Sunday, December 9, 2007

Virtual Embodiment

- by Magellan Egoyan

The notion of "virtual embodiment" requires a little thought since to many people it sounds like a contradiction in terms. The concept of virtual embodiment derives from our ability to separate "embodiment as performance" from "embodiment as (proprioceptive) sensation". In today's world, our experience of direct bodily sensation (called "proprioception") is mostly the result of our encounter with the physical world and not with virtual environments, although certain technologies currently under development contain the potential of modifying this. On the other hand, our embodied experience of the world also includes the ways in which our actions bring about changes in our understanding of ourselves, our emotional makeup, and our conscious and unconscious behaviours. The performative characteristic of embodied experience is not necessarily associated with our physical body. If we act within virtual spaces, especially in a way that is mediated by a virtual body, then we may have a variety of experiences that are experienced as embodied. Hence we can meaningfully talk about "virtual embodiment" in this way.

What do we know about embodiment in virtual worlds? First of all, our performative definition of embodiment implies that it is how we act that determines our embodied experience. While each of us may act differently as individuals, resulting in a rather different embodied experience for each of us, we can generate a list of the types of actions one can perform in any given virtual world, and hence generate a common portrait of embodiment. Note that our possible actions derive not just from our (virtual) body's capabilities, but also from the actions that are supported by the (virtual) environment.

Let us form a list of possible actions, using Second Life as a case example. We shall separate the list into actions that are shared with embodiment in the real, physical world (that is, between our physical bodies and the physical world) and actions that are unique or distinct in the virtual world (that is, between our virtual body and the virtual world).

Embodied actions common to both physical and virtual worlds :
(1) We can change how we move and our overall body posture ;
(2) We can change clothes and accessories ;
(3) We can communicate by voice with other people or machines;
(4) We can change the social networks with which we are engaged ;
(5) We can construct mobile, changing, communicating objects (albeit not so easily in in the physical world)
(6) We can change our modes of communication and the forms of expression ;
(7) We can go through the motions of eating, sleeping, and sexual activity ;
(8) We can form binding emotional relationships with other people ;
(9) We can access information in a vast variety of forms
(10)We can work and earn a living ;

Embodied actions that are only possible in the virtual world :
(11) We can change our basic body structure and avatar appearance (e.g. from a human to an animal, a robot, a box, etc.) ;
(12) We can change our avatar's gender and hence modify the gender expectations of others ;
(13) We can change and/or multiply our virtual identity (e.g. have several different avatar bodies) ;
(14) We can readily change or modify or construct major parts of the environment ;
(15) We can examine the world from a viewpoint that is semi-independent from our avatar's position ;
(16) We can act and communicate with much less fear for our safety ;

Embodied actions that are only possible in the physical world (as of today) :
(17) When we engage in activities with our bodies, these actions change our physical states (hunger, thirst, sexual appetite, fatigue, muscle tone, body structure, get pregnant and give birth) ;
(18) We can lose body function or have it degrade over time, injure it, and so forth - hence safety is a constant preoccupation ;
(19) We can have physical and physically proximal contact with other persons/bodies ;
(20) We grow and change physically and are subject to bodily rhythms and cycles ;
(21) We have access to the full sensory input of which our bodies are capable ;
(22) We can die, and hence must take care of our physical survival and well-being.

So our next question is, so what? What, if any, effects does virtual embodiment have on our everyday behaviour? Here, then, is another list of the effects or impacts of virtual embodiement :
(1) Can generate a sense of physical and/or social empowerment - this derives from the observation that we can do a variety of things within virtual environments that are difficult for us to do or to explore in real environments ;
(2) We may learn new movements and postures via the engagement of mirror neurons, motor imagery and mental practice ;
(3) We can improve our overall ability to learn using embodied forms of learning ;
(4) We can affect our unconscious attitudes and behaviours ;
(5) We can affect the unconscious attitudes and behaviours of other people ;
(6) We can modify the way we understand and enter into social engagements ;
(7) We can change how we understand and interact with real (physical) environments :
(8) We can modify how we access information in the real world ;
(9) We can change our relationship to our own creativity ;
(10) We can distract from or endanger our own physical survival ;
(11) We can overcome phobias and other emotional barriers to certain forms of behaviour ;
(12) We can explore the nature of the self and our identity in a relatively safe environment ;
(13) We can exacerbate access to and use of inappropriate behaviour (e.g. certain forms of griefing) ;
(14) Virtual embodiment may exacerbate tensions or strengthen power inequalities between social groups in real life ;
(15) Virtual embodiment may promote certain forms of violence.

Many of these points are supported by research results, albeit still rather partial at this point in time. A great deal of work remains to be done to determine not just that we can modify behaviours, but exactly how and under what circumstances such modification may take place. Furthermore, much of this list presents benefits - only a few items clearly present forms of danger. However, it is likely that there are more dangers to virtual embodiment than are presented here. Research needs to be undertaken to determine more precisely what these dangers are.

Finally, we may ask, given the list of effects and impacts, what actions might we take to enhance the positive benefits of virtual embodiment? Here's a short list of possible actions :
(1) Increase the range of movements and animations available or used within the virtual world ;
(2) Increase awareness of the benefits (and dangers) of virtual embodiment ;
(3) Develop virtual learning environment that take more full advantage of virtual embodiment ;
(4) Improve our understanding of virtual embodiment and its benefits and dangers ;
(5) Develop more mixed reality events ensuring a stronger transfer of benefits from virtual experience to everyday life.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Metalogue - Why do Frenchmen? (excerpt from Steps To An Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson)

This text by Gregory Bateson highlights, in a delightfully playful way, the relationships between culture, performativity and meaning, in ways that illuminate our understanding of embodiment.

Daughter : Daddy, why do Frenchmen wave their arms about?
Father : What do you mean?
D: I mean when they talk. Why do they wave their arms and all that?
F: Well -- why do you smile? Or why do you stamp your foot sometimes?
D: But that's not the same thing, Daddy. I don't wave my arms about like a Frenchman does. I don't believe they can stop doing it, Daddy. Can they?
F: I don't know -- they might find it hard to stop ... Can you stop smiling?
D: But Daddy, I don't smile all the time. It's hard to stop when I feel like smiling. But I don't feel like it all the time. And then I stop.
F: That's true -- but then a Frenchman doesn't wave his arms in the same way all the time. Sometimes he waves them in one way and sometimes in another -- and sometimes, I think, he stops waving them.

* * *

F: What do you think? I mean, what does it make you think when a Frenchman waves his arms?
D: I think it looks silly, Daddy. But I don't suppose it looks like that to another Frenchman. They cannot all look silly to each other. Because if they did, they would stop it. Wouldn't they?
F: Perhaps -- but that is not a very simple question. What else do they make you think?
D: Well -- they look all excited...
F: All right -- "silly" and "excited".
D: But are they really as excited as they look? If I were as excited as that, I would want to dance or sing or hit somebody on the nose... but they just go on waving their arms. They can't be really excited.
F: Well, are they really as silly as they look to you? Any anyhow, why do you sometimes want to dance and sing and punch somebody on the nose?
D: Oh. Sometimes I just feel like that.
F: Perhaps a Frenchman just feels "like that" when he waves his arms about.
D: But he couldn't feel like that all the time, Daddy, he just couldn't.
F: You mean -- the Frenchman surely does not feel when he waves his arms exactly as you would feel if you waved yours. And surely you are right.
D: But then, how does he feel?
F: Well -- let us suppose you are talking to a Frenchman and he is waving his arms about, and then in the middle of the conversation, after something that you have said, he suddenly stops waving his arms, and just talks. What would you think then? That he had just stopped feeling silly and excited?
D: No... I'd be frightened. I'd think I had said something that hurt his feelings and perhaps he might be really angry.
F: Yes -- and you might be right.

* * *

D: All right -- so they stop waving their arms when they start being angry.
F: Wait a minute. The question, after all, is what does one Frenchman tell another Frenchman by waving his arms? And we have part of an answer -- he tells him something about how he feels about the other guy. He tells him he is not seriously angry -- that he is willing and able to be what you call "silly".
D: But -- no -- that's not sensible. He cannot do all that work so that later he will be able to tell the other guy that he is angry by just keeping his own arms still. How does he know that he is going to be angry later on?
F: He doesn't know. But just in case...
D: No, Daddy, it doesn't make sense. I don't smile so as to be able to tell you I am angry by not smiling later on.
F: Yes, I think that that is part of the reason for smiling. And there are lots of people who smile in order to tell you they are not angry, when they really are.
D: But that's different, Daddy. That's a sort of telling lies with one's face. Like playing poker.
F: Yes.

* * *

F: Now where are we? You don't think it sensible for Frenchmen to work so hard to tell each other that they are not angry or hurt. But after all, what is most conversation about? I mean, among Americans?
D: But, Daddy, it's about all sorts of things -- baseball and ice cream and gardens and games. And people talk about other people and about themselves and about what they got for Christmas.
F: Yes, yes -- but who listens? I mean -- all right, so they talk about baseball and gardens. But are they exchanging informaiton? And if so, what information?
D: Sure -- when you come in from fishing, and I ask you "did you catch anything?" and you say "nothing," I didn't know that you wouldn't catch anything till you told me.
F: Hmm.

* * *

F: All right -- so you mention my fishing -- a matter about which I am sensitive -- and then there is a gap, a silence in the conversation -- and that silence tells you that I don't like cracks about how many fish I didn't catch. It's just like the Frenchman who stops waving his arms about when he is hurt.
D: I'm sorry, Daddy, but you did say...
F: No -- wait a minute -- let's not get confused by being sorry -- I shall go out fishing again tomorrow and I shall still know I am unlikely to catch a fish ...
D: But, Daddy, you said all conversation is only telling other people that you are not angry with them ...
F: Did I? No -- not all conversation, but much of it. Sometimes if both people are willing to listen carefully, it is possible to do more than exchange greetings and good wishes. Even to do more than exchange information. The two people may even find out something which neither of them knew before.

* * *

F: Anyhow, most conversations are only about whether people are angry or something. They are busy telling each other that they are friendly -- which is sometimes a lie. After all, what happens when they cannot think of anything to say? They all feel uncomfortable.
D: But wouldn't that be information, Daddy? I mean -- information that they are not cross?
F: Surely, yes. But it's a different sort of information from "the cat is on the mat".

* * *

D: Daddy, why cannot people just say "I am not cross at you" and let it go at that?
F: Ah, now you are getting at the real problem. The point is that the messages that we exchange in gestures are really not the same as any translation of those gestures into words.
D: I don't understand.
F: I mean -- that no amount of telling somebody in mere words that one is or is not angry is the same as what one might tell them by gesture or tone of voice.
D: But, Daddy, you cannot have words without some tone of voice, can you? Even if somebody uses as little tone as he can, the other people will hear that he is holding himself back -- and that will be a sort of tone, won't it?
F: Yes -- I suppose so. After all that's what I said just now about gestures -- that the Frenchman can say something special by stopping his gestures.

* * *

F: But then, what do I mean by saying that "mere words" can never convey the same message as gestures -- if there are no "mere words"?
D: Well, the words might be written.
F: No -- that won't let me out of the difficulty. Because written words still have some sort of rhythm and they still have overtones. The point is that no mere words exist. There are only words with either gesture or tone of voice or something of the sort. But of course, gestures without words are common enough.

* * *

D: Daddy, when they teach us French at school, why don't they teach us to wave our hands?
F: I don't know. I'm sure I don't know. That is probably one of the reasons people find learning languages so difficult.

* * *

F: Anyhow, it is all nonsense. I mean, the notion that language is made of words is all nonsense -- and when I said that gestures could not be translated into "mere words", I was talking nonsense, because there is no such thing as "mere words". And all the syntax and grammar and all that stuff is nonsense. It's all based on the idea that "mere" words exist -- and there are none.
D: But, Daddy...
F: I tell you -- we have to start all over again from the beginning, and assume that language is first and foremost a system of gestures. Animals after all have only gestures and tones of voice -- and words were invented later. Much later. And after that, they invented schoolmasters.
D: Daddy?
F: Yes.
D: Would it be a good thing if people gave up words and went back to only using gestures?
F: Hmm. I don't know. Of course, we would not be able to have any conversations like this. We could only bark, or mew, and wave our arms about, and laugh and grunt and weep. But it might be fun -- it would make life a sort of ballet -- with dancers making their own music.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A Moveable Feast?

- by Magellan Egoyan

The Embodied Research Group has decided to explore the format and structure of an alternative kind of meeting that would take full advantage of the advantages offered by the Second Life environment over real world environments. We believe that classroom-based learning (and lecture hall type conferencing) in Second Life has very limited utility. The only major advantage it confers over real world environments is that one can involve people from diverse places. Otherwise, it mimics a context which is already being questioned, in increasingly wide circles, within real life.

However, what is the alternative? Although there are many different alternatives being explored, no single format or even approach has risen to the top of the heap. Our group is attracted, however, to an idea we have begun to call a "moveable feast" - a more active, engaged style of meeting that takes advantage of the fact that we can move about freely and quickly within Second Life, and hence there is no reason to hold a complete meeting at one location. There are logistic issues to having the location shift, however, and we expect to investigate these problems and find flexible solutions to them.

We are also challenging, as befits a group studying "embodiment", the purely intellectual approach to meetings and research. We believe that "meetings", especially within Second Life, should accommodate or include non intellectual experiences that nonetheless contribute to our understanding as a group of the relevant issues of Second Life. What these non intellectual experiences are, however, remains to be fully understood. We've already given up on standard "powerpoint" presentations, and replaced them with a more dynamic, more exchange oriented approach, as well as the use of diagrams and figures on stable "boards" and video clips made available via youTube. But we could go subtantially further into a less intellectual discourse.

Our first field exercise in this spirit was undertaken during our regular meeting on Tuesday, September 4th, 2007. One of our members had invited a talented architect, Keystone Bouchard, to join the discussion. Given that our agenda was to explore alternative meeting formats, it was decided spontaneously to go on a "field trip" as a group and visit Keystone's new Gallery of Reflexive Architecture (see reviews by Magellan and Bluewave for more details).

Somewhat to our surprise, I think, no one got lost, and we had an amazing experience as a group within Keystone's fascinating installations. Rather than carrying on our usual chaotic conversation, we actually, well, played together. The resulting memory of the experience is indelible, it is unlikely to fade from memory for some time.

The Embodied Research Group has been very effective at advancing our thinking on a wide range of topics within its somewhat chaotic (and very Second Life-like) mode of operation. However, these experiences advance our joint understanding of embodiment in other ways, at least as significant, perhaps more so. Certainly a mix of "action events" and "discussion events" needs to take place.

We don't yet know much about how to set up a viable "moveable feast". How many events should be planned? How should we deal with some of the vagaries of Second Life - for example, if teleporting suddenly stops working? We shall need alternative plans for such eventualities. What kinds of experiences should we include? Should any be excluded?

It has been suggested that we need a "good" list of places to visit, that fit within our embodied research agenda. Certainly Keystone's Gallery is on the list. Members of the group are working on developing such lists, but we're not even sure what should be included.

The Moveable Feast - a story that will undoubtedly unfold over time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Embodiment, Identity and Presence in Second Life - New Wine or New Bottles?

Presentation by Magellan Egoyan (Geoffrey Edwards, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Geomatics) at the CITASA mini-conference (Communication and Information Technologies section of the American Sociology Association) in Second Life on August 12, 2007, on the theme of "Web 2.0 and Beyond: The Sociological Significance of Virtual Worlds Supplanting Cyberspace"

Abstract : Nick Lee has written “our insistence on embodiment in virtual environments structures social interactions in these worlds in ways that we may not consciously be aware of…” (Lee, 2006). Identity has been defined as the set of strategies, beliefs, values and representations that are organized for the survival of the entity concerned (Dornic and Edwards, 2007). Presence has a variety of meanings, but here I am concerned with the sense of someone being present, even though their actual physical body may be absent. These three concepts are interdependent on each other, and each of them manifests within the world of Second Life. Within the field of education, a form of learning called “transformative learning” has gained interest. Ashe et al. (2005) have stated that “transformative learning involves a change in personal feelings, beliefs, and values known as meaning perspectives”. This concept of meaning perspectives, introduced by Mezirow in 1978, is very close to current definitions of identity. It is proposed that the concept of transformative learning provides a framework for understanding how our conceptualizations of the self, our bodies and our interaction with others are changed in Second Life. The process of transformation ensures that what emerges is, indeed, new wine not just “old wine in new bottles”. Within Second Life, identity is multiple, body is performative and presence is determined by the quality of our interactions with others. These ideas are illustrated by drawing on work with scientist and artist collaborators within Second Life.

Key words : embodiment, cognition, identity, transformation, learning, evaluation, health science, virtual worlds, Second Life

* * *

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the contributions from the team of scientists and students with whom I have been exchanging ideas and understanding over the past six weeks. The Embodied Research Group in Second Life that I coordinate is the source of many of the insights I’m going to be presenting. A group blog is in the process of being created, and will give form and flesh to most that I am going to say here, and much more.

Then I’d like to present to you a short video sequence I’ve prepared that gives some concrete examples of some issues raised by embodiment within Second Life. Let’s go and look at it now. It can be found on youTube... please click here to view its contents.

The video underlines the key idea about embodiment, that it is « performative » in nature. Here are a couple of definitions of embodiment – the first essentially cognitive, the second social. They both reinforce this idea that embodiment is less about physicality than it is about how we act and what our experience of and the consequences are of those actions – hence it is performative.

Here is a definition of « identity », a related concept, and also of « presence ». These three ideas are intertwined – if embodiment is the ground, identity is the figure, and presence is the frame by which we view the two in interaction (Figure 1).

Figure 1 : Embodiment, Presence and Identity are related concepts. This figure suggests one way of understanding this relationship

The video presented to you examples of the four ways in which embodiment is present in Second Life – through extension, through negociation, through affordances and through enablement. What is interesting about Second Life is that many experiences express more than one of these – indeed, often all four are involved. It may be one of the reasons why our bodily experience within Second Life can be so compelling at times.

The final expression of embodiment, as a form of enablement, underlines the fact that our experience of embodiment in virtual worlds can have a whole range of impacts on our identity and actions in so-called « real life ». This begins to open the idea that our experience of embodiment in Second Life, with its performative aspects and its ability to multiply our sense of identity, is transformative.

Another aspect of attempting to study these issues within virtual worlds such as Second Life is the complexity of scientific approaches and methodologies that could be used (Figure 2). In the Embodied Research Group, we have identified at least four scientific methodologies in use by different members of the group – behavioural experiments, a quantitative means of study ; conceptual design approaches ; computer simulation studies ; and qualitative research.

Figure 2 : The relationship between different methodologies for studying embodying issues, as described in the discussion below

No one person that I know of masters all four of these research methodologies – therefore, in order to address embodiment, identity and presence from all sides, we need to work together and pool our methodologies. Also, we may ask whether there is a framework that we could use to help bridge these different approaches and bring them together ?

The idea of experience within Second Life as transformative offers the seeds of an answer. A theory developed in education science and later refined in the health sciences, called « meaning perspectives », offers an interesting approach. According to Ashe et al., 2005, « transformative learning involves a change in personal feelings, beliefs, and values known as meaning perspectives ». Meaning perspectives were first introduced by Mezirow in 1978.

This approach is rooted in the Qualitative research paradigm, within the approach called « grounded theory ». The focus on transformative experience lends this method to an integration with methodologies of Conceptual Design, however. In addition, within health groups attempts are already being made to link this approach to behavioural studies. Finally, multi agent computer simulation methods exhibit emergent behaviours which may be associated with a transformation framework. Therefore, situating identity, embodiment and presence within Second Life in the context of transformative experience offers a global framework for developing a cogent scientific research program.

Finally, the transformative nature of the expression of embodiment, identity and presence within Second Life ensures that our experiences are not just « old wine in new bottles » … the different ways in which our identities are enabled in new ways holds out the perspective that we are seeing « new wine », at least some of the time.

These perspectives highlight the tremendous energy that researchers are feeling with regard to virtual worlds such as Second Life and their role in how we humans function. The field of research is opening up onto new vistas, making this a very, very exciting area of investigation.


  • Ashe, Brenda, Maurice Taylor and Claire-Jehanne Dubouloz, 2005, The process of change : Listening to transformation in meaning perspectives in adults in arthritis health education groups, Revue canadienne d’ergothérapie, Volume 72(5), 280-288.

  • Codol, J.P., and P. Tap, 1988, Revue internationale de psychologie sociale, no 2, cited by Lipiansky, Identité et communication.

  • Dornic, I., and G. Edwards, 2007, Le partage des émotions ou quand le corps part à la recherche des mémoires : des pistes de réflexion pour l’élaboration d’un outil destiné aux arts de la scène, submitted to L'Annuaire théâtral.

  • Lee, Nick,

  • Lipiansky, Edmond-Marc, 1992, Identité et communication. L’expérience groupale, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.

  • Mezirow, J., 1978, Education for perspective transformation: Women’s re-entry programs in community colleges. Teacher's College, Columbia University, New York.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Embodied Research Group - Foundations

Written up by Magellan Egoyan

Based on discussions and ideas contributed by : Magellan Egoyan (Geoffrey Edwards), Kid Kuhn (Asa Rosenberg), Lorri Momiji (Lorri Mon), Bluewave Ogee (Leslie Jarmon), rad Zabibha (Radhika Gajjala), Eecee Eriksen (Laura Lantz), Chade Villota (Nathan Lowell), Akiho Kohime, Akosua Bingyi, Audry Choche, birzi Decosta (Anca), Cyclone Snook, Eggbert Giha (Amy Deitrickson), MaryLee Sewell (Mary Herring), Miulew Takahe, Notta Lusch, Ozma Malibu (Sandy Andrews), Pablomex Commons, Senea Amat (Heather Pristash), shuang Oh, Tricky Reifsnider (Cassandra Jones), and Yarong Zabelin

Figure 1: The meeting location in Second Life for the Embodied Research Group

Embodiment within the group and meeting arrangements : The group met in early July 2007 at Sheol in Second Life. For several weeks, we met twice a week, then dropped back to once a week, as the bi-weekly schedule was very demanding, and attendance was dropping. The meetings seem to serve a very useful function, and the reason has to do with embodiment, at least in part. Having other bodies to relate to, as well as a space to interact within, stimulates and enervates the discussion and anchors it in a concrete way. Finding the right spatial environment to support our interactions occupied us over several meetings (see inset for our results). We have also found it useful, at times to carry out the entire meeting while dancing (virtually) – dancing seems to stimulate our body thinking. The embodied meetings, however, are also demanding in terms of personal energy and time commitment – two hours for each participant, and over twice that much for those involved in organising the meetings. Students from a class who participated in the meetings noted that the variety of shapes and clothes and types of people (avatars) who attend the meeting is disconcerting at first, but that this engenders over time a greater tolerance and interest in a variety of appearances. The use of large boards with figures and statements as support for the meeting was found to be helpful, especially as one could go back after the meetings and study these. However, the use of slide shows such as Powerpoint presentations was found to be disruptive and distracting and was quickly dropped. The dynamics of the meeting are in the exchange of ideas.

Definitions and vocabulary : The highly multidisciplinary nature of the group has meant that we have spent a lot of time talking about terms and definitions. Terms are used differently in different disciplines and often incorporate build-in and hence hidden assumptions rooted in how a particular discipline sees the world (its ontology, to use a technical word). A certain amount of ongoing discussion about terms seems to play a critically important role in the discussion, and it serves the further purpose of enriching our own conceptualizations of the issues under discussion.

We have adopted two different but complementary working definitions of embodiment as a support to our discussions, one cognitive in focus, the second social :

1) Cognitive definition: Embodiment is the impact that our ability to act within our surroundings has on our cognitive and emotive processes ;
2) Social definition: Embodiment is an existential condition in which the body is the subjective source or intersubjective ground of experience.

Both definitions reject the philosophical ground of a mind-body duality, and are rather situated within a modern phenomenological stance that sees mind and body as part of a single unity. The first definition is somewhat surprising at first glance, it seems to say the opposite of what one would expect, that is, one would expect embodiment to involve the impact of our cognition or our emotion on our bodies. However, a little reflection will show that the definition provided here is appropriately framed. Our ability to act may, in part, be constrained by cognition and emotion, and hence there is some circularity in the definition as given. Also this definition embraces the idea the embodiment may incorporate at times awareness of our body, since awareness is a cognitive function. The importance point, however, is that embodiment concerns our experience of the world, and here the first definition dovetails with the second. In neither case is the presence of one’s material body evoked – indeed, attempts to define embodiment in terms of our body generally fail. Embodiment, paradoxically, is not about the material manifestation of the body, but rather about our experiences in relation to the body, about the body as “the ground of experience”.

These definitions allow us to explore the experience of embodiment in many different environments, including purely virtual, non-material ones. Furthermore, these definitions underline the fact that the experience of embodiment may have cultural determinants. Ultimately, embodiment is performative – this is what is implied by “our ability to act”. And performance is both biologically and culturally conditioned.

The concept of virtual is also worth situating. The term virtual seems to have two meanings, depending on the context. First, “virtual” means “mediated by a computer”, and in this sense Second Life is a virtual space, even a virtual world. But “virtual” can also mean “referring to the imagination”. It has been suggested that this is a different etymological root of the word – nonetheless, this second sense of the word also appears to be relevant to Second Life. Second Life is very much a “virtual world” in the sense that it inhabits our imagination. There is a need to be careful not to slip unconsciously from one definition to the other, but the two perspectives are useful.

Other terms that have been discussed in some detail include : presence, identity, emotion, gender, sexual orientation, perception, cognition, psychology, sociology, agency, and so on.

Embodiment and Second Life

It is clear that Second Life, as well as other virtual worlds, incorporates a greater sense of embodiment than do other on-line environments, such as web pages, blogs, chat rooms or forums. Our bodies are literally represented within the on-line environment of Second Life, and these avatars are, aside from certain basic bodily functions, under our control, not unlike the situation with regard to our physical bodies.

However, it is also clear that Second Life engenders a certain splitting of bodily identity, between one’s on-line avatar and one’s stay-at-home physical body. This had led some people to assert that virtual worlds provide users with a “disembodied” experience. It would be fairer to assert, however, that the Second Life environment provides one with a different, indeed, an alternate embodiment than the one provided by our physical bodies.

There are a wide range of dimensions to the embodied experience that Second Life engenders, indeed an almost bewildering list of areas where embodiment appears to influence our perceptions and behaviour. These include categories of experience such as appearance (including gestures and animations), identity multiplicity and shadow activities, navigational activities, creative activities, social activities, observations/looking, communication acts, and archiving activities. These are not all mutually exclusive categories. Hence, for example, gender choice fits within the appearance category, and language use within communication acts, while shadow activities may have either a social or a creative aspect, even both (shadow activities here refer to activities that form part of a person’s shadow as laid out by Jung – that is, elements of identity that are repressed at a young age and which, if unacknowledged, re-emerge in obsessive or involuntary behaviours). In addition, it is noted that our experience of body within Second Life has increasingly important impacts on our perceptions, concepts and life organization within so-called “real life” or RL. This concept of reciprocal impacts, we call porosity.

The group has identified four ways by which embodiment is expressed within the Second Life environment :
(a) Embodiment as Extension, particularly of RL embodiment - in some areas, SL involves a reduction, however, of RL embodiment;
(b) Embodiment as Constraint or Affordancy, that is, a way of situating actions in relevant ways;
(c) Embodiment as Negotiation, for example, the fact that parts of SL require avatars to fit within certain appearance rules;
(d) Embodiment as Enablement, ensuring that new forms of activity can emerge.

Figure 2 : In mauve and light blue, several research issues of interest to the Embodied Research Group. In green, different characteristics of embodiment. In yellow, how people relate to embodiment in virtual worlds. In orange, frameworks for understanding embodiment in virtual worlds.

It is also clear that understanding embodiment issues in Second Life requires an ecological perspective, such as developed by savants such as Gibson, Bateson and Polyani. Hence behaviours are situated within environments, and they may be channelled into certain forms by features of these environments (Gibson’s idea of “affordances”). Likewise, virtual worlds such as Second Life straddle the fence between sensory spaces (hence embodied) and idea spaces (hence the concept of a Batesonian “ecology of mind” ).

It is also important to note that our experience as individuals of embodiment may be different, given that our own bodies (and our avatars) are different. One needs to be careful not to overemphasize the common elements of experience and recognize that there may be many individual differences.

Particular issues that have been examined in more depth include :
- gender embodiment
- embodiment of age
- real life/virtual life impacts (porosity)
- learning and embodiment
- disability and embodiment
- creativity, beauty and aesthetics

Embodiment, Second Life and Research Methodologies

At least four distinct research methodologies seem to be necessary to address isues of embodiment in Second Life, as being explored by researchers within the ER Group.

  1. Behavioural Experiments : The preferred method for disciplines such as cognitive psychology, neurology, or health science. Involves the parallel organisation of a test group and a control group, with various methods for testing hypotheses in a carefully balanced way. Analysis is usually statistical in nature.

  2. Explorative Design Studies : The method used in disciplines such as geomatics or some branches of engineering and computer science. This involves an iterative process of analysing complex functional problems and coming up with solutions and design principles that will facilitate the implementation of these solutions. Analysis is usually structural and follows object-oriented methods.

  3. Computer Simulation Studies : One of the preferred methods for computer scientists interested in group behaviour or understanding/developing complex systems. The method consists of developing multi-agent automata that evolve over time, and comparing their emergent behaviour with that of real systems. Analysis follows systems theory approaches, but may use statistics as well.

  4. Qualitative Research (case studies, structured interviews, focus groups, survey questionnaires, action research) : The preferred method of disciplines such as sociology, ethnography, human geography and education. This research usually calls for a combination of several different methods. Analysis may or may not call on statistical methods. It often calls upon different processes of categorization.

Most researchers are not at home with all of these methodologies, and hence working together on common problems across disciplines requires a great deal of openness and willingness to learn from each other.

Issues of Porosity - Impacts of Second Life Embodiment in Real Life

Tentative categories of impacts :

  1. Our posture, gait and overall body awareness : Different people recount having gained a greater awareness of their real life body posture as a result of watching/identifying with their avatar in Second Life. For example, walking straighter and taller, being more conscious of clothes and overall appearance, using a more confident stride, etc. It can also be argued that our ability to represent spaces mentally is enhanced by a predilection towards viewing landscapes from above.

  2. Our perception

    1. Of other people : People anecdotally report comparing their perceptions of other people in real life with their experience with avatars in Second Life. For example, being more tolerant towards variations in appearance. Also, there is a heightened sense of the importance of proximity in Second Life, and its effects on social interaction and body awareness.
    2. Of our environment : Some people report that they now perceive buildings differently than before, that they are more sensitive to architectural features. Some report that they have learned to assess real life buildings as a function of their likely “prim count” if they were to be realized in Second Life. Also, the sense of beauty and the need to create and live in beautiful environments may be enhanced (even deliberately “ugly” environments in Second Life often have a certain beauty). Another aspect of perception is spatial perception. There is some suggestion that our perception of distance is changed by our experience in Second Life.
    3. Of our own avatar : it is known that watching other people perform gestures activates the same neurons (called mirror neurons) that are involved when we perform those gestures ourselves. There is something special about this effect when we are watching our own avatar’s gestures, such as during virtual dancing – it is both us and not us…

  3. Our appearance : Some people report being more aware of how they would like to look in real life based on their Second Life experience, and of taking steps to change their appearance in real life. These changes may include a greater daring and/or individuality in choice of clothes, changes in hair style, and so forth. Others report a sense of lightness in their physical body due to the experience of flying around and hovering in the air in their avatar body.

  4. Our identity :

    1. Decisiveness and self-assurance: Some people indicate that they have learned to be more decisive or self-assured in Second Life, and that this has carried over into a greater decisiveness and self assurance in real life
    2. The fact that one can be extremely creative in Second Life has led a number of people to feel more fulfilled in their lives
    3. Experience in Second Life appears to have changed the self-perception of several people with some form of so-called “disability” – one has only to think of Torley Linden’s autism as an example of the enabling nature of Second Life

      • People with disability are sometimes enabled by Second Life, although the experience is different for different groups (for example, the deaf are enabled but not the blind)

    4. Many people seem to explore aspects of the self they cannot develop in RL, for reasons of safety and anonymity (see shadows, below). Many sexual practices fall within this category, along with certain role playing environments or things like gender or age choice or the use of animal avatars
    5. Identity is multiple within Second Life, even as the very fact of creating an avatar with a different name than our “real life self” multiplies our identity. Even if one were to have the same name, our avatar body is different from our physical body and reinforces this sense of being “multiplied”

      • People may also maintain one or more “alts”, additional avatars that they use in different social contexts to express different parts of the identity of the self

  5. Our life organization : Sustained experience with Second Life may have subtle but profound effects on overall life organisation. For example, people occasionally may develop businesses that contribute to overall household income, but even those that don’t may develop a sustained creative practice that leads to a reshuffling of everyday priorities. New social activities facilitated by Second Life may also result in changes to overall life organization. In a sense, for those who embrace a permanent investment in virtual worlds such as Second Life, a transformation in identity results which may have repercussions in all aspects of the self, our lives and the institutions of which we are a part.

  6. Our social interactions : Second Life encourages social and group activities. Although one can spend time alone, the environment makes the development of social networks easy, and shared activities are facilitated in a number of ways. For example, the development of group forms of creativity is enabled. Also, dancing is a common shared activity in Second Life, and is strangely seductive and helps create a sense of belonging. Everyone can dance in Second Life, even those who never dance in real life. This enhanced enablement of social interaction can spill over into real life, leading to new initiatives.

  7. Our business interactions : A number of jobs and careers have been profoundly transformed by the ability to function within Second Life as well as in the real world. These include designers, singers, teachers, and many other groups of people. These are all jobs involving embodied functions. As more and more businesses become involved in Second Life, other job functions are also likely to be affected.

  8. Our shadows, individually and collectively

    • People in Second Life appear to avoid aged avatars, but they do not necessarily seem to want to be “young”, only to have “young bodies” – there are issues of power and of death-avoidance present in this
    • Sexuality is rampant within the Second Life environment, and often in extreme forms that may flirt with illegality if the interactions were to occur in real life – interestingly, however, pornography, although not absent, is not particularly present – various forms of erotism are more widespread
    • The use of animal-like avatars seems to have a powerful attraction for many people – there are regions of Second Life solely devoted to communities of so-called “furries”

  9. Our dreams and unconscious lives : In addition to our shadow selves, other aspects of our unconscious experience may also be affected by sustained experience in Second Life. Some people report changes in the way they dream, for example.

The work of the Embodied Research Group, which meets within Second Life, has only just begun. The group has brought together already over 40 researchers, including both senior and junior researchers and students from a wide range of disciplines. The group has started to generate significant leadership within the research environment of Second Life as well as in its interface with the real world. This blog is designed to keep track of our growing and changing understanding of embodiment and identity within virtual worlds, especially Second Life, and also to present new and creative ways of meeting, collaborating and exchanging ideas and experiences concerned with these issues.