Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Second Life

by Jack Green Musselman and Jason Rosenblum


Pause for a moment and imagine that your life consists of shadows on the wall of a cave, though to you “cave” just means the world you see at the bottom of a long tunnel. You know nothing of the world outside since you are chained next to others who are sitting beside you on a rock that faces the cave wall. There’s a fire burning behind you, but you don’t know that it’s there. There are figures outside who stand in front of the fire at the mouth of the cave–they’re the ones whose shadows are in front of you. But, you don’t know what the figures are–or that they even exist. Imagine you could free yourself and walk outside. What would you see? What would you think of your life inside the cave? What would you say to those you left behind? Would they believe you if you told them they still lived in a cave? What would you think of the world, once you were free to look around? Now imagine that you are taking a philosophy class. What if you could really come one step closer to experiencing Plato’s Cave? What if you (or your virtual representation) could play the role of someone in the cave, see the shadows, walk outside and reflect on the experience?

Figure 1. Outside of the Second Life cave, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, St. Edward’s University

The Cave allegory is the famous story from The Republic.1 This allegory is often used in philosophy classes to represent the state of ignorance we experience until we are educated in college by leaving our own personal caves and learning about the world around us. While that’s a useful allegory, Second Life (SL) lets students experience a virtual cave, escape, and then try to convince others that the world outside is brighter than they think. Students can be asked to describe what they missed by not leaving the cave, why they won’t return to live in that dark and limited world, and what else in their lives is like living in ignorance in the cave. The point is to help students realize that we all live in caves of ignorance or half-truths unless and until we can get up and go out to see and examine how things in other places and walks of life really are.

Why Second Life?

SL is often described as a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE)2 or virtual world. According to Dieterle and Clarke, MUVEs are virtual environments that allow for synchronous communication between multiple people, interaction in a virtual context with “digital artifacts” and experience “modeling and mentoring” real-world problems.3 From a teaching and learning perspective, SL is also a learning environment that offers what Bransford et al describe as a “system of interconnected components” that provide a learner with knowledge and assessment-based focus.4 Our application (known as a sim) of Plato’s allegory requires learners to challenge their existing attitudes and beliefs as they participate, while simultaneously receiving expert guidance and–outside of the cave– having opportunities for formative assessment. This application of the Cave allegory therefore enables the instructor to construct a SL environment that is both learner- and knowledge-centered.

Instructor interaction is critical to the student experience. From the time students emerge in the cave, they follow a preset instructional sequence and are guided through their experience in and out of the cave. This type of guided instruction is not only active5 but also experiential. According to Kolb, “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it.” 6 It is our intention that students understand Plato’s allegory as a participant in it while being guided through a process to examine their perspectives on life–and even reshaping them.

Role-play is critical to student success in this application of SL. Research into enactive roles to foster argumentative knowledge construction in SL reveals that students who engage in virtual discussions “identify closely with the character they are enacting within the SL virtual environment and are better able to develop multiple perspectives…”7 To support students through the role-play process, they will be repeatedly prompted to reflect on their experience. Moreover, Scanlan and Chernomas suggest that the process of reflection is cyclical, starting with an awareness of the present that through critical analysis connects the present with the past and future.8 As they play the role of a cave resident, students have the opportunity to reflect on their life chained inside the cave while looking at shadows on the wall, and once freed will look back on their experience in the cave and speculate as to what others still living inside think of life on the outside.

Figure 2. Philosophy students reflecting on their Cave experience

Students who learn the Cave allegory can, of course, imagine how experiences in the world are like living in ignorance, usually by projecting themselves into the lives of the prisoners that Plato paints in The Republic. For example, students who read the Cave allegory might think that until they thought about their religious faith in college courses, they were comparatively uninformed or not yet really enlightened about how rich and robust that faith could be, much like Plato’s characters until they climb out of the cave and see the light. There is also empirical evidence to suggest that adding Second Life experiences as instructional supplements to academic texts improves learning, while supporting “multiple modes of information”9 delivery. Thus, we propose teaching the allegory in an academic course (to a group of students) while adding a guided reflection in a Second Life Plato’s Cave (as an option for some students) to determine if there is any difference in assessments of learning as measured by formative pre-test and post-test written assignments.

Learning and Assessment in Liberal Arts

Such a formative assessment of learning is not limited to philosophy classrooms. St. Edward’s University is a liberal arts college with a mission to teach students “critical and creative thinking as well as moral reasoning, to analyze problems, propose solutions and make responsible decisions.”10 Since the creation of universities in Europe, critical thinking and moral reasoning have been taught in philosophy courses due to their emphasis on logic, ethics and the history of ideas. In some courses, Plato’s Cave has been used as an allegory for how reason can enlighten the mind and reveal the truth behind one’s everyday experience. Many philosophy instructors no doubt teach Plato’s Cave by comparing it to the way we experience film in a dark theater, pointing out that the real objects in the film are not actually present but rather pictures on the screen. However, Jack (who teaches philosophy courses) wanted a more robust account of Plato’s Cave that would bring it to life beyond such straightforward textual and logical description, thus making the Cave’s powerful philosophical point in a more vivid, thus effective, way.

As a result in our discussions about what Second Life could offer teachers, we focused on Plato’s Cave. When Jason (an IT staff member specializing in research and development of emerging educational technologies) suggested creating Plato’s Cave in SL and using it to provide a more sophisticated, first-hand visual experience of what the cave feels like for those trapped inside, it seemed like a perfect fit. Recent reports published by the Pew Internet & American Life project support this approach, for young adults are likely familiar with both social media11 and gaming applications.12Thus, it is feasible that the use of these tools implies a familiarity with the experience of “virtual identity” both online and in game-play, making it easier for students to identify first-hand with the prisoners in Plato’s Cave. We hope this association will provide a rich comparison to off-line states of ignorance and truth in a way that lectures and discussion, by themselves, do not.

Figure 3. Philosophy students in class engaged in the Cave simulation

Starting then in fall 2010, all twenty-eight students in Jack’s ethics course will read and discuss Plato’s Cave early in the semester. All students will write a one-page, double-spaced paper where they address both what they take to be Plato’s main point in the allegory and how the class will have (by that date) enlightened them, getting them out of their cave (or not) on some ethical issue. Toward the end of the semester they will re-write that paper as well. However, before writing the second paper, half of the students selected at random will obtain Second Life accounts and training with their new SL avatars and, after signing the appropriate institutional review board approval and consent forms, will have a guided session with the instructor in the SL cave. The instructor will then use the same grading rubric to assess every student’s two Cave papers. The four-part rubric scores, on a one to five scale for each category, a clear and narrow thesis; accurate use of moral theories; logical argumentation; and clear and grammatical English.

With these students’ permission their essays will be part of a proposal for a presentation at the 2012 bi-annual conference of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT). Students taking part in the cave exercise will also be asked to provide qualitative, formative evaluations about how well the SL cave did (or did not) serve course objectives.

Working and Sustaining Project Development 

This project was built on the St. Edward’s University SL space, located on Teaching 3, in the New Media Center (NMC) Consortium SL space. (We also recently learned there was a different project on the Cave, developed by faculty from the University of Massachusetts on the Caerlon sim in Second Life, that was available in Spring 2009.)13 Our Cave simulation was inspired by other SL simulations such as Dante’s Inferno, Genome Island, the Edgar Allen Poe House and the Exploratorium, but in our case was directed at improving instruction in those classes, especially in philosophy but in other disciplines, too, teaching the Cave.

All of these SL simulations in particular demonstrate how immersive experiences can be built to support learning. Interacting with the “conversational rocks” in Dante’s Inferno or conducting an “experiment” with genetic crosses in Genome Island are examples of this type of interactivity. An overarching vision guiding the development of the SL cave was building a virtual version that presented a believable environment allowing students to interact and participate in the Cave simulation. We hope that type of immersion will spark the imagination and promote a sense of fantasy to support an immersive learning experience.14

Three main development challenges came to mind: where would we build the cave on the St. Edward’s University sim? How could we build a cave that was prim-efficient (a prim is the basic building of SL objects and is limited in size)? And finally what would be needed to make the sim interactive? Jason chose to double the size of our SL plot to 8192 square meters and devote half of the space to the cave, building it above ground using sculptys (prim objects shaped using an image map). The rocks that make up the cave wall and the structure inside are made using layers of sculptys. These basic sculpty building blocks were purchased and then manipulated with standard SL building tools. This process resulted in using fewer prims than would be possible with standard SL building tools.

Figure 4. Cave components designed with sculptys

Using this approach, Jason designed a cave that was theoretically large enough to hold a class, and with seating to accommodate seven students. Animation “poseballs” were purchased and attached to a virtual “chain” that ran the length of the rock bench, positioned in front of the cave wall.

Figure 5.  Rock bench inside the cave

Participants interact by “sitting” on a poseball, which moves their avatar in a seated position with their hands pinned behind their back. The avatar’s view is then directed forward, facing “shadows” that appear on the wall.

Figure 6. Using a poseball to “sit” in the cave

The shadows were constructed from public domain images of President Obama and others in his administration. The images were first edited in Adobe Illustrator and a particle animation technique was used to randomly display any one of several images. Several “emitters” were used in SL to spray the shadows along the wall of the cave. A large campfire object was then purchased and placed at the entrance of the cave.

Figure 7. A particle emitter was used to display cave shadows

The process to research and develop the cave in SL took Jason (a part-time IT staff member) roughly 500 hours from beginning to end, and spread out over just under a year. Software costs were nominal. The research and development process consisted of brainstorms, proposals, research into existing SL sims, and climbing a technical learning curve. Basic knowledge of SL land management, building techniques, and scripting using Linden Scripting Language (LSL) were required to understand how objects and animations in SL are built and managed. However, we anticipate that ongoing technical costs to maintain the sim (aside from land lease fees) will be nominal unless new features are added.

Challenges to Integrate Into the Classroom

One of the main challenges will involve soliciting and training traditional undergraduates for the exercise. Our ethics course is a required class in our general education curriculum and may be the only ethics class students ever take. As such, the reading and writing requirements in moral theory and applied ethics can be demanding. Other philosophy classes could face even more challenges if they cover classical, modern and contemporary texts in ethics, history, epistemology and metaphysics. In his course, Jack does not want to overtax ethics students and will therefore select, at random, fourteen students in one class to train in SL and learn in the SL Plato’s Cave, offering as incentives free avatars in SL through the NMC, a more robust learning experience and one point extra credit on their paper. The University’s expert IT training staff will be also available to help orient students to Second Life. It may well be difficult for even half of the fourteen to train at the same time, so some may do so one-on-one with IT staff members. The students will also be asked not to enter the SL Plato’s Cave until they take part in one of the two guided instruction sessions during a class period–one for each group of seven sitting in the cave–prior to the deadline for the second paper.

Outcomes and Evaluation

Outcomes from one trial exercise in March 2010 with graduate students in a curriculum course suggest the SL teacher should provide explicit, “play-by-play” instructions from start to finish. Teachers should begin with specifically asking each avatar to only sit facing the shadows in the cave. Students should then be guided through each step of the role play to get the most out it.

Another trial run with four students in a spring 2010 ethics course suggested something similar. After two participants had forgotten their SL passwords and three could not get their headphones to work, Jack ran a 25-minute exercise using text chat for Socratic dialogue. Instead of only facing the shadows to experience life in the cave, some students also opened other computer programs or read hard-copy textbooks during the trial run. Thus, instructors might want to create a short exercise for participants to complete as they enter the cave to keep them on task.

Figure 8. Philosophy students participating during the cave exercise

Next fall the students’ first and second Plato’s Cave papers will be compared, using the same rubric, to help determine if the SL experience improves learning. These results will not, strictly speaking, be the function of a large-scale rigorous valid and reliable statistical study in part due to the small number of students participating. That is, fourteen undergraduate students out of twenty-eight in one class are not properly representative of the 3,537 traditional students, average age 20.4, enrolled at our college.15Likewise, as researchers have noted in similar studies, SL students may do better because they spend more time thinking about the written exercise in the first place.16 The SL students may also, due to a social experience of the cave off-line students do not have, learn better because of this very collective (as opposed to online) experience.17  Thus, it may not be the SL cave per se, but other causes like extra time or social learning that provide better explanations for future results. Other studies might include larger, more randomly generated samples characterized by demographic data from collegiate major to GPA to provide more scientific explanations of outcomes.

Apart from such studies, we hope instructors who find Plato’s Cave an instructive allegory for explaining how people travel from ignorance to truth will also find the SL cave an engaging and vivid landscape for painting Plato’s allegorical picture in a way that is worth a thousand words. For teachers who want students to understand the point of Plato’s text and also to feel that they are making a personal trip from darkness to light, we hope the SL cave provides a powerful pedagogical tool for how education can transform our views of the world. To that end, access to the St. Edward’s University space in Second Life is not restricted and the Cave simulation is open to all teachers simply by contacting us.18


1. Plato, in The Republic Book VII, 514a-520a. [return to text]
2. John Waters, “A ‘Second Life’ For Educators,” T H E Journal 36, no. 1 (2009): 29. [return to text]
3. Edward Dieterle and Jody Clarke, “Multi-user virtual environments for teaching and learning, Encyclopedia of multimedia technology and networking, 2nd ed., ed. M. Pagani (Hershey, PA: Idea Group, 2005), 1. [return to text]
4. J.D. Bransford, A. L. Brown, and R. Cocking,  How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, ed. J.D. Bransford, A. L. Brown, and R. Cocking (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999), 122. [return to text]
5. Bonwell, Charles C. and James A. Eison, “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.” ERIC Digest, ed. E. C. o. H. Education (Washington D.C., 1991): 3. [return to text]
6. David Kolb, Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development: (Prentice-Hall, 1984), 41. [return to text]
7. Azilawati Jamaludin, Yam San Chee, and Caroline Mei Lin Ho, “Fostering argumentative knowledge construction through enactive role play in Second Life,” Computers & Education 53, no. 12 (2009): 327. [return to text]
8. Judith Scanlan and Wanda Chernomas, “Developing the reflective teacher,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 25, no. 6 (1997): 1140. [return to text]
9. Phillip C. Wankat and Frank S. Oreovicz, Teaching Engineering (Knovel, 1993);  Joel S. Greenstein, Harskin Hayes, Jr., Benjamin R. Stephens, and Chris L. Peters, “The Effect of Supplementing Textual Materials with Virtual World Experiences on Learning and Engagement,” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 52nd Annual Meeting (2008): 5. [return to text]
10. “Mission Statement: St. Edward’s,” (accessed Mar. 15, 2010). [return to text]
11. Amanda Lenhart, “Social Media and Young Adults” (2010), [return to text]
12. Amanda Lenhart, Sydney Jones, and Alexandra Macgill, “Adults and video games,” (2008), [return to text]
13. Georg Janick and Gary Zabel, “Where in Plato’s Cave is Second Life?” (2009), (accessed 4/12/2010). [Return to text]
14. Paul Toprac, The Effects of a Problem-Based Learning Digital Game on Continuing Motivation to Learn Science, Curriculum and Instruction (Austin: University of Texas, 2008). [return to text]
15. “St. Edward’s University Facts and Figures,”, (accessed Mar. 18, 2010). [return to text]
16. Joel S. Greenstein, Harskin Hayes, Jr., Benjamin R. Stephens, and Chris L. Peters, The Effect of Supplementing Textual Materials with Virtual World Experiences on Learning and Engagement, Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 52nd Annual Meeting (2008), 622. [return to text]
17. Ibid, 623. [return to text]
18. To visit SEU’s Cave in Second Life: Navigate to: and click “Visit This Location” to launch Second Life and teleport to the sim. [return to text]