Since there’s material in The Question of Theater book (evidently still under review) that may be of wider interest, I’ve gathered its discussions of questions, virtuality and problem fields, and have been reworking them into a social theory type of article. It’s giving me an opportunity to discuss the compatibility of critical realism’s ontology with Deleuze’s, the latter being the basis of the concept of virtuality at play. This also has the salutary effect of cleaning up the material that will be in the book.
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.
I’m coming to think that the conundrum in my previous post derives from not clearly distinguishing between two meanings of “virtual.” When I first described fictional characters as “virtual agents,” I was thinking in terms of their semiotic construction, in parallel with the concept of the self as a sign (per Peirce), and also the more general sense of “virtual” as similar in appearance or effect. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the term “virtual world” goes as far back as 1903, but really took off around 1987, and the sense of “virtual” as “electronically simulated” surely dates from then. But the virtual agents of theater aren’t the same sort of entities as the virtual humans of VWs. The latter should be considered a type of “displaced” or “surrogate” embodiment (in the sense one might likewise call a puppet a type of “displaced” or “surrogate” embodiment). But to avoid confusion, I should refer to the virtual agents of drama through the more customary phrase “dramatic characters” (or just “characters”), except when I need to make the specific point about their function as iconic signs of agency.
This does raise the question of the ontology of fictional objects (fictional realism or non-realism). I’ll have to poke around in that subject and decide whether it makes much difference to the overall ontology, since there’s no question that dramatic characters are semiotic constructs in either case.
Two types of “non-reality” appear in online role-playing games: the virtual and the fictional. I put the term in scare quotes because representations and ideas, as such, are themselves real, even if what they represent or refer to don’t exist. What exactly is the relationship between the virtual and the fictional — what is the nature of their “non-realities,” and how different are they? Clearly it isn’t that one represents a reality whereas the other doesn’t: in a virtual world, one can have a human avatar, but one’s av can just as easily be a dragon or a pulsating blob, neither of which represent the natural form of the person behind the avatar. Also, especially in a virtual world like SL, most people don’t engage in role-playing, so their avs are virtual but non-fictional whereas the RPers have virtual forms but also portray fictions. It’s notable that in SL, where one has near-total control over an avatar’s look, people almost never create avs that look like themselves; but there is no pretense that they do either, so on the whole their avs aren’t exactly fictions. One could say that within the context of the virtual world, the av is what the person really looks like. (One major complication is when the av and the person don’t have the same gender: for one reason or another, this riles a good many people, some of whom call it “pretending” or even “deception” whether or not it’s intended as such. Also, a few individuals have no stable appearance — from one day to the next, they use a completely different av, often not even humanoid; it’s a form of play. But I have to leave those complexities aside for now.) But that context includes the element of pretense or “as if” thinking, which would seem to blur the difference between a virtual world and a fictional world.
It is tempting to say that “virtual” is an ontological term, “fictional” an epistemological one. It might also be correct, but it’ll take a fair bit of analysis to decide. It would make sense of the fact that in a virtual world like SL, one soon treats the environment as though it were real; or rather, one realizes it is real, but as a digital realm, not a physical one. Correspondingly, some people object to contrasting Second Life with “Real Life,” as SL is real; they contrast the virtual world not with the “real world,” but rather with the “physical world,” “atomic world,” or terms of that sort. Online RP’s fictions thus supervene upon virtual entities, not fictional ones: avatars in RP don’t sit on fictional chairs, they sit on virtual ones. This is the same as in physical-world theater: when actors play a character, their character is fictional but they sit on real chairs, not fictional ones (unless they’re pretending that there’s a chair, which is a different matter). In contrast, a character in a novel sits on a fictional chair. Following this reasoning, the stage character supervenes upon the actor: this is connected to the way everything on stage becomes semioticized as signs of signs. That’s even clearer in the virtual world, since virtuality is fundamentally semiotic: in Peirce’s sense, it consists of iconic signs. It’s easy to slip into the positivist idea that signs aren’t “real,” but under critical realism, they certainly are. Understanding virtuality as an ontological category would make some sense of the fact that in child play, a mud pie can for all intents and purposes (except for eating) be a real pie. One doesn’t cut a sign of a pie, one cuts a pie.
I’ve argued that dramatic characters are virtual agents; now I have to reconsider that idea. “Fictional agents” might be better. But maybe not: it depends at least in part on how one understands the actor’s body. Again, a chair in the performance is an actual chair (not a fictional one), except that it has been semioticized as the sign of a sign, which perhaps means it has been virtualized. Is the only part of a play performance that’s truly fictional the characters and their activities — i.e., the scriptive level of performance? That seems correct. However, that still doesn’t provide an answer to the virtual agent vs fictional agent problem.
Or, perhaps that distinction between the virtual and the fictional is incorrect.