[First presentation at the Platforms International Art Festival, May 2020]
In the time of social distancing, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Wide Web became the central neural system of the planet: Information, distance learning, shopping, entertainment and socializing, all occurred through the internet.
Long before the advent of the Coronavirus disease, many professional and recreational activities were already possible via the web. But, socializing was still an activity for real life. This changed with social distancing. Of course, it was not a perfect substitute for real-life socializing, but these days it is about as close as you can get, having in mind that socializing is of great importance for mental health. In a survey published in the journal Current Biology, a team of neuroscientists and philosophers argue that separating ourselves from one another “contradicts the urge to come together during difficult times” as “hazardous conditions make us more — not less — social”.
In the time of quarantine, hundreds of millions of people were turning to internet chat applications and social networks. Moreover, video chat became an important part of medical practice. Microsoft says that 40 million people were using Skype daily, up 70% from before the quarantine.
A recent post by cnet.com states that “more than 700 million accounts participate in voice and video calls every day on Facebook Messenger and on the Facebook-owned WhatsApp. The number of calls has more than doubled in many areas since the coronavirus outbreak began.”
On the other hand, although video conferencing is useful when physical presence is impossible, it cannot provide the sense of being there and being together. Virtual reality can provide it, through virtual worlds, even without a virtual reality headset.
Αccording to Le Monde, the French found a space of freedom during quarantine playing online video games and spending time in virtual worlds. Second Life, a 17-year-old platform that has had a surprising renaissance because of social distancing, has registered in France, from March 8 to 15, a 133% increase in number of registrations. The same phenomenon is observed on VRchat, a social network in virtual reality, where “the evenings at the Saturday night bar have been replaced by events organized by the community”
At an international scale, according to Hypergrid business.com, Second Life had during the quarantine a 60% increase in new registrations and a 10% return for old users. The new “citizens,” as its visitors are called, may be interested in both business and pleasure.
Beyond the tremendous augmentation of number of users, Second Life received also, since the beginning of the social distancing, urgent inquiries to host businesses and distance learning events.
Are Virtual Worlds Just Games?
Sara de Freitas notes in her 2008 paper “Serious Virtual Worlds” that the lines between virtual worlds, games, and social networking are blurring. Indeed, for Mass Media, most online communities are usually classified as “social networks”. Nevertheless Chat applications, Virtual Worlds, and Massively Multiplayer Online Games are not the same thing. Although it is common to confIuse the terms for something as new as internet communities, whatever is online and includes interactions and avatars is not just a game. For instance, a virtual world may contain role-playing games, but it is much more than a game. A visitor can have several activities, depending on the type of online community they choose: Goal-oriented or Non Goal-Oriented one (C. Girvan).
1. In a goal-oriented online community, one can be entertained with Role Playing Games, or choose Distance Education to watch and interact in seminars, lessons, and simulator training. Sometimes, gaming is an educΕΙational method in distance learning, but this does not degrade Distance Education to simple fun. The researcher Dr. Helen Sara Farley comments “Recent work in the area has shown how the whole of the brain is active when learners are playing games as opposed to limited brain activity when learners are learning in formal didactic ways”.
2. In a non-goal-oriented online community, some possible activities may be the following:
- Socialization (Meeting people, chatting, shopping, exploring, performing sports, having romantic affairs)
- Creativity (Providing content, creating Machinima, performing Live Music, performance using lights, or exhibiting Digital Art and Design.
- Business (Meetings, Advertising, Merchandise)
- Spirituality (Guided meditation, Religious rituals)
What Is a Virtual World?
Speaking about non-goal-oriented online communities, let’s try to clarify what a virtual world is.
The interdisciplinary researcher Dr. Carina Girvan proposes the following classification and definition for virtual worlds:
- She classifies the Virtual Worlds as Text-based or Graphical based. Graphical worlds, can be Goal-Oriented (games, distance education) or non Goal-Oriented ones. The non Goal Oriented worlds may have User Generated Content or non User Generated Content.
- Girvan defines Virtual World as “A persistent, simulated and immersive environment, facilitated by networked computers, providing multiple users with avatars and communication tools with which to act and interact in-world and in real-time.”
To clarify further the definition, she analyses the terminology used. For instance, a “persistent environment” remains whether users are logged in or not, retains the location of people and objects as well as information about object ownership. The Persistence of Virtual Worlds is a defining characteristic with which to distinguish between video games and virtual worlds. As for the term “simulated,” she states that in many articles is used as a descriptor of virtual worlds, referring to the computer simulation of the virtual world. A simulated environment can be designed to be similar to the physical world or to simulate a fantasy environment. The term “facilitated by networked computers” was a defining characteristic of virtual worlds identified by Bell, as Dr. Girvan reminds us, noting that it is through “facilitated by networked computers” that Multiple Users are able to perform actions and interact in the simulated environment. Each user is represented in the virtual world by an “Avatar”, controlled by the user, to interact with other avatars and objects in the virtual world. As for “Immersion”, she notes that if users are able to move beyond initial barriers such as learning controls or engrossment, they are able to have some sense of immersion and then experience engrossment and possibly total immersion.
The classification proposed by Dr. Girvan limits ambiguities due to the many different terms and descriptions that exist for virtual worlds. For instance “immersive virtual world” implies that there are also virtual non-immersive worlds. “However by definition all virtual worlds are immersive” she points out.
Therefore, the culture of quarantine that is manifested, among other things, by a rapid increase in traffic to virtual worlds, has the characteristic of immersion in virtual reality. This is the fundamental difference between video chat and virtual worlds. In the latter, users can feel present in the virtual environment.
How “Real” Are Virtual Worlds for the User?
The question here is, to what extent are users immersed in virtual worlds. In other words, how “real” is for the user a virtual world?
Often, the term “virtual reality” is synonymous with the use of a virtual reality headset. But, as immersion can be experienced in all virtual worlds, we need to differentiate the Device Assisted Immersion (using Head Mounted Device and/or touch sensors) from the Cognitive Immersion with Telepresence.
Let’s approach Cognitive Immersion via Telepresence, through Philosophy.
People have emotional responses to characters, objects, events, which they know to be fictitious. This phenomenon called “The paradox of emotional response to fiction” has been studied in literature, theater, and cinema, as a philosophical dilemma because of people’s strong emotional responses to fictional events.
Should be noted that there is one big difference between immersion in literature and immersion via devices: agency. A reader can be immersed in a story, but cannot act in it or change it. An immersant in VR can act within the virtual world, and change it. The ideal situation would be to accomplish both – imaginative immersion and technological immersion at once-.
However, in virtual worlds, as in literature, theater, and cinema, there is always a narration: For non User Generated Content virtual worlds, the narration is determined by a predefined “script”. For User Generated Content virtual worlds, users improvise narrations.
Therefore, we have, in both categories, a form of Time-Based, Digital Narrative Art that belongs in mass culture, so it is a Digital, Pop, Narrative art. The Paradox of Fiction here is related to the user’s immersion degree, in their Cognitive Immersion with Telepresence.
Let’s go deeper to understand what is the degree of users’ immersion, when they login to a virtual world without a Head Mounted Device, namely via Cognitive Immersion with Telepresence.
The film critic and scholar Steven Schneider, explains the basic paradox of fiction in philosophy, citing the three possible premises:
1. People have emotional responses to characters, objects, events etc. which they know to be fictitious.
2. In order for us to be emotionally moved, we must believe that these characters, objects, or events, truly exist.
3. No person who takes characters or events to be fictional at the same time believes that they are real.
“Taken individually, they seem to be true, but they cannot all be true at the same time” he writes for the Paradox of Fiction. The three basic groups of solutions to the paradoxes that emerge, depending on the pairs of sentences chosen as true, are: Pretend Theory, Thought Theory and Illusion Theory.
Let’s choose here Illusion Theory to proceed with, because it is best suited to the conditions of chosen immersion in virtual worlds and agrees with the idea of “Willing Suspension of Disbelief,” articulated by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge . Users choose to believe in a fiction while immersed in virtual worlds, although know that their avatar is only a digital graphic application that obeys their telecommand in the context of the pre-existing interaction applications. The user of a virtual world, suspends his or her disbelief, in order to enjoy the fiction. The user also knows that what is happening in the virtual world is a show of improvisation that is co-directed by the participants, using their avatars as “actors”. However, for the sake of the pleasure that this digital “acting” offers them, they suspend their disbelief to the physical reality and let themselves be immersed in the virtual reality. It is an aesthetic experience, where the visitor, the creator, and the artwork are one, in a shared digital environment.
The question that arises here is to what extent visitors of virtual worlds can immerse themselves in virtual reality, without deceiving their senses with any portable device.
To cite in brief some scientific researches on the subject from the field of Brain Science, Dr Jolanda Tromp, a researcher in the forefront of virtual environment technologies, virtual reality and human-computer interaction states:
People can become immersed in a movie, or a book. This immersion depends on the person’s own attitudes, and not in the first place on the technology. Actually a person can become immersed in any kind of medium, by some kind of interaction with this medium. Immersion is the cognitive state of being mentally absorbed into something. In a virtual environment a user interacts with it through some kind of embodiment. The state of cognitive immersion is an attitude based on a temporary willingness to accept the illusion offered by some medium as real. It is a suspension of disbelief. The user, immersed in some kind of Virtual Environment, temporarily feels that the Virtual Environment is real.
Moreover, in a recent article on psychologytoday.com, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences Susan Krauss Whitbourne presents and analyses a new study by the social-cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Haemy Lee Masson, and colleagues. The research suggests how the human brain responds to virtual hugs and handshakes and the question is “What happens when social cognition occurs through virtual channels?”
The findings of the research showed that “during the observation of other people’s touch actions, extensive changes occur in the functional structure of the brain, depending on whether the recipient is a person or an object”
“To sum up”, concludes Dr. Whitbourne, “returning to the question of whether virtual hugs can indeed give you comfort, the findings suggest that, as the new rules of social interaction become part of your reality, your brain may react in ways that can actually provide you with at least some consolation.”