In much of my work researching and creating virtual environments for education there is an underlying attempt to understand what influences immersion and how those aspects might be better employed to create more effective educational experiences. I have talked somewhat on aspects such as enclosed spaces, sound effects, movement, ambient sound and atmospherics and while they carry import in creating a presence of place they are not the be all and end all of immersion. Also integral to the experience is the avatar him/herself and it is an investigation of the factors at play in the development of a presence of self, and how those factors might be applied in educational virtual environments, that is capturing my current interest.
The following is a short video I took of myself on the sim of Taure Ru in Second Life (HD full screen). It contains all the spatial factors mentioned above, including the sim’s ambient music stream, but there was something else in the mix that went beyond these aspects of space; I was so present to being there.
Now this was not a set-up video take. I was in a rather glum mood and as is my want I will often dress to reflect such feelings and go to particular sims to, in some manner, wrap myself in a package sympathetic to the emotions; my way of working through things. The video was an after thought; an attempt to see if I could capture in some way how it was that I was so present to not only the space but to the avatar as self, almost to the point of an out-of-body experience. I do recall mentioning to a friend the other day that sometimes, most particularly when I am scripting, the avatar occurs as just a tool to achieve a purpose. But if I was to make a similar sort of analogy of the moments of capturing the video that day, it would be along the lines of being so present to Isa (my avatar) that Aaron (myself) occurred as his tool.
Unfortunately I am not full of answers as to why this sense of presence can occur so strongly but I will share some thoughts that could be entry points for discussion.
Firstly I dressed for my mood and in that sense I was already visually passing much of Aaron (at that moment) over to Isa. I also engaged with an environment that embraced that visuality, lending strength to the transfer of self. In the vein of Goffman’s (1956) idea of a performance based dramaturgical culture my feelings were on stage so to speak, but not only was I the performer, I was also actively engaged as my own audience, with a stage settings designed to support that performance.
A second aspect is one that I been considering for some time in relation to how one views one’s avatar. In Second Life I frequently dance, but not just in the general “click on the dance ball and accept the invite” sense. Rather I have taken to dance as a creative outlet and have a palette of dance animations numbering in the hundreds. Through the use of a dance HUD, either alone or dancing with others, I endeavour to perfect the synchronising of multiple animations to whatever music stream I happen to be listening to, realising an experience that can at times be somewhat sublime. If what I create as educational builds is my craft, so the dance is my art. Even in casual moments I cannot resist an attempt at a flawless performance, because there is something in this perfect meeting of music and movement that lends itself to being fully there.
The skill in the art is about knowing the beats and moves of each animation in great detail and in particular, knowing the positional sweet spot where one animation might be transitioned flawlessly into the next without it being an obvious dance change. To know the dances so well entails constant observation and for myself, this is best done facing the avatar, rather than the normal third person perspective (3PP) where the camera views from the upper rear, looking over the shoulder. It has always felt to me that this frontal 3PP enhanced in some manner my presence of self.
To lend weight to this suggestion I would direct the reader to Ganesh et al‘s (2012) work on self-identification with virtual agents. Their investigation of the neurocognitive basis of human self-identification with avatars led them to conclude that this representation of self from a third person perspective “may facilitate the appropriation of the observed and controlled avatar body to gamers’ self-identity”. It is my view that the frontal 3PP further enhances this self-identity, this presence of self.
In truth, who of us hasn’t connected to a character in an observed performance, become them in some manner, through them. Goffman (1956, p. 17) talks on the performer’s belief in the part they are playing; how they can be “sincerely convinced that the impression of reality he stages is the real reality” (sic). He continues by considering the audience as convinced in the same manner by the show performed. In the case of frontal 3PP one could well understand how being both the performer and the audience of such a performance can influence one’s presence of self. Ganesh et al (2012, p. 1583) go as far to suggest that given the ubiquitous nature of virtual environments, this “acting through somebody” may even “become an important element of mainstream embodied social behaviour (Ganesh et al, 2012, p. 1583).”
In working through this post I have also given thought to how one might support students’ cultivation of a presence of self in-world and in line with the above, consider that encouragement into viewing one’s avatar is an avenue to explore. I am influenced in this consideration by anecdotal evidence from my years teaching in-world; that students who occur as more fully immersed are those who have started to play with how they look, i.e. they have begun to look at their avatar in the world and not just at the world itself. Rather than just orientate them to the world it is my view that we need to orientate them to themselves.
Forms of role play comes to mind that require attention to detail, blending in to chosen environments, with a “hide and seek” aspect, names and titles hidden; the game to blend in so well you can’t be “found” as not belonging. Anything of a nature that would have the students spend time looking at themselves, i.e. the performers, and themselves in relation to the environment, i.e. the stage on (in) which they are to perform. It is definitely something that I will reflect on further and pursue as a possibility for enhancing the immersive experience.
Food for thought I hope. Comments and critiques, as always, encouraged.
Ganesh, S., van Schie, H., de Lange, P., Thompson, E. and Wigboldus, D. (2012) How the human brain goes virtual: Distinct cortical regions of the person-processing network are involved in self-identification with virtual agents. Cerebral Cortex [online]. 22 (7), pp. 1577-1585. [Accessed 20 July 2014].
Goffman. E. (1956) The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin.