From the phone to the virtual … a potential idea

What makes virtual worlds compelling from a practice perspective? What questions and dilemmas does practice at the intersection of technology and counselling raise for therapists working online and virtually?

Shortly after my training as a counsellor an opportunity to volunteer as a therapist for an LGBTQ+ community group came up. The use of helplines in the UK was unknown to me and it appeared to me that many LGBTQIA+ community organisations offer similar help lines in their areas of the country. These helplines people can contact anonymously to find out about health information, support services local to where they are, hate crime reporting and many other services. The services and help that this has given to the LGBTQIA community has saved many lives and this is something that I believe virtual worlds could contribute to widening and improving access to people when and where they need it.

Last night I thought about tweeting a poll with the new @LHP_GridOS twitter account about this idea and the more I thought about it the idea of a short poll seemed to little to discuss something this big. Instead deciding to write down a few ideas here that came to my mind and from my experience with the poll attached here and an invitation for you the people to reply after reading the post.

After I completed my training as a counsellor I volunteered on both a helpline and then later offering counselling. From that experience and my experience with virtual worlds merging the two ideas seemed logical. After all being in a virtual is something akin to a phone call with graphical support (this is not all it is before I get heckled). It has taken time to get to know about Opensim and what is possible.

My question is can virtual worlds offer anything different to the telephone helpline?

In the following sections a discussion of the environment, encryption (is it needed or not? If yes what solutions are already available and might be available in the future?) and the training that will be needed to deliver these services. Followed by a list of the perceived advantages and disadvantages from my experience of virtual worlds, helpline volunteering and being an accredited counsellor.

Environment

The use of Opensim as the virtual world server means that the cost of deployment is lower and setup is already taken care of as a region on Lighthouse Point could be used to pilot the idea. A new advantage of opensim is that private and public spaces can easily be created with parcel privacy being available from the 0.9. branch of Opensim will enable different types of help to be on offer.

Encryption

If encryption is needed then the current solution is to download and install both the Firestorm viewer + Mumble/Murmur desktop client. All connection details can be given to the people needing it when the need arises using the vivox voice service on all Lighthouse Point.

Is this level of encryption even a requirement for a helpline style service for example compared to a counselling relationship and other helping professions would need to consult with their own registering/accrediting organisation about the standard of encryption needed for their services. If a counsellor wanted to offer their services they would need to follow their own professional standards and ethical framework.

With research and lots of help and emails between myself and Dreamland Metaverse (the hosting company for the opensim server and software for Lighthouse Point) a solution may have been found to solve this professional requirement. Both un-encrypted and encrypted channels can be used on any of the regions on Lighthouse Point depending on the nature of the help and professional practice requirements (which vary enormously).

In the near future the need to install a mumble client locally may be resolved if a viewer fix can be found to link to the service in a similar way to vivox does currently. This would make it much easier although installing both a viewer and a mumble client is not a complicated process.

Training

There is a definite need for a comprehensive training package that would be required for people to complete. As a starting point contact will be made and websites searched to see how traditional helpline services train their support staff. Combined with my own personal experience of volunteering at an LGBT community organisation after my therapy training. A blended approach could be taken with inworld training sessions with web based training a sufficient training can be provided.

The advantages of this type of service delivery

  1. Convenience to volunteers
  2. Relatively cheaper to provide
  3. Ease of access and wider demographic cover
  4. An increased sense of presence, immediacy and seeking ?help? within and part of a community that being on a phone call may limit

The disadvantages of this type of service delivery

  1. High level of initial training required
  2. The main disadvantage that the virtual shares with the telephone and other methods that rely on a provision layer is that some of the community will not have access to broadband or in terms of the traditional telephone helpline they might not have access to a phone to use the helpline
  3. Having access to a PC that does not meet the system requirements for connection to a virtual world
  4. Clear boundaries are limits are needed not to over stretch the service on offer
  5. Providing services without embodiment? (seeing yourself as an avatar maybe disorientated for some people

By the little written I am convinced that virtual world support, help and information services could be provided easily, without to much demand on the people accessing this service and could become an additional way to support the LGBTQIA+ communities. The assumption throughout is that Lighthouse Point could be used to pilot this service however this is start to conversation about this topic and opensim hosting is not that difficult to obtain.

What do you think? Could virtual worlds can be used for this purpose? Do you see any other aspects that I have not considered? Is the learning curve with the viewer and Opensim to steep for most? � Let me know your views by leaving a comment belows.

© Leighton Marjoram MA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s