Saturday, October 18, 2008

Social and Psychological Presence

In the last post, I defined a virtual world in terms of the technology used to implement it. I defined it as a shared, modifiable, persistent space made possible through the use of computer and network technology. In this entry, I would like to move away from the technological definition and define a virtual world in terms of the user's subjective experience.

Researchers in virtual reality use the term 'presence' to describe the feeling of being in a situation or environment that you are not really in. So, for example, if you donned a pair of virtual reality goggles and felt that you were in a different place, that would be an example of presence. But the goal of virtual reality is to create a sense of physical presence. The goal of a virtual world is to create a sense of psychological and social presence. So, I would define a virtual world as a place where the inhabitants have a sense of psychological and social presence not supported by physical reality. That is to say that you 'feel' like you are in a world with other people when you are not, in reality, in that world.

One of the key elements, I believe, in this feeling of presence is the use of an avatar who represents you. Through a phenomenon called avatar attachment, the user begins to experience the world through the avatar. If the avatar is insulted or treated badly, the user has an emotional reaction. And that reaction feels as real as if you were insulted or treated badly in real life. If your avatar makes friends with other avatars, you look forward to seeing them just as you would look forward to seeing your friends in real life. That is to say that through attachment to your avatar, you 'feel' as though the world is real even though it is not supported by physical reality.

So referring back to the previous post, a social interaction technology such as Facebook would not be considered a virtual world because the user does not have the experience of psychological or social presence. Second Life seems to be the exemplar virtual world but so does an online video game such as World of Warcraft. And, yet, these two virtual worlds are very different. In the next post, I will take of the differences between these two exemplars.

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