A Three-Dimensional Theory of Virtual Worlds: A Proposal

Along with the competing theories that every scholarly field debates, the study of virtual worlds is impeded by a peculiar panoply of terms and concepts: immersion, absorption, involvement, engrossment, engagement, presence, transportation, interactivity, incorporation, and perhaps others. Sometimes these terms are ill-defined, a few are occasionally rejected altogether, and some are understood as synonymous — but there is disagreement about which of them are synonymous (e.g., is absorption the same as engrossment, or immersion? Is immersion instead the same as presence?). Some may also be subtypes of another.

This situation and the needs of my theory of theater (which already uses a particular concept of presence) is complicated by the fact that in theater studies “presence” has its own messy history and array of conflicting definitions. For that reason I have little choice but to develop my own analysis (of course drawing to some extent from work by others, particularly Marie-Laure Ryan). On the other hand, since I need to address the concerns of more than one field of application, I am not constrained by a desire to devise a theory that’s specifically geared toward game studies (something Gordon Calleja believes necessary).

My analysis, at this point best viewed as a hypothesis, consists of a three-dimensional theory of virtual worlds. The three dimensions are immersion, presence, and engagement. In calling these concepts “dimensions,” I am arguing that virtual worlds possess all three, they have relationships, but they are also largely independent, and in some instances they may have the dimensional “value” of zero or trivial. To some extent I’ve taken my cues for these dimensions from the words’ usages in ordinary language. What follows is an informal sketch of the theory.

Immersion: This word is rooted in the image schema of being surrounded by water, and has been extended metaphorically to other sorts of literal, imagined, or metaphorical environments. Thus one can speak of being immersed in a novel (strictly speaking, its fictional universe), immersed in a soundscape, immersed in a virtual world, etc. One is always immersed in some type of space. (Ryan’s metaphor of being “transported” to a fictional world fits in here.) Immersion seldom creates a hermetic space: one normally remains conscious of the ordinary world, and the immersion can be broken in various ways. It is a literal or a cognitive space which one can enter and depart. Significantly, not only do we speak of being immersed in some sort of space, we always refer to a specific space or genre of space (the starfield inside a planetarium, the fictional society of Jane Eyre, the MMORPG of World of Warcraft, and so forth). In that sense, immersion is an individuated dimension: it consists of numerous concrete instances, although the instances may group into categories. (Similarly, one cannot speak a general word, only a specific word, although the word will be an instance of a category such as a noun, verb, etc.) Conceiving immersion as individuated doesn’t preclude Ryan’s varieties of immersion (spatial, emotional, and temporal), but those concern one’s experience(s) of being immersed in a virtual space, not immersion per se.

Presence: This experiential dimension is produced by the possibility of causal efficacy within the virtual world. There are two caveats. First, both a person (an agent) and the virtual environment possess the possibility of causal efficacy, albeit of different types. Second, I say “possibility” because not only may a person not have the possibility of exercising some particular type of agency, but also one may have that possibility but not exercise it, whether by choice, constraint, habit, unawareness, or what have you. Perhaps one reason the term “presence” has posed difficulty is that (as far as I’ve seen) it is seldom clearly recognized that it has an antonym: absence. In the case of virtual worlds, what can be absent is the possibility of causal efficacy, or better, a specific area of efficacy. This is not a matter of being passive vs active: interpreting and responding are active, not passive. If one is able to think, then one is causally efficacious upon oneself and therefore an agent; experiencing and interpreting one’s environment is a mode of agency. For that reason there is always a seed of presence when in an immersive environment. The opposition between presence and absence instead is between unidirectional vs (potentially) bidirectional efficacy. Watching a movie involves unidirectional efficacy: we watch the movie, we actively construe its meaning and it affects us, but we cannot change the movie itself — the words, sounds and images are what they are, no matter how we interpret them. One might say the movie’s fictional world is present to us, but we are not present (i.e., we are absent) to the fictional world. In contrast, bidirectional efficacy consists of interactivity. For example, an interactive game provides a situation, we act upon it, the game in turn alters the situation, in response we may act upon the new situation, and so forth. In a platform virtual world like Second Life, we can even create objects, animations, sounds, etc, which persist for other others to use and react to. So, rather than a discrete component of virtual worlds to be understood separately from presence, interactivity is a contingent operation of an agent’s presence (contingent because a particular world may or may not provide it, and because of all the other possibilities mentioned above). Presence, then, is a binary concept, and its binarism lets us speak of interactive and non-interactive media. Presence has types, including most notably self-presence and social presence (co-presence), and it can be increased or decreased through the kinds and opportunities for acting upon the virtual world; but the structure of presence itself is binary. I should note however that a person can be present in one respect but absent in another — a crucial point for theatrical acting.

(My theory of theater as embodied collective reflexivity relies on a very basic concept of social presence. I am not particularly interested in the glorified notions of presence, such as an actor’s “aura,” that appear in most theater theory.)

Engagement: I am taking this term as synonymous with absorption, involvement, engrossment, etc, although I’m not entirely certain which term really is best. It concerns the extent or intensity of one’s focus on something, or more precisely, its measure of intellectual or emotional significance (meaningfulness, import) for one. Again I’ll draw on Ryan, who distinguishes between four degrees of absorption: concentration, imaginative involvement, entrancement, and addiction. Since engagement is a matter of degree, it is a scalar dimension. The concept is a little tricky because in the case of novels and perhaps some other instances, engagement is very nearly tantamount to immersion; but I think this is because a novel’s fictional universe has to be developed wholly imaginatively and so requires at least moderate concentration, whereas most other types of immersion occur in a physical or digital environment.

Thus one can be immersed in a projected forest, but not be present for (or to) that place (although it might appear so lifelike one might try to touch a flower), and unengaged with it because one doesn’t find it particularly interesting. Conversely, increasing the degree and types of causal efficacy (agency) and may heighten the sense of presence within a virtual world and so possibly increase a person’s engagement with it.

Arguably I should incorporate a fourth dimension: time, which enables narrative, another key component of virtual worlds. Something to consider on another occasion.

None of this is meant to suggest virtual worlds, no matter how immersive, squeeze out all awareness of the ordinary world and one’s ordinary identity. Occasionally role-players do claim having that experience, which are cases of extreme engagement, but even if we take these assertions at face value, virtual worlds require and usually achieve no such thing.

Two other elements — spatiality and embodiment — are fundamental to virtual worlds in toto. Following the metaphor of dimensions, one might call them the volume and mass of virtual worlds. However, I will not take them up here.

Interestingly, the three dimensions align with Peirce’s three primordial categories (an aspect I noticed only after my first sketches of this analysis). Immersion involves Firstness principally through its iconic nature: initially one has the image of being plunged into water, which is extended to other sorts of real or imagined spaces, environments, or “worlds.” Immersion requires the “image” in “imagination,” and images (icons) can only depict some particular thing or schema of things. Presence involves Secondness in the form of potential or actual cause/effect relationships. Secondness possesses two degrees, manifested here as one-way action and two-way interaction. Engagement concerns meaning or significance, which as semiosis is a type of Thirdness. One doesn’t usually consider semiosis scalar, but Peirce’s theory of infinite semiosis — the idea that one sign begets (or can beget) further, more advanced signs — is effectively scalar. As for virtual worlds as such, they are themselves Peircean signs, and hence relational.

Revised book outline

I’ve revised the outline in some small but significant ways. In particular, the last few chapters now have better focus. The subsections aren’t entirely sorted out, but the overall structure now looks like this:

  1. Introduction: basic thesis, how the argument differs from previous discussions of online performance and online RP, how my approach to understanding theater differs from earlier ones, and the stakes for theater studies.
  2. Descriptive introduction to role-playing and virtual worlds: brief history of RP (tabletop, larp, shooter, VW), description of certain concrete aspects of online RP, overview of RP’s “best practices,” similarities and differences with theater as conventionally understood.
  3. Online role-playing and its two homologies with social ontology: social ontology, organizational ontology, theatrical homology.
  4. Embodied collective reflexivity: embodied collective reflexivity has a trichotomous nature.
  5. Reflexivity and theater: embodied collective reflexivity corresponds with theater’s social ontology, providing a definition of theater in socially functional terms.
  6. Breaking the rules: certain RP genres (e.g., erotic RP, Gor) break the usual rules of RP; this seems to challenge my definition of theater, but in fact underscored its connection to larger social structures.
  7. Online RP in sociohistorical context: sociological and socio-structural aspects (including the question of theater and social change), political-economic aspects, historical aspects (including RP’s relation to the communication practices).
  8. Conclusion

“Big History” published

I’d like to announce the publication of “Big History,” my contribution to Theatre, Performance and Change, ed. Stephani Etheridge Woodson and Tamara Underiner (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018): 261-69.  The essay critiques the postmodernist opposition to taking the long view of historical development as “grand narratives.” Instead, we need large understandings of history, not just in terms of length of time but also in terms of the depth and complexity of social structures.

“Online Role-playing Games and the Definition of Theatre” now published

“Online Role-playing Games and the Definition of Theatre” has been published by New Theatre Quarterly (Vol. 33, issue 4,  pp. 345-359). The abstract reads:

Online role-playing games are a form of entertainment in which players create characters and improvisationally perform scenes together within a digital virtual world. It has many theatre-like aspects, which raises the question of whether it is in fact a form of theatre. To answer that question, however, one must first have a definition of theatre – an issue with disciplinary consequences – and in this article Tobin Nellhaus develops a definition founded on social ontology, suggesting that theatrical performance, unlike other social practices, replicates society’s ontology. From that perspective, online role-playing meets the definition of theatre. But its digital environment raises another set of problems, since embodiment, space, and presence in online role-playing are necessarily unlike what we experience in traditional theatre. Here, Nellhaus brings these three aspects of performance together through the concept of embodied social presence, showing how they operate in both customary theatre and online role-playing.

If you have journal access, you can download the published version here: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266464X17000483. The article is currently available only in print; a PDF version will be released in a year.  In the meantime you can download the original manuscript from the Publications and Drafts page.  There are some small differences between the original manuscript and the published version.

“Embodied Collective Reflexivity: Peircean Performatives” is now published

“Embodied Collective Reflexivity: Peircean Performatives” is now officially published by the Journal of Critical Realism. Taylor & Francis/Routledge allows me to offer the official version (the Version of Record) free to up to 50 people through this link.

I am also making the “accepted manuscript” version of available for downloading. This is the final version submitted to the Journal of Critical Realism, and has some minor differences from the published version. (Posting on my personal site is permitted by Taylor & Francis/Routledge.)

The basic points (again) are these:

  • Reflexivity for individuals is a recursive practice in which one’s thought reflects on one’s own thoughts and actions, assessing past ones and preparing for new ones.  But agents are not just thoughts — they are not just intentional beings, but also embodied and efficacious in the material world.  It should be possible for agents to be reflexive not just through thoughts but through their entire embodied being.
  • If so, however, the structure of the recursion underlying embodied reflexivity can’t be the spiral of thought returning to thought, but one that involves all three of aspects of agency.  However, intentionality, causal efficacy, and embodiment do not stand in a linear relation: instead, they’re related through emergence and stratification, which the recursion must account for.  Peirce’s trichotomies achieve that.  Consequently embodied reflexivity must have a Peircean structure.
  • Agents also don’t exist alone, they always have social relations with others.  One of their key everyday challenges is sussing out others’ intentions (involving Theory of Mind), which has to occur through perceptions of their speech and actions (including self presentation, e.g, clothing, as an action).  That must be a crucial part of a collective mode of reflexivity.
  • Speech and actions are ways of doing things in the social world.  The basic point is made by Austin’s concept of speech acts, which he calls performatives, but the latter should be expanded to include “acts that speak” because embodied actions are imbued with meanings.  Theory of Mind is predicated on assessing others’ and producing one’s own performatives; an embodied and collective practice of reflexivity is intrinsically one of performers and spectators.  Hence “Peircean performatives.”
  • One (and perhaps the only) collective practice that performs this activity is dramatic performance, which covers theater, film, TV, and online streaming forms. Theater, however, is paradigmatic. Applying the Peircean recursive structure of reflexivity to theater, we find that not only can we explain theater’s ontology, but also its use of fiction.

A version of this argument intended for a theater studies journal is now in its final drafts.