How we see the world tends to influence how we behave in it. In this post, I propose a new model for understanding how we present ourselves and experience each other in virtual worlds. To do so, I discuss the earlier models others have put forth, argue why they are lacking, and finish by illustrating a new model that I believe overcomes the problems in the earlier models.
Why? Because I believe that many of us ask ourselves the questions: “Why do people see the virtual world in such different ways? Why do some see it a game, while others see it as an extension of themselves? How can we explain how people think and do what they do, especially when it might be so different from how they think and behave when not online?”
Some argue that the failure to answer these questions makes visiting the virtual world infinitely interesting. Others suggest that the failure to answer these questions lead to frustration, antagonism, and disappointment.
You might have heard about the traditional dichotomous view on how we see the virtual world on a continuum between immersiveness and augmentativeness. Have you ever wondered where this idea arose?
In 2006, Henrik Linden first proposes the Augmentation vs Immersion dichotomy
As far as I can tell, Henrik Bennetsen (aka Henrik Linden) first introduced the terms in relationship with virtual worlds in 2006. Most commentators today now consider this model as the de facto states of being in which we exist in a virtual world. Generally, Bennetsen identified two philosophies, or two perspectives that govern the way we view, and thus interact, with the virtual world. I have illustrated these perspectives in this chart:
In Bennetsen’s short essay on the subject (which, as a historical document that shaped how many of us see the virtual world today is well worth reading, albeit only accessible through the Internet Wayback Machine), he describes the two perspectives. The first is “the immersion view… that SL is it’s own thing and should not be contaminated by anything from the outside”.
Digital anthropologist Tom Boellstorff explains the augmentationalist view (in his book Coming of Age in Second Life); that “presumed that virtual worlds could be one among many ‘platforms’ for computer-enchanced sociality and work… in this view, virtual worlds could augment actual world capabilities, social networks, and concepts” (Boellstorff).
Neither Bennetsen nor Boellstorff, in their respective written works, attempt to make their characterisations definite, nor do they make claims that this model is more authoritative than the mere musings that bounced around between two colleagues over lunch (which is precisely how the idea was first hatched between Bennetsen and Cube Linden).
It’s fair to say that Bennetsen’s and Cube Linden’s initial musings have acted as a useful way of categorising the different perspectives that people view themselves and each other in Second Life, and by extension virtual worlds.
In 2012, Pamala Clift swaps the terms and introduces a third perspective
In her book entitled “Virgin’s Handbook on Virtual Relationships”, Pamala Clift offered an alternative model on how we view ourselves, and called them the three States of Being in social networks and virtual worlds like Second Life. She claims we can exist in one (or more) of three entirely valid states, presented as an equilateral triangle with each perspective balanced on a side of the triangle.
In it, she borrows the more conventionally used terms (immersive and augmentative), and inserts them into a new model, while adding a third state: Diassociative. Interpreting these perspectives (which I prefer to the word “state”) as overlapping and hierarchical, I would refine the model and present it as a hierarchical Venn Diagram:
People with the disassociative perspective tend to see virtual worlds as a game and perceive themselves as a digital representation of their real selves as a player-controlled puppet. As someone with a disassociative perspective, I might come into a virtual world like Second Life and pretend anything I want – from a dragon to a furry rabbit.
If I want, I can abuse others without contrition, because the virtual world isn’t real, it’s only a game with no ‘truth’ in it. When I turn off my computer, my interactions end in the same way I might stop playing a video game. When I get bored, I might deliberately grief other avatars for a laugh, or drop my current role and adopt a new one overnight. I might not improve upon my canned avatar at all – looking and acting like a newbie for years. Or, I might wear a fantasy avatar for a laugh or for shock effect.
Disassociatives might not intend to inflict any harm. To varying degrees, they might not consider anything in a virtual world real enough to be subject to genuine distress, or they might lack the empathetic maturity to fully appreciate the effects of their behaviour until it is too late. Can time spent being a disassociative be immersive? Yes. Does it need to? No. Can my experience bring me a benefit? Yes – sometimes fleeting and superficial, and at other times lasting and profound.
Clift makes two further distinctions about disassociatives:
- Disassociatives intent on tactical disruption might be considered Explicit Disassociatives – they are explicit with their intentions to disrupt the norms, customs and etiquette rules and you can often see them coming a mile away.
- Implicit Disassocatives, on the other hand, are more strategic in their approach. To the undiscerning eye, they might even be confused with immersives and augmentatives – playing a role with such comprehensiveness and consistency that leaves everyone around them convinced with they are who they say they are.
Clift suggests that people with this perspective are in a “stage of being that allows you to get deeply involved and fall into the environment.” As an immersive, I might see no distinction between my avatar and me – I perceive myself as one. My rule of thumb might be that if I don’t behave a certain way in the real world, then I should not behave like that in the virtual world. If I’m threatened in my virtual life I feel threatened. As an immersive, my truth is the same in both worlds. I might feel and internalise what others tell me, allowing my emotions to be engaged as if everything happening was happening to me. For me, my virtual interactions are learning experiences that become a part of my frame of reference for my real world interactions. My primary purpose is to meet and engage with others, and I seek norms and rules that define those interactions so that I might help create and enforce them. As a true immersionist, I would also believe that everyone else (should) see things as I do.
People with this perspective see virtual worlds as adding to their real life. They perceive their time spent in virtual worlds as a means to an end. This ‘end’ might address any of level of needs: physiological (sex), safety (a sense of home away from home), love & belonging, esteem or self-actualisation. As an augmentative, I might come online to teach, perform, make art, make money, raise funds for charity, or find a mate. Clift further segments Augmentatives between Early and Grown.
- As an Early Augmentative, I might come into a virtual world without regard for the validity of it beyond the tool I choose to wield. I might find it hard to understand that anyone might consider this as real. I can take it or leave it, and carefully manage my emotions and tend not to over-attach myself to the greater community. I might find myself surprised when I notice I start having real feelings for the people I meet. If I don’t only log on for my purpose and log off when finished, I might even find myself becoming immersed. If I stick with the medium after its utility has ceased being my main reason to use it, I might transition into a Grown Augmentative.
- As a Grown Augmentative, I am able to choose consciously – as opposed to compulsively – to enter into any state I want, when I want. I might do this by examining a situation to decide what is valuable for me. What do I enjoy from it? How can I survive the discomfort of social engagements whilst living an interdependent existence with my friends and colleagues inworld? I have likely been inworld for over two years. I probably run a group or manage a region. I have taken extra steps to master an inworld craft, and have an interest in the company that runs the medium. I might be more guarded about my personal information, having had lapses haunt me in the past. I might go as far as to fill in my partner field with an alt or ‘safe friend’ that helps me avoid the entanglements involved when others see me as a target for sexual or emotional conquest. If I’m here for self-exploration, I may do so through alts. Clift asserts that it “is the Grown Augmentatives that are the elite of a social environment. Others look to them for wisdom, and their word becomes second only to the Gods of creation.”
Clift asserts that these perspectives are valid ways of viewing one’s participation in social networks, including virtual worlds. It is our failure to recognise and accept these perspectives as valid that leads social challenges between us.
I would agree with her in the main, and add that we often choose to relate more with people who share our perspective, leading to a confirmation that it is the ‘right’ way to behave, and everyone else is clearly ‘wrong’. Further, there are advantages and disadvantages of each perspective.
I further suggest that people tend to first enter virtual worlds as either disassociatives (in far greater numbers) or augmentatives (in relatively fewer numbers). More people first enter virtual worlds to have fun than to work or for a specific purpose in mind. It is rare to enter a virtual world or social network with the intention to become immersed – immersive perspectives develop over time from the other two perspectives. Immersives are grown, not born.
The inherent flaws with the early models
Both of these models have value in their attempt to help us answer what is effectively an unanswerable question: “Why do people behave the way they do in virtual worlds?”
What I’ve concluded, is that at their very essence, both the original dichotomy suggested by Henrik Bennetsen, its later interpretations by the Second Life community, and Pamala Clift’s suggested tripartite model – inverting the terms whilst adding a third – while all have value, also share inherent flaws.
In 2011, Second Life blogger Khoisian Fisher (and university lecturer in computer science in the UK), in his excellent blog post entitled: Augmentationism, Immersionism, and other theological dilemmas, illustrates several “problems, paradoxes and asymmetries” with Bennetsen’s dichotomy, including pointing out the indisputable facts that
- virtual worlds are contained within real life (and all its distractions and influences),
- digital life is “opt-in” unlike biological life,
- avatars have no legal rights or responsibilities, and
- avatars stop existing when their drivers log them off.
Beyond these inescapable problems, the flaws with these models are also due to two other factors:
1. The definitions are not reliable
These perspectives are not appropriately named, which I believe leads to confusion about what the perspectives may mean, and much interference in understanding how we view the world.
Few can agree on what “Augmentation” means. Some say that it relates to people using Second Life as one of the many tools they might use in their social media toolkit, to communicate, network, work, or whatever. Others say augmentation means “being yourself” in virtual worlds, and therefore not having privacy concerns by revealing one’s RL image, voice, or other aspects of one’s RL. Still others look at the classical definition of the verb ‘to augment’ and define it as “the extent to which a person uses virtual worlds to get a benefit that they might value in the real world.” These definitions are indefinite to the extent the renders the term meaningless.
Immersionism is also defined differently by different people. Some say it relates to an experience (“I am immersed in SL like I might be immersed in a pool of water”) while others define it as separation (“the virtual world and the real world are separate, so I am therefore two separate beings as I exist in one or the other”). How can these multiple definitions co-exist?
2. The terms are orthogonal
Augmentation and Immersion simply won’t comfortably sit on the same axis without influencing us to change either word to the false opposite of the other word – to understand what we’re communicating when using the terms. Thus, we’re left with ambiguous definitions that are subject to debate, leaving us no closer to using these terms in a valid or reliable way.
As Ron T Blechner says these are “orthogonal concepts – there are augmentationists who validate that immersionism is a valid use, and immersionists that acknowledge that they’re still real people showing parts of themselves in a virtual world.”
Two examples that prove how these terms are both not definitive and orthogonal
The immutability of the sponge
A state of immersiveness stems from the verb “to immerse” something into something else – like immersing a sponge into a sink full of water. As I immerse the sponge into my water-filled sink, does my sponge change? Yes, my sponge absorbs water, and by doing so becomes heavier. If I remove it from the sink, is it still changed? Yes, the sponge contains water, and is wet. The longer I immerse my sponge, the more likely it will become saturated with water. Whether the sponge remains in the sink, or whether I remove the sponge from the sink, is it still a sponge? Of course, the sponge remains a sponge regardless of where it is – immersed in water or not.
In the context of the virtual world, immersiveness means immersing myself (or yourself), like one immerses a sponge, into the virtual world. For example, if I immerse myself in an immersive environment (like a game or virtual world) that feels highly immersive (in the sense that I am experiencing a three-dimensional image which appears to surround me), then I can say I’m in the state of being immersed. Do I change as a result? No, like the sponge in the example, I stay myself, regardless of where I am – immersed in the virtual world or not. Indeed, my ideas might change, my experiences might facilitate change in me, but I am in essence – like the immutable sponge – still me.
The key word here is that I am immersing “myself” – I am not immersing someone else, or a construct I’ve created like a disassociated avatar. With that being said, if I have an immersive perspective, my avatar represents “me”. If I choose to stay in this state, by compulsion or choice, I can say I am in an immersive state, because “I” am in the state of being immersed.
With that said, immersiveness means that I am being “myself” in the virtual world. The best outward example of this might be that I seem and act in the virtual world, as I do in the real world – bringing most or all of my real world characteristics to the experience – whether that is a daughter, sister, girlfriend, woman, marketer, blogger, British resident, Canadian citizen, etc… to the virtual world, I bring all my stuff, because I see myself as (most of) me.
Yet, my explanation is precisely the opposite of what most traditional immersionists consider their worldview to represent. According to Morgaine Dinova, the traditional immersionist believes in the “separation of worlds, because interference between worlds leads to the loss of what makes them distinct.” (Source).
This separation goes well beyond identity, but infuses the experience. Most traditional immersionists (if we’re using Bennetsen’s original definition), whether they show their real identities or not, believe in the compartmentalised view that the virtual world is separate from the real world. In other words: “when I’m in the virtual world, I am someone else, apart from who I am in the physical world”.
But, could one possibly argue that someone who spends their virtual time as themselves might not be equally immersed? It’s impossible. So what are they? Immersive or Augmentative? Immersive Separatists? As Tateru Nino said in the same thread Morgaine began above “in order to be an augmentationist, you must have immersion.” It’s all very confusing!
The augmentativeness of the immersed golfer
Augmentativeness stems from the verb “to augment”, which suggests that a person is using the virtual world as a tool to achieve a means to an end – or even more literally: to make something greater by adding to something else.
To better understand augmentativeness, let’s consider an example of the immersed golfer – using a club to hit a golf ball. First, she needs to start by placing her front foot slightly ahead of the ball. Then she needs to get close enough to the ball so that the middle of the club reaches the ball with her arms out straight, but relaxed. She needs to check her alignment that her feet and shoulders are pointed in, bending her knees slightly. She needs to hold her club with a relaxed grip, choosing the one that feels most comfortable. When she has addressed the ball, she can then start her backswing. Reaching the apex of her swing, she can follow through with your downswing. Her club shaft should be leaning forward toward the target at the moment of impact, and she must follow through after impact, keeping her eyes on the ball.
If you’ve ever tried to swing a golf club as I’ve described above, then you know how immersed in the experience you must become to get everything right. Even so, it takes thousands of swings to get a swing you can moderately rely on to get you what you want – a straight ball with some lift and distance. And this, is only one of the many skills one needs to develop, if one has even the slimmest of chances of not completely embarrassing oneself on the course.
Whilst not a perfect analogy, this is how I see augmentativeness. Like the immersed golfer, you use your skills, knowledge and tools in the virtual world to get a desired result. This result affects you in both the real or the virtual world, because you experience your results in one body, one mind – you are one person controlling your avatar. Like the golfer driving a ball down the course, you stop being tasked once you have completed your drive. You can then use other sets of skills, knowledge and tools to achieve another result if you are playing a match, or simply drive all day if you’re on the range. When you wish, you can leave the range, or the course.
As an augmentative, I am seeking to add to my life, by spending time in the virtual world. I may be using it to make money, as material for writing, socialise, perform, sing my songs, study, be creative, etc. For me to do this, I might immerse myself in the virtual world for the task I need to carry out, but I needn’t live there.
I may just enter it and leave it for only as long as I can “get the job done”. With that said, just as I might not see my avatar as myself, but rather another tool to interact with other avatars or the greater world to get things done. In this sense, I am typically bringing only some of my personal characteristics to the experience – artist, singer, musician, friend, writer, businessperson, designer, etc., and more likely, the one or two roles that specifically relates to how I want to use the virtual world. The best analogy might be how we behave at work with our colleagues, as opposed to how we might behave at home with our friends – we are different, but another side of the same person.
A new model for how we see ourselves and each other in virtual worlds
Are these traditional neologisms the best way to describe how we experience virtual worlds? I believe that after nearly a decade of throwing these terms around to describe something as important as how we see a world (what some might argue as the most important aspect that influences how we experience our virtual lives) we can do better.
I intend to do just that. To close this essay, I’m going to suggest we give up on these definitions and cast them in the bin called ‘historical terminology’. If the last decade of trying to understand how we experience the virtual world has proven anything, it’s that by using these terms we’ve tried to (unsuccessfully) force square pegs into round holes.
Instead, I propose a new model that I hope will be more reliably used and interpreted, so that we can get past arguing about terms mean, and start using a model to better understand how we relate to the virtual world.
First we’d need to acknowledge that a virtual world is a simulation of the physical world, and the people in it are physical and behavioural representations of themselves. As with any copy, one can ascertain a copy’s authenticity. Like any representation (e.g. photograph, audio recording, video recording, digital simulation, etc…) of an original subject, one can measure (on a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors) how accurate the reproduction is to the original on which the reproduction is based. One can refer to this quality as “authenticity”. The problem with this term however, is that people attach value judgements to the word, for that reason, I propose using a more neutral term (and one that we’re hearing a lot more about lately): “fidelity“.
Fidelity is the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.
Thus, representations of real world things: avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws, can either have low or high fidelity, when one compares them to their physical originals.
If we consider fidelity on the continuum which I first introduced when discussing a new model of categorising virtual places in Second Life, it follows that reproductions in a virtual world sit somewhere along this continuum,
This relates closely to the Real/Fake Matrix (inspired by the work of Pine & Gilmore’s Experience Economy in 1998) which I’ve adapted to explain how we might experience ourselves and other people in virtual worlds:
Some find the Real-Fake Matrix a bit of a mind bender, so instead of using more space to describe it, I suggest you check the article where I introduced it if how this model applies to places interests you.
We can say that avatars that look and/or act similar to the originals they represent (us) have high fidelity. The more valid data they share about themselves, the higher their fidelity will be. The more data they misrepresent, the lower their fidelity will be.
Hence, we can say avatars that look and/or act dissimilar to the originals they represent, have low fidelity. For example, a person that engages in the virtual world as a human avatar (that resembles themselves), and acts as a griefer (but is an upstanding and responsible citizen in the real world) can be said to have high appearance fidelity, and low behavioural fidelity. Conversely, a person who represents themselves as a dragon in the virtual world, but otherwise behaves just as they would in the real world, might be considered to have low appearance fidelity, and high behaviour fidelity.
It may be very difficult (if not impossible) to learn an avatar’s fidelity without seeing and knowing their drivers in real life, but we can certainly be conscious of our own.
Also, one could argue that avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws can’t possibly meet perfect fidelity or infidelity, as there is always some validity in every representation, just like there is always some degree of artificiality.
As noted, everything we interact with in the virtual world might also be evaluated in this way.
Behavioural Fidelity: We might consider logging off while sitting next to someone as a low behavioural fidelity, while we might consider standing up and walking out the door of a building as high behavioural fidelity.
Object Fidelity: We might consider a floating oversized castle as having low object fidelity, where we might consider a traditional Dutch home constructed to scale as having high object fidelity.
Place Fidelity: We might consider a region that does a good job of recreating northern italian town’s ambience to have high place fidelity, while we consider a region that is a poor imitation of the jazz club as having low place fidelity.
Social Norm Fidelity: Walking into a stranger’s home when they are not present might be an example of low social norm fidelity (unless that is the norm to which you are accustomed to in your culture), where saying please and thank you before and after a request might be considered high social norm fidelity (again, if that is a norm in your culture).
Physical Law Fidelity: We may consider flying and teleporting to have low fidelity to physical laws, because these things are impossible outside the virtual world. On the other hand, we might consider voicing and texting with others as having high physical law fidelity, because it’s similar to how we communicate with each other offline.
Granted, with the exception of immutable physical laws, all the above must be based on personal perception and conception (which is all we really have so to further define these points gets us into the world of esoteric debate – which I really enjoy, but is not useful for the general reader).
Another sub-factor here, is congruence, which is a measure of the agreement or harmony between things. Congruence can greatly affect fidelity, which is why someone wearing mesh hands that are a slightly different colour to one’s arms looks “fake”.
Similarly, a sim set in France that has english floating text above objects instructing visitors how to use them is also incongruent. Further, a tropical island that has a waterfall over a hill in the middle of it with no river feeding that waterfall is similarly incongruent – all of which lead to a lower fidelity experience.
This model is extensible too, because we can apply various orthogonal variables that might fit comfortably across the continuum of fidelity. For example, if we wanted to consider the traditional notion of augmentation, we might instead use the discrete word “utility”, like so:
In this way, low utility of a virtual world (i.e. “I don’t get much value from my experiences in it”) and high utility (i.e. “I get a lot of value from my experiences in the virtual world”) is independent from fidelity – because the two are not necessarily associated.
Beyond oneself, this model can also be applied to other avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws. Other independent, but possibly correlated variables, such as how immersed one might feel in a virtual world experience, can be represented by the following chart:
As shown in the above chart, immersion relates to one’s existential involvement in the virtual world, when measured by one’s qualitative perception of immersion. Low immersion in the virtual world (e.g. “I see my experiences in the virtual world as separate from my experiences in the real world”) and high immersion (e.g. “I see my experiences in the virtual world as inseparable from my experiences in the real world”) is independent from fidelity, again as it should be, because the two variables are not necessarily related. This model might also be applied to our perception of other avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws.
Using surveys to find our degree of agreement to the sample statements above on likert scales, one might even be able to structure an assessment tool, to help someone find their degree of fidelity, utility, and immersion (and more) in a virtual world. Such an assessment tool might be useful in helping us type ourselves, and therefore better understand why we see the world the way we do, and why others might see it differently, depending on their perspective.
Watch this space for a tool I intend to design that does just that. Before I do this however, what do you think of this model? How does it compare to the earlier models proposed? Can you imagine this model being useful in helping us understand each other better, or is it adding more confusion to the mix? As always, I’m open and keen to read your views in the comments below.