The Question of Theater: Synopsis

The completed draft of the book has gone to some friends for comments. I’ve revised the title slightly to The Question of Theater: Online Role-playing, Postdramatic Theater, and Reflexivity. Here is a synopsis.


I discuss my own experience in Second Life and how I became interested in online role-playing, even though I am not a role-player myself. The question of whether it is a form of theater raises the issue of how to define theater. There has been little study of online role-playing from a performance standpoint. Importantly, I will not be discussing online role-playing as games, even though much of it occurs in a game context. I will also examine Lehmann’s theory of postdramatic theater, because it raises other questions about the definition of the theater. My approach will be to analyze theater’s social ontology, that is, its fundamental social components and structure, based on critical realist social theory.

Chapter 1: Role-playing

The chapter discusses the history of role-playing, its main genres, the basic techniques, larp (live action role-playing) theory on relationship between larp and theater, and the similarities and differences between online role-playing and theater.

Chapter 2: Virtual Worlds

Following a line of thinking initiated by Deleuze (with older forerunners), virtuality is conceptualized as potential, not tied to any technology (novels can create virtual worlds, for instance). Building on psychological and sociological research on digital virtuality, I define three main dimensions of the experience of virtual environments: immersion, engagement, and presence. Virtual worlds are distinct from virtual environments by being peopled, which carries a number of ramifications (mostly discussed in chapter 4). The chapter concludes with a return to the concept of virtuality, setting it in relation to positivism, realism, and fiction.

Chapter 3: Problems of Presence, Embodiment, and Spatiality

I begin with an overview of theories of presence in theater, largely summarizing Cormac Power, and critique his own theory. Again plumbing research on digital virtual worlds, I identify three types of presence: self-presence, spatial presence, and social presence. These are secured by embodiment and emplacement in both the physical and digital realms. These issues are united in Brian Mennecke’s concept of embodied social presence, which plays a role in theater.

Chapter 4: The Two Homologies

The chapter develops a social ontology of theater, based on the ontology of society in general, consisting of structures, agents, and discourses; and the ontology of agents, composed of embodiment, causal efficacy, and intentionality. Organized activities and organizations, including theater, have a similar trifold ontology, making them homologous to both social ontology and agential ontology. But theater has a second ontological structure consisting of the performance event, the performed event, and the performance score—a structure that is also homologous with social ontology. The performance event itself is structured by two dualities: the activities of performing and attending, which can be distributed anywhere from totally separate groups to everyone doing both; and the intrinsic and extrinsic aspects, which are the states of being mentally in-character and in-world, versus being out-of-character and out-of-world, which are always concurrent. The state of being in-character and in-world is one of cognitive and affective transportation into a fictional virtual world, a type of possible world. Theater’s social ontology makes it a model of social agency. But agents are reflexive. That raises a question that reverses the argument: if there were such a thing as reflexivity conducted by a collectivity using all three aspects of agential ontology, what would it look like?

Chapter 5: The Question of Reflexivity

Individual reflexivity, in which an agent determines the actions she takes in the world, is motivated by questions (e.g., “how should I do X?”). Collective reflexivity, when conducted verbally, proceeds the same way as individual reflexivity, but people in groups usually do more than talk and listen: they notice each other’s body language. In embodied collective reflexivity, the participants’ bodily actions are prominent bearers of meaning. Theater, however, doesn’t quite fit the model of embodied collective reflexivity. But there is a special type of reflexivity: metareflexivity, in which we ask about ourselves. Metareflexivity is recursive. Verbal collective metareflexivity is recursive the same way as individual metareflexivity—but embodied collective metareflexivity is another matter, because agent’s ontology of embodiment, causal efficacy and intentionality are in an emergent and stratified relationship. To understand that sort of recursion, I turn to Peirce, whose system of trichotomous analysis treats exactly this type of relationship. Using it to determine the structure of embodied collective metareflexivity leads to an ontology that matches theatrical performance, including its organizational substructure and audience responses. But it doesn’t fully account for the importance of fiction. The explanation lies in the basic operation of metareflexivity: asking a question. In this case asking a question must be done at least in part through the body, which requires a series of virtualizations. These virtualizations explain the distinction between in intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of the performance event and the actor’s dual state.

Chapter 6: Edgy Performances

Here I focus on two types of performance that challenge or press the limits of my definition of theater: postdramatic theater and extreme larp. The term “postdramatic theater” was coined by Hans-Thies Lehmann to encompass neo-avant-garde theatrical forms that had arisen since the 1960s or so. My focus in this chapter is on his theory. Postdramatic theater, he contends, displaces the text, alters the performer/audience relationship, and has little or no fiction. In reality, postdramatic theater typically uses a completely conventional separation between actors and audiences in which performers retain control. Lehmann creates two incompatible models of postdramatic theater: one in which it has some fictional content, and another where it has none. In practice most postdramatic theater consists of plays, with dramatic fiction. When there is no fiction whatsoever, postdramatic theater is effectively a type of performance art. Extreme larps have sought to thin or break down the fiction/reality distinction and the equal powers players are usually given to control role-playing. The goal of thinning the fiction/reality distinction is often to create “bleed”: powerful emotional or other effects. But it can also seek to seek to make everything part of the fiction. Another type of extreme role-playing occurs in BDSM, which aims to create bleed as well. Some larp theory claims that BDSM includes larping but shouldn’t be considered larp due to its goals; I argue that goals do not establish a significant difference. Although postdramatic theater and extreme larps trouble the fiction/reality distinction in different ways and toward different ends: postdramatic theater aims for epistemological uncertainty, often for the sake of a moral shock, whereas extreme larp seeks experiences and emotional responses.

Chapter 7: A World of Questions

Questions play a prominent role in the definition of theater I present. Most theories of questions entail positing possible worlds, a concept that originated in philosophy and was adapted to serve theories of fiction. It has been extended to the concept of virtual world, but without clearly delineating the relationship between possible worlds and virtual worlds. To identify this relationship I turn to Deleuze, who distinguishes two oppositions: real vs possible, and actual vs virtual. The virtual is real. To illuminate these concepts I draw an analogy to traveling from one point to another, with all the choices and impediments that may entail, and I describe the terrain which all of these traverse as a problem field, the structure of which is its virtuality. That field is also peopled—a virtual world—and therefore also structured and impelled by intentionalities. In theater, problem fields are encountered in the transformation from page to stage, with all the options and decisions entailed in casting, blocking, design, and so on. Thus theater is not mimesis, but world creation. The view that the virtual is real bears on the problem of fictional truth and fictional reality. In theater the actual and the fictional worlds are open totalities that remain mutually porous.

Chapter 8: Modes of Performing Agency

Not all agency is conducted in the same way, and this has consequences for performance. I examine four dimensions of such diversity. The first of these dimensions returns us to social theory to examine two types or senses of collectivity: the categorial We of groups connected to social structures, demographics or affinities, and the interpersonal We of relationships between known individuals. This distinction separates theater from activities such as children’s fantasy role-playing, BDSM, and psychodrama. The chapter’s second topic concerns the variants and siblings of theater. I evaluate a range of performance genres, from opera to entertainment wrestling to recorded forms like film and TV. The definition of theater allows us to specify in terms of social ontology why a genre is or isn’t theater, and introduce a concept that distinguishes film and TV. The third subject considers the research demonstrating that people do not process their reflexivity in the same way, visible especially in their decision-making process and priorities. The differences are principally manifested in the performed event. The final section turns to the historically and culturally variable concepts of the self, manifested in both the performance event and the performed event.

Chapter 9: Players of Neoliberalism

Online role-playing and postdramatic theater were both born under advanced capitalism, and both turn out to be suffused by the neoliberal concept of agency: highly individualized, competitive, self-reliant, and hedonistic. I show that Lehmann’s concept of postdramatic theater is deeply shaped by neoliberal ideology, as is his concept of a “politics of perception.” However, substantial political change can only occur through collective action, which Lehmann’s neoliberal spectator cannot sustain. Moreover, only with fiction can theater imagine the world being different, and because Lehmann’s theory of postdramatic theory rejects referentiality, he cannot consider the currently urgent and real politics of perception: the demand for visibility and equality on stage. I then turn to online role-playing, which started in small-scale forms but was then incorporated into corporately-produced virtual worlds. There have been claims that the guilds in games like World of Warcraft are neoliberal managerial training forms; I find these arguments dubious on factual and logical grounds. A better argument concerns the “theme park” character of games like World of Warcraft that encourage the exercise of a neoliberal form of agency. Moreover, in these games the game-play itself generally pursues neoliberal ends. Yet, contradictory aspects also emerge—in particular, the value many players place on sociality and collective activity. Both in the games and in online social worlds like Second Life, there is an emergent egalitarianism and trace of utopianism, which suggest a largely but not entirely submerged liberatory potential.


Theater, which only occurs as a social event, needs to be defined primarily based on its social nature.  It has a specific social structure that prioritizes fiction, embodiment and presence. Analyzing theater in terms of social ontology provides a way to develop a coherent definition of theater that avoids the ethnocentrism and idealism of aesthetic definitions, and the baggy generality of anthropological definitions. Social ontology also provides a way to assess the extent that new genres of performance fit within the category of theatre. Online role-playing may be the first modern theater genre with grassroots rather than elite and individualist roots.

“Theatre and Embodied Collective Reflexivity” published

The final version of “ Theatre and Embodied Collective Reflexivity” has now been published by the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. You can download it from the link above (the published version, by permission). The abstract reads:

Theatre is a distinctive type of social reflexivity. The question is how, like other social practices, theatre’s social function shapes its form. By examining theatre in relation to social ontology, the components of agency, and the requirements of an embodied form of collective reflexivity, one finds that theatre is characterized by a double homology with social ontology. Furthermore, conducting embodied collective reflexivity requires the performer/character distinction, which is fundamental to theatrical performance. Social ontology, then, sharpens our concept theatre’s structure and the meaning of its practice.

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

Draft outline for book about online RP as theater

Currently I see the following as the chapter structure for the book about online RP as theater:

  1. Introduction
  2. Descriptions of role-playing and virtual worlds
  3. Online role-playing and its homologies with social ontology
  4. Embodied collective reflexivity
  5. Reflexivity and theater
  6. Problems posed by RP genres that break the usual rules (e.g., erotic RP, Gor)
  7. Issues connected with the history of communication practices
  8. Conclusion

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 derive mainly from previously published material.

I am mulling over the problem of audience: to some extent I want the book to be accessible not only to other scholarly fields, like game studies, which should be fairly easy, but possibly also to the general public.