The magic of designing immersive educational experiences for fun and learning


This post relates a cool thing I did while I was teaching at uni way back in 2015. It is part of my continuing effort to self host all my academic work rather than have it on, which is now becoming enshittified. Despite its .edu domain is not actually run by an educational institution. It is a private company which got its domain when .edu domains were not strictly restricted to educational institutions, and then managed to get it grandfathered once the rules were tightened1.

This teaching experience was the dawning of my realization that universities are not places where teaching is valued. But that’s a story for another day. It took the form of an immersive educational experience which undertook to role play a Pagan circle ritual in the virtual world Second Life as part of an undergraduate sociology unit at the University Of Tasmania (UTAS). I focus the discussion on the importance of fun as a vital component of learning while considering whether real educational value was achieved.

The Fire altar

As educators expand into virtual worlds the importance of understanding the processes of digital domains increases. This leads to questions such as whether experiences in a virtual environment are authentic in themselves and whether there is real educational value in online interactive media, including games and shared virtual environments such as Second Life. An important aspect of education that is sadly often overlooked, especially at tertiary level, is fun. Csíkszentmihályi posited that people are most happy and attentive when in a state of flow2. From this we deduce that in order to achieve optimal educational value activities should induce flow.

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Death drives a pale limousine

Humans love anthropomorphisms! It makes it easy for us to think about concepts if we dress them up as humans. Death is no exception. Western culture has the grim reaper with his long black robe, scythe and his pale horse. But where did this Death come from and what came before him?

What is possibly the earliest known representation of Death, found at the Neolithic settlement at Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, shows Death as gigantic black birds, of vulture like appearance, who menace headless human corpses1. But this culture is mostly unknown to us so an understanding of this representation is beyond us at present. But they are black, which is the first attribute of our Death.

In Mesopotamian times the personification of Death was Nergal. In early lore he was handed charge of the underworld by his parents Enlil and Ninlil2, but it later times he was said to have obtained his dominion by marring Ereshkigal, Queen of the Great Below3. He is the first known representation of Death wearing a black robe, and he is armed with a scimitar and a staff4. Nergal is not a punishing Death but he is an inflicted death, which is reflected in his also being the god of war and pestilence. He is the essence of destruction, but there is no intent, no sense of death as a moral consequence, though deaths are sometimes brought about by him by means of daemons.

Alike to our Death, the winged motif is seen in the Roman personification of death, Mors, who is black winged. Mors is pale and emaciated in the extreme, and hovers over souls waiting for the moment of death. While it is possible that the Grim Reaper’s robe metamorphosized from these representations of wings I think it more likely that the robe derives from the medieval European practise of depicting the dead as skeletons, or bodies, wrapped in their shrouds (see below Norfolk 14995).

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Deosil is anticlockwise

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the Sun travels through the sky, and specifically about which way it goes. In fact I wrote my Honours thesis about it, which I will put up here in the not too distant future. But I digress. The direction of the Sun’s movement is usually described as clockwise. But why is clockwise clockwise? Which is to say, why is the direction we call clockwise turning the way it is? No one will be surprised to know that clocks go that way because they are mimicking the direction of the Sun. This is based on a person facing the direction of the sunrise and seeing the Sun gradually move to their right over the course of the day; east, then southeast, then south, then southwest, then west. This direction is also referred to in English as deosil, a word with Gaelic roots. It is from from Old Irish, dess meaning right and sel meaning to turn.

However this situation does not obtain the planet over. Indeed where I live the Sun absolutely does not do this. My Sun rises in the east and then moves northeast, then north, then northwest, then west. I remember trying to explain this to a bunch of northern hemisphere Pagans at a Glastonbury solstice vigil one time, and they fully thought I was mad. They were unable to separate the concept of deosil from that of clockwise for the same reason I was unable to reconcile what I saw when I looked at the sky with the representation of that sky on an astrological chart, i.e. it just didn’t look that way to me. It took me a very long time to learn any astrology because of this. My breakthrough came when I eventually found some astrological software that had a feature to display the chart wheel as it appears in the southern hemisphere. It was a revelation. Suddenly the framework I had been taught to work with accurately reflected the reality of my sky, where deosil is anticlockwise.

So me and the bloke made a thing to help us austral dwellers see an astrological chart that shows our actual sky, with things moving in the direction they move for us. Here is a real time, live updating chart for Hobart (42°52’48.0″S 147°19’01.2″E), Tasmania, Australia.

Astute observers will note that the eastern horizon, and therefore the rising sign, is on the right hand side of the chart, and that the planets rotate counterclockwise, but still deosil, as it is in the southern hemisphere. Similarly, the first house is below the horizon on the right hand side of the chart, the second is below that, and so on clockwise. The leaf device (it's nothofagus gunnii, the only deciduous native Tasmanian plant) in the middle indicates the season; whichever leaf colour is upmost indicates the current time of year, e.g. silver = winter, green = spring. The coming season is to the left of the current season. And, most awesomely, the images of the planets are actual photos of the planets.

We are going to add features soon. Eventually you will be able to enter a birth time and date and see the southern hemisphere sky as it was at that time. Real soon now.

Burn the witch!

While there are many causal factors contributing to the phenomenon that we call the witch hunts, I contend one way that they can be understood is in terms of a change in the conception of consciousness from group to personal dynamics. Let’s look at the many ways in which this change was evidenced in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and why this change contributed to the bringing about of the witch hunts.

Illustration from the Malleus Maleficarum
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Dion Fortune was a shaman, fight me

Violet Mary Firth, later known as Dion Fortune, was a strange child, reputedly psychic all her life, who grew into one of the most formidable occultists of her day. Her work was an important influence on many Neo Pagans, most notably Gerald Gardener, but also on others later such as Druids Isaac Bonewits and John Michael Greer. She was an interesting mix of clairvoyant medium and university trained psychologist and much of her work was remarkably shamanistic in character.

Born in Llandudno, North Wales, on the 6th of December, 1890, her parents converted to Christian Science when she was fourteen. One can see the influence of this early exposure to Christian Science in all her work. Christian Science does not view Jesus as simply a moral exemplar, rather his healing works, as well as his own victory over death and the grave, are regarded as demonstrating that all the ills and limitations of the mortal state can be overcome, in proportion, as one gains the mind of Christ, i.e. an understanding of one’s true spiritual status. This requires a penetration beyond material appearances into a spiritual order of being, one that traditional Christian orthodoxy associates with a heaven in the hereafter, but that Christian Science considers to be scientifically demonstrable in human life. This theme of recognising the oneness of the magical and the physical would echo through Fortune’s work for all her life. The melding which she sought is remarkably similar to an underlying principle of shamanism, i.e. that the spiritual has a real and demonstrable effect on daily life, especially in use for healing. Many of the practices which she, and her community, undertook are equivalent to those discussed by Vitebsky1 in his overview of shamanism. Most notably, she was not only a solo practitioner but the centre of a community, on whose behalf she acted.

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Dogmatic religion is a bitch

Dogmatic religion is a bitch. It destroys the very core of people.

Humans are social creatures. So when our cherished others share with us that it is possible to know the love of a perfect being, to be enfolded in the bliss of union with it, if only we follow some rules, we naturally strive to seek this perfection. But the rules are the thing. When we submit to rules we want to know that they are justified. That they will be efficacious. But dogma, the insistence on unquestioning faith, does not give us such reassurance.

Any dogmatic set of rules is functionally unattainable in the long term because of the power of doubt. Dogmatism is not a natural part of what it is to be human. We thirst for understanding. And, while there is a great truth in not being a slave to the why of things, in sometimes accepting things as they are even though we cannot yet understand them, we will never cease completely to ask why.

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