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.