A Dramatic Perspective

A Dramatic Perspective on the Virtual World Second Life:
Or How to Resolve the Immersion vs. Augmentation Debate

I recently finished my MA thesis New Media on the subject Second Life and avatar behavior and expectations. I started off with the Immersion vs Augmentation debate as sparked on the Slwiki in  2006.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the expectations and behavior attributed to avatars in Second Life, the virtual world whose nature has been the subject of spirited discussion since its inception in 2003.

In 2006, a discussion was sparked that revolved around the immersion vs. augmentation debate that is taking place in Second Life and on related blogs. Immersionists, the game’s early users, see Second Life as a separate world, whereas augmentists perceive it as an extension of real life. In this paper, I analyze two related models of categorization and investigate how the terms of the debate can be interpreted in relation to the different levels of Second Life. I do this by applying perspectives borrowed from artistic, cultural, and social schools of thought. In this manner, I provide a deeper insight into the nature of Second Life and the motivation of its users, and show the relation between the virtual and the real world. In addition, I demonstrate why the debate continues to elicit such a heated exchange of views as well as why it is not a satisfactory method to define Second Life. Finally, I conclude by contributing an additional working model based on the relation between the driver and the avatar, and offer a proposal for further research.

While doing research for this paper, I accidentally came across the immersion vs. augmentation debate on a Second Life-related blog. What struck me at first was the intense way in which people responded to postings related to the subject. It was evident that something significant was happening: Many Second Life users became involved in the discourse because they obviously felt they were part of the topic under discussion. At the same time, users often disagreed in an emotional manner that at times made the debate feel more like a quarrel. It was clearly hitting a nerve. Moreover, the debate was not resulting in a clear consensus, since its participants were unable to agree even on the terms ‘immersionist’ and ‘augmentist’.

I consider the debate an interesting tool to research Second Life because its participants are at the same time the subject of the dispute. As a result, one gains simultaneously a useful insight into the nature of the game, the debate, and its users.

To understand the nature of this discussion and to find a better way to define Second Life, I took the following steps:

1) After providing a short environmental outline of the virtual world Second Life, and introducing the immersion vs. augmentation debate, I gave an overview of how the terms are perceived by the different participants. In a  brief anthology of reactions, I sketched the debate itself and the atmosphere surrounding it. I discovered that the first problem in the discussion was to be found in the various interpretations of the use of the term “immersion”. To first gain a deeper understanding of the actual nature of Second Life and of the theoretical surroundings of the debate, I analyzed two related models of categorization as constructed by Richard Bartle and Henrik Bennetson. I found out that the approach of these models – where the first was the direct inspiration for the debate and the latter its successor – was not at all suitable to explain Second Life entirely. Important characteristics seemed to have been overlooked and other features were being paid too much attention. Before exploring this further, however, I first researched the theoretical background and evolution of the terms as they are used within the field of new media.

2) To obtain a clear and objective overview of the debate and its terms, I traced its roots in media literature of the last century, looking at writers like Andre Bazin, David Bolter, Richard Grusin, and Lev Manovich. I encountered “immersion” in particular as a key term in relation to the experience of reality, and it showed up in most of the theories, with slightly different interpretations and meanings. Whereas Bazin in the days of painting and the birth of photography wrote about  immersion as being achieved by transparency and erasing the medium, Bolter and Grusin interpreted immersion in the digital era as a constellation of immediacy (in which the gap between the signifier and the signified is closed) and hypermediacy  (the consciousness of the act of seeing). Next, within a game context, Manovich especially values the obvious user interface (UI) to enable the user to be in control of the game in order to enhance involvement and therefore immersion. Here the human agent is not to be effaced, and hypermedial awareness is an important tool for immersion. In most of the theories that surround immersion, key terms in understanding are reality, illusion, user-involvement, presence, and perception.

3) To trace back the meaning of these terms in Second Life and to test the debate and the models here, I examined the subject from various angles by using theories of media researchers such as, among others, Irving Goffman, Ella Tallyn, Gonzalo Frasca, and Brenda Laurel. In so doing, I discovered the shifting relation between the real and the virtual on different subjects and I was able to place the debate within this context. I could see where the debate and the models could be applied, but could also point out most of the debate’s shortcomings. The strange thing was that parts of the models and of the debate did function very well and could be applied to Second Life in a useful way. However, this functionality was always limited; as soon as there was more than one subject, theories began to fail. Slowly I realized the reason for this was that both the models, and therefore also the debate based on them, were starting off on the wrong foot. They appeared to address the single avatar in Second Life, while nobody had researched the actual status of this avatar. The models seemed to assume that every avatar was equal to its driver. However, as was to be found especially in the work of Sherry Turkle, we can see that an avatar more often represents simply a specific aspect of the driver’s personality. This – together with the fact that Second Life offers the cheap and easy possibility to create as many avatars as one wishes – makes it necessary to look more deeply into the relation between driver and avatar. This important correlation has been overlooked and ignored in the existing models and most certainly offers a new angle for research. On the basis of this theory, I provided an additional model that included the newly found central characteristic of Second Life:  the multiple relation between the driver and the avatar.

4) Preliminary research made clear that the qualitative method used by Bartle and Bennetson to construct their models had created a gap in understanding or had even given a misleading perspective.  To progress further in the research on virtual worlds, I think it is necessary to move towards a more quantitative method of investigation. In the concluding section of this paper, I provide a proposal for a questionnaire as the basis for continued research.

A full Pdf of the thesis is here available.