Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Augment/Immerse: Here We Go Again

Kerim over on Savage Minds posted a review of Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life and after an extended thread, I came to realize that the debate brought us full circle to concepts of culture versus platform, augmentation versus immersion, and that crazy magic circle thing. I even managed to pull Castranova into it again…he may fallen hero (book one great, book two fine for the first 100 pages and then a frightening hint of a future in which virtual world economists try to program our real lives so that getting your license renewed is more like a quest in World of Warcraft).

Go over and have a read. What’s fascinating about the discussion is that by reading Tom’s book and spending very little time in Second Life, Kerim has managed to find the main points of debate that seem to have been long-standing discussion in world, and that have now found a vehicle, through the book, to be discussed in a broader community such as anthropology.

I’ll cross-post an edited version of my last comment here:

I suppose in the end I don’t have the authority or knowledge to say whether Tom made a strong enough case for whether Second Life as a whole is a field site or whether it’s a community of practice. I will say that I believe that during the time that Tom conducted his research the community was quite different from today – a few thousand participants when he started, and I wonder if this is where some of my confusion lies.

I understand your point about not ‘mystifying’ the platform. It hasn’t taken an anthropologist to have this debate. This discussion has been going on WITHIN Second Life for nearly as long as the platform’s existed. Within the Second Life community, it’s called the argument between the augmentationists and the immersionists. On the one hand, there are those who believe that Second Life is a place you “go”, it is separate and distinct, and what happens to your avatar is what matters. On the other hand are the those who believe that it’s simply a platform which extends the tools and capacity of expression of the person behind the avatar.

The truth is likely along a spectrum of sorts and you’re absolutely right, this does cause methodological issues as studies of Second Life carry forward.

This also plays into the notion of the walled garden and the magic circle. Castranova argues that virtual environments should be protected, because they offer a site of play, discovery and imagination that is rare in the real world. He argues that the intrusion of real world economies into places like Warcraft rob these ‘places’ of part of their power.

Now, Castranova also argues that by keeping these worlds enclosed we can also then tinker with their economies and policies in order to gain insight into economic behaviors, and he believes that the lessons from virtual worlds should be more broadly applied to public policy – his idea is turn your trip to renew your driver’s license into a quest, or to set up guilds at City Hall – and I part company with Castranova on both the idea that virtual spaces should be walled gardens and that public policy should learn from games in order to make citizenry more “fun”.

So the concept of walled gardens and their protection as unique sites of play and sociality, when taken to its logical extreme, gives us Castranova who believes that lawmakers and public servants need to create a gamer environment in how they relate to the public, and who believes that the qualities of play such as ‘questing’ and ‘grinding’ provide lessons for how businesses and governments should be constructed – and there’s something that I find rather terrifying about that.

The concept of the magic circle as well has come under fire, because as you point out the line between what happens within the circle of play and the transmission of knowledge and impact on the actual is more porous than the ‘circle’ would imply.

I’d suggest that the following paper probably speaks most closely to your points, and I think it’s a well crafted argument with the provocative title “Virtual Worlds Do Not Exist” (provocative to some, and probably a nod of agreement by others, and thanks to Grace for pointing this out):

In this paper, the author makes the argument against the ‘magic circle’/MMO framework and argues instead that virtual worlds be studied from Anselm Strauss’ social worlds perspective. As the author says:

In academic literature, certain online games and services are referred to as “virtual worlds” and compared to cities (Taylor, 2006: 21), countries (Castronova, 2006b) and most frequently, the Earth (e.g. Castronova, 2002; Castronova, 2006a; Nash & Schneyer, 2004, Lastowka & Hunter, 2004). Such language is intended to communicate the scale and complexity of these systems and the activities that take place within them. But the powerful metaphor also affects the conceptual framework from which researchers draw their research design.

The author recommends three questions that researchers ask themselves:

1) Out of all social world sites and technologies, why am I focusing on MMOs?
2) Out of all possible interaction modalities, am I justified in limiting my observations to the MMO server?
3) Do my results concern MMOs in general, a specific MMO, or some completely different category?

The author then generally concludes:

This paper could well have been titled “The real world doesn’t exist”. If there are problems with the concept of the “virtual world”, so are there problems in the way “real world” is implicitly conceptualised in many MMO studies: a uniform, monolithic reality, where people lead a rational “real life” with their unitary “real identity”. Such a view is in stark contrast to the views prevalent in contemporary sociology, which emphasise the multiplicity, fluidity and even fragmentation of identities (e.g. Turkle, 1996; Slater, 1997) and the often arational, constructed and “aestheticized” character of everyday life (e.g.Featherstone, 1991; Giddens; 1991).

So, even the sociologists are struggling with the concept of where the “site” is and what to call it.

Now, I’ve been called an augmentationist and yet don’t feel like one. Whether it’s a community of practice that I enter when I log in to Second Life or a “world” doesn’t really matter to me – I find value in Second Life and other virtual environments for a multiplicity of reasons. I think, based on no other insight than intuition, that the discussion is productive regardless, and that every individual who finds themselves exploring, socializing, creating, and participating in what I can only call a culture (because to me, how I behave in the Second Life culture is often quite different than how I behave in other cultures, mainly because the tool sets cause me to – how we talk and how we express are quite different in a virtual space versus an actual one, and I feel part of a distinct set of social expressions).

I do however take exception that what people do in virtual worlds can be equated to ‘acting’. I know people who LIVE in virtual worlds, and their lives are productive, they earn a good living there, and they are as much a part of reality as someone who works in a cublicle somewhere. They may be expressing themselves through an avatar, but they derive economic and social benefits from these spaces, and they’re no more reenacting as someone would the civil war than someone else would reenact being an office worker.

As I said, I think the term “virtual world” is fraught with danger, including this creation of a sense that it’s creating a mystique or a metaphor that’s not sustainable when you start to think about the ways in which virtual and actual spaces coexist.

However, this doesn’t mean that the baby should be thrown out with the metaphor. In the days that Tom studied SL, I believe that he was looking at a distinct culture. Whether the platform has grown so huge that this is no longer a sustainable argument it’s hard to say – I would agree that there are a lot of people using Second Life who truly DO use it only as a platform. Folks who use it primarily for simulating physics or weather might be using its tool sets and not engaging in any sort of cultural exchange, for example.

And this has actually caused concern amongst folks who have been in Second Life far longer than I have – as if their cultures risk being diluted by the newly landed immigrants who are there for the ecomomic benefits or the great ocean view, and don’t appreciate the subtleties of the culture. It might be interesting to think of how the extension of Tom’s work might be taken to the next step of understanding the impact of immigration on a society.

A resident-initiated discussion of “upholding social norms” might give a hint of this issue – of the diluting of one culture, and I wonder if this isn’t an interesting thread of study on its own.

Which I think leaves us with the question of how you make decisions about where cultures within Second Life form and end, and where they become merely communities of practice. Because I strongly believe there are both, and perhaps the challenge that someone like Tom might face is in continuing to argue that Second Life as a WHOLE can be studied as a culture, when clearly there are segments of its user base that are logging on for task-specific reasons.

However, this doesn’t mean that there are not cultures that exist and thrive within the SL environment, merely that as the platform has grown its uses have also become more varied. I try to remember, however, that at the time of Tom’s studies it was a much smaller world.

What I suppose I find most intriguing about this whole thread, is that you’ve managed to touch on the same issues that long-time residents debate about, care about, and worry about. So maybe you’re right – maybe it’s sufficient to read a book and be done with it.

My personal interest in virtual worlds is not solely on what they are today, however. I’d rather be a proactive participant in the future, learn from the practices and lessons of today, because I sincerely believe that 3D spaces will continue to grow exponentially, and that their peril and promise is far more significant than we can imagine.

As fidelity grows through platforms such as Blue Mars, as devices are used to mix realities, as we see more and more examples of mirror worlds such as the Google Earth recreation within Second Life, and as we continue to grapple with issues of identity and expression, I think that the tools with which we express our humanity are creating both gaps because of technology access, are unleashing potential through our ability to connect globally through what you can call communities of practice, or through what others call culture, and which are providing new tools for the conceptualization of content, intellectual property, and mass collaboration that are not replicable in 2D media.

The future will have more open standards, different ways to access these spaces through “light” clients and other means, and will include worlds within worlds. Because of all this, I still argue that there’s enough stuff that’s interesting enough to do that it merits staying in touch with, and a need for sound academic leg work so that as these spaces evolve we have a framework on which to continue our explorations and understanding of technologies that have the potential to shift the site of human sociality.

speak up

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.

Subscribe to these comments.

*Required Fields

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.