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.