is referenced in our text on page 27 saying that in contrast with the fearful Puritans, "although their principal attitude toward nature was also utilitarian, the settlers of the middle Atlantic colonies benefited from a more hospitable environment and expressed somewhat different attitudes. Many were of the Anglican faith, and were better educated, wealthier, and more likely to study and appreciate natural phenomena than were the Puritans of New England." The text goes on to say that Thomas Jefferson "believed that nature could be better managed through understanding rather than conquest."

To test whether an ability to "survey the landscape" and study and understand and anticipate its affordances affects one's attitude, one could conceivably explore how people's desires to "conquer" the environment and its denizens (the theme of so many shooter games in the world of video games) changes with better knowledge of the environment. Role Playing Games (RPGs) like the Final Fantasy series, seem to rely more on exploration than conquest, and the thrill of the hunt seems to be geared more toward exploration and discovery than elimination of threats. If there is a weakness in the video game world it is perhaps that the designers assume that the public wants to enter an environment of threats and to conquer those threats through destruction. But, in an echo of the development of Romanticism, the virtual wilderness is inspiring its own "evolving concept of the sublime: a sense of awe and reverence, sometimes mixed with elements of fear (e.g. Burke, 1757, Kant, 1790)..." Just as American writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt "began to celebrate and romanticize the vistas of the untamed lands of North America", many game writers and artists are creating romantic game environments that are gaining in popularity. In our attitude toward RL environments at the turn of the last century "Fear and hostility still dominated most people's feelings about wilderness, but a new minority began to celebrate the wild lands as places of beauty." Similarly, at the turn of this new century, some video games are emerging to satisfy another "new minority", in which the object of the game is to design and manage the environment through understanding rather than conquest.

One such series of video are those produced by Will Wright at Maxis, such as SimCity, SimCity 2000SimCity 3000SimCity 4 The SimsThe Sims OnlineThe Sims 2The Sims Stories
SimEarthSimAntSimLifeSimFarmSimTowerSimHealthSimIsleSimCopterSimGolfStreets of SimCitySimTownSimParkSimSafariSimTunes and Spore . Spore, in particular, takes the managing of nature to a Jeffersonian all time high: in this game you get to play God and, starting with a single cell, set the rules and evolve an entire planet, through and beyond civilization into the final stage of exploring the universe and then, following Francis Crick's idea of "directed panspermia", the sending of spores of life into space to start the process again.

Second Life, which may have evolved out of the bellicose "World of Warcraft", has taken the behavioral consequences of inhabiting increasingly non-threatening environments to an even higher level; in Second Life, where the entire landscape has been rendered legible and safe (for more on this see James C. Scott, 1998 "Seeing Like a State") through extensive detailed maps, instant teleporting and the ability to defeat gravity and fly, and where anybody can be a creator or designer and "play God", people don't set about waging war or conquering wilderness, but spend their time building their own eutopias, peopled by their friends and families and lovers, where the basic mandate is to create and display and discuss.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Environmental Psychology Chapter I: The Why, What, and How of Environmental Psychology

Chapter 1:

On page 2 of Bell's Environmental Psychology text, the authors compare "the environment" to the stage and scenery of a play. Shakespeare's adage "all the worlds a stage, and we are merely players in it" comes to mind.
The environment is the place where our stories unfold. Unlike the setting on a stage, the authors caution, the real life environment provides more than context or meaning, it provides the basic needs essential for life -- food, water, air, shelter, resources -- and it is modified by our actions.

A question came to my mind as I was reading the text: Now that we humans have created evolving on-line virtual environments, such as SecondLife (, are we blurring the lines between "play" environments and "real" environments? In what way is the metaverse environment of "Second Life" (or "There" or "World of WarCraft" or Active Worlds or the Open Source Metaverse Project) analagous to a true ecosystem? In what way are the contextual elements in Real Life (henceforth to be referred to as "RL") different from those found in Second Life ("SL", which I will use in this course to refer to all metaverse environments)?

The authors define "affordances" as "possibilities allowed or provided by an environment" that are "strong determinants of behavior". In this sense, we can view the constraints and limitations as well as the possibilities provided by the on-line virtual environments of the metaverse as "affordances". SL permits us to play with the way in which affordances affect our behavior.

Since we will be exploring SL throughout our journey into environmental psychology, my recommendation for this course is that you pop down to Best Buy and get yourself a Logitech Dual Action GamePad Controller for your PC or Mac. It plugs into a USB port and enables you to navigate within the metaverse exactly as if you were in an XBox or Playstation game. It will set you back about 20 bucks (I got mine on sale at Best Buy for $16) and it comes with driver software for the PC. To use it on the Mac you need to download USB Overdrive and configure the buttons. This is not difficult at all.

We can consider the presence or absence of a gamepad (or joystick) as enhancing the affordances that the virtual environment provides, and it will be interesting to see if students who must interact with their environment via a keyboard experience it differently and thus behave differently than those with gamepads or joysticks. This would be an environmental psychology study in and of itself! People entering the metaverse with only a keyboard might feel "handicapped", just as if they were forced to enter the real world on crutches or in a wheelchair.

One can go even further and integrate the new Nintendo Wii wireless controller into SL (if you are a Mac user you can download DarwiinRemote, a program from, that will enable your Mac to talk to the Wii and vice versa; the Wii controller will set you back about 40 bucks). Some people are already using the Wii (pronounced "We") as a virtual light saber!
Down the pike we will see full body suits that enable us to merge with our avatars and control them by walking, jumping, dancing, turning our heads, swinging our arms and pointing, grasping and holding. At that level of interface technology, the affordances of the virtual environment will appear very real, and we should be able to conduct better empirical experimental research on environmental psychology!

Recall from pages 10 and 11 of Chapter 1 that one of the biggest problems in conducting research is the presence of "confounds". Confounds are "variables other than the ones being tudied that also vary across different conditions." In experimental research we need two forms of control. One is the random assignment of participants into experimental treatments. The other is that "only the independent variable is allowed to differ between experimental conditions." When "the effect on the independent variable is due to differences in the independent variable and not due to any other factors" the experiment can be said to be high in "internal validity". But experiments with high "internal validity" usually do not have high "external validity", meaning that the results are not generalizable to the real world.

The real world is messy. Our text states, "The degree of control required [to conduct experiments with high internal validity] often creates an artificial situation, which destroys the integrity of the setting... any artificiality reduces experiential realism, defined as the extent to which the research experience resembs that of the real world and impacts the participants as intended."


To get around this problem, "some researchers have responded by using simulation methods -- introducing components of a real environment into an artificial setting. By simulating the essential elements of a naturalistic setting in a laboratory, experiential realism and external validity are increased, and some experimental rigor is retained... simulation techniques are useful for studying numerous aspects of human-environment behavior." (Bell et al. 2001 p. 11)


Your first task in this course is to start exploring the metaverse, get familiar with its affordances and with the limitations of your interaction with it, and start thinking of an experimental design that has high internal validity and approaches a higher external validity.

The final project in this course will be to create an environmental psychology experiment and run it on no fewer than 10 subjects. Since this is an on-line course, I offer you the option to do this on-line, and invite you to use the metaverse as your environment. Once you have become familiar with ways of interacting with others in virtual reality you will have a better handle on how this might be done. So for starters, to get prepared, get familiar with virtual reality, and write on your blog the experiences you've had and the similarities and differences you have found between RL and SL.

You are free to use any virtual reality environment you like for this first assignment. XBox, Playstation, Gamecube and other such interactive environments are welcome. Does that sound like child's play? In fact, serious environmental psychologists are using these types of environments for real research!

Read the top of page 12 where we learn that Ellison-Potter, Bell and Deffenbacher (2000) created a simulated drive down a roadway using a computerized driving simulator to study the situational factors that increase aggressive driving, and where we learn that Parsons, Tassinary, Ulrich, Hebl and Grossman-Alexander (1998) studied how a simulatied drive through nature dominated scenery reduced stress. Does that sound like a fun and productive way to use a driving simulator? Real pilots and astronauts train in flight simulators, and environmental psychologists study the stresses they undergo before sending them into the stratosphere or into space. The authors of our textbook state, "with the increased sophistication of computers and computer-aided design systems, sophisticated computer-graphic simulations can aid research on various environments (e.g. homes, offices, and parks)."

That world is now available to all of us and we should use it in this course. My own professors from the UCLA school of Urban Planning (where I am a doctoral candidate) have been building simulated environments since the mid 1990s. Professors Robin Liggett and Donald Shoup showed me how they have been working with Professor Bill Jepson on the Urban Simulation Laboratory wherein they have created almost all of the city of Los Angeles in a 3D fly-through/walk through interactive environment that has a level of resolution so high you can read grafitti on the walls. Don Shoup used this VR urban simulation to convince city hall of the value of planting street trees by having the mayor's office look out their virtual window and walk down the virtual street with various species of trees at different stages of growth. When the politicians complained that they were worried about thieves lurking in low lying branches of one species of tree, Don simply changed the vegetation lining the boulevard to palm trees.

This kind of manipulation of the virtual environment is improving by the hour, and is now available to all of us, not just to people with access to the UCLA servers. As Bell et al. say on page 17, "Finally, engineers, architects and designers have developed techniques to measure the full range of ambient conditions, such as the amount of light, noise, temperature, humidity and air motion (see Fraser, 1989 for a description of these measures)." Second Life has rainfall, snow and wind, and the sun sets and rises.


Whether you design your research protocol for your first assignment in an off-line environment (such as stand-alone Playstation, XBox or Nintendo boxes) where you are interacting with AI's (Artificial Intelligences) or an on-line environment (such as Second Life) where you interact with avatars (real intelligent human beings controlling animated meshes) you will have to consider the ethical implications of your research.

All research is a form of manipulation. You will need to think about how intrusive, unobtrusive or obtrusive your research methods are. On page 18 our text says "many measures are obtrusive -- their use means that participants are aware of being measured (as well as of what is being measured). " While obtrusive methods are easier to use, it can affect the behavior of the person being observed. On the other hand, unobtrusive measures often require informed consent, or might be construed as invasions of privacy. One of the ways around this, according to page 20, is to observe people in "public settings." It is for you to decide how to deal with ethical issues in the new public and private environments of the metaverse.


The major thrust of this course is captured by the "Preview of the Content Areas of Environmental Psychology" where the authors state,
"...we will discuss environmental perception and cognition, examining the ways in which environments are percieved, how these perceptions are retained and altered by situational factors, and how we negotiate through environments... we will then look at ways in which the environment influences behavior, beginning with theoretical perspectives on environment-behavior relationships... we will examine the behavioral relationships involved in defined settings... in doing so, we will see how knowledge of environment-behavior relationships can be used to design environments for maximum human utility [and] conclude with intervention strategies for modifying environmentally destructive behavior and improving our relationship with the environment."

For the first time in history YOU are invited by the new technological environment that surrounds us to actually begin designing your own eutopia -- your own "perfect environment", and see what affect it has on others!


PS: For those who are interested in getting into the nuts and bolts of designing their own 3D interactive world, the open source design program Blender 3D can be downloaded for free here! Blender for Architects can be found here.

Environmental Psychology Intro

Environment and the Psychology of Behavior
Course # BHSC295DLB 3 credits Call #13116
Instructor: T.H. Culhane

Greetings! This blog is intended to help us explore the field of Environmental Psychology, and provides a feedback space for students enrolled in our on-line course in "Environment and the Psychology of Behavior" offered for credit through Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry New York.

As the instructor of the course I invite comments from non-enrolled students and visitors (on-line auditors are welcome!) and hope that collectively we can use the insights gleaned from this course to improve the worlds that surround us.

The basic text we are using in the course is "Environmental Psychology - Fifth Edition" by Paul A. Bell, Thomas C. Greene, Jeffery D. Fisher and Andrew Baum (2001, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, New Jersey, London.) The link to purchasing it on is here.

Beyond this text, we will be doing alot of exploring and discussing what is known as "the metaverse" - a virtual environment or simulation of the world residing in the "mind" of internet linked computer servers. The most popular of these -- a place called "Second Life" is where we will focus most of our efforts. For you to get familiar with Second Life before plunging into it, read the following websites:

The SimTeaching Wiki (a wikipedia of many great Second Life educational sites)

Second Life: The Educational Possibilities of a Massively Multiplayer Virtual World (MMVW)

Articles on Education in Second Life

Second Life as a Virtual Learning Environment


We will set the Sloodle location in Hyperborea as our primary meeting place. It's "SLURL" (Second Life URL, or address coordinates, are Sloodleville, Hyperborea (7, 161, 23).

T.H. Culhane's other blogs of interest to those exploring environmental psychology are:, and