Immersion, Knowledge & Trust

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POSTED: November 2, 2010

This paper was presented at a CAVIC conference held in November 2010 at Stockholm University.


There are at least two possible approaches to exploring virtual worlds, whether as play, or as tools for learning. We can approach them as “ourselves”, trying to extend our day-to-day identity into this new experiential realm, or, like actors, we can create new characters that we will attempt to portray in the virtual space.

This difference is often unremarked, but our experience at Arcada shows that it can have important consequences for how we experience a “place” like Second Life; for what we permit ourselves to do there; and for how we interact with other avatars and the environment.

If we need trust at some level to validate our interactions how do we build it in a shape-shifting, identity-shrouding arena. Or don’t we?


I have been interested in, and concerned about, the nature of identity in virtual arenas such as Second Life since the beginning of 2007. In an essay then, entitled Avatars, Actors & Identity in Rosario, I wrote

Identity in Second Life is confused and confusing because Linden Labs offer new users two contradictory starting points. They claim that Second Life is “Your world, Your imagination”. They then insist that users create their identity by choosing a surname from a drop-down list of predecided names. The list changes periodically but always consists of a mixture of realistic and fantastic names.

As a result of this it is unclear from the start who I am supposed to be, and how I am supposed to play the game (not that it is a game, of course). Faced with this odd initial choice (“choose a last name from this list”) new users tend to react in a small number of predictable ways.

Some people choose a name that sounds cool, in a playful, game-like way. They become Sasha Highdancer or Wolfblood Argent. A second group choose a name using a more formalistic strategy. They find a last name they can expand into an amusing or ironic tag. If “Ado” is made available as a surname then you can guarantee that somebody will quickly enter Second Life as Much Ado.

You will probably also find an Absolute Zero, and an avatar called Black-And White.

A third group of people tend to choose a name that is as close to their real name as possible. As a member of this group, someone called Kathy Turner might enter Second Life as Kathy Turnwind.

Look and Feel

Once inside a virtual arena people’s behaviours habitually diverge along lines that are broadly similar to their naming strategies.

One of the first things that most newcomers to Second Life want to do is to customise their avatar: to make it look the way they feel they want it to look. Based upon five years of observation, their approaches to this seem to be broadly predictable and closely bound to their strategy for choosing their name.

The group that chose game-like names will tend to avail themselves of the full range of wings and helmets that can be found round Second Life, and present themselves as warriors, wizards, elves and angels, as well as femme fatales and “manly” studs.

The coolly ironic group, the one with names like UpAnd Downes, often search further to find avatars that are not human, and may not be life-based at all. They appear as clouds, or vehicles from the realistic to Transformers, or as sparkling gases or systems of orbiting balls.

On the other hand, the group who have chosen a name as close to their own as possible will tend to model their avatar on an idealised view of their real life self-image. Their avatar is much more likely to be “sensible” and conventional in its selfpresentation.

Avatars and Identification

Once in the virtual arena, some people seem to regard their avatar as its own person, with its own characteristics. This avatar will act consistently but not necessarily in a way that is consistent with its owner’s actions in the real world. These avatars may flee from any opportunity to talk about their owner’s “first life”, wanting to keep the two completely separate. They may not see Second Life as a game, but they do see it as an arena for fantasy and exploration, and thus reject all attempts to weigh it down with information from the outside. Other people see their avatar as their personal representation within the world and expect it to be treated as they would wish to be treated in real life. These avatars wander around Second Life announcing where they are from in real life. They will happily start conversations with strangers that begin “Hi, I’m from Texas. It’s really hot here. Where are you from?”

Observation suggests that people who have named and dressed their avatar to look and feel like a version of their “real” self tend to see their avatar as their personal representation within the virtual world. The two groups who have adopted playful or ironic names and appearances more easily regard the avatar as a character in its own right.

From this latter perspective the avatar may either be regarded as a toy that the user plays with from time to time, or as a character that the user plays, like an actor in a never-ending soap opera. The difference between these two approaches hinges on the concern of the user with consistency. Actors tend to develop a consistent persona for their character, to gather props for it, and to refer back to these in their dealings with others. Those playing with their avatar as a toy tend to begin again and again, with little or no concern for developing a consistent back-story.

These two groups can be viewed as extreme poles of a continuum that measures the level of identification between an avatar and its controller. Most long term users seem to occupy a point somewhere nearer the centre of the continuum. They will usually talk with strangers in the guise of their avatar, while perhaps talking to a few close friends as “themselves”. Over time most residents of Second Life seem to allow a few trusted friends backstage, even when they are normally concerned to keep Second Life and real life separate.

Avatars and Emotion

The degree of identification that a person invests in their avatar is not the whole story. There is also a continuum that can be used to measure the emotional distance between an avatar and its controller.

Observation suggests that emotional distance is not bound to the kinds of groups outlined above, but operates as a second dimension that can be plotted as the vertical axis on a graph where the continuum outlined above serves as the horizontal axis.

A quadrant leading to a terad

The vertical axis plots the degree to which events inside the virtual world are felt emotionally in the real world. If my avatar is insulted or attacked by another avatar, how do I react? Clearly, there is no correct answer to this question. I can feel personally insulted or upset, or I can regard it in the same way that I would regard having my property seized in game of Monopoly. Having said that, I recognise that some people have always regarded losing at Monopoly as a reason to overturn tables, and storm out of the room.

In this respect the continuum of emotional attachment to a nominally trivial game is not a new phenomenum arising from virtual worlds. Second Life simply provides a new framework within which this long established drama can be played out. A Matrix

We can derive a matrix of possible modes of engagement from these two continua, as shown below. This is presented here in its simplest form, showing the four main modes of engagement.

We can say that the left hand column represents an approach to Second Life that is augmentist, while the right hand column represents an approach that is immersive. Using either approach, it is possible to have a strong or weak emotional attachment to the virtual arena, and it is the quadrant that each user occupies that will determine the type of engagement that they are most comfortable with.

Those users who inhabit the bottom left quadrant are full cardcarrying Augmentists. They can be seen to be using the virtual space as a tool in which the avatar is a more-or-less transparent stand-in. The avatar means nothing more to them than the user name they have for GMail, or Skype, where they ended up with Alex773 because their own name was already taken.

Those users who inhabit the top right quadrant experience the virtual space completely differently. They are the Immersionists. They are fully inhabitants of the space, in that they regard it as an identifiable place with recognisable rules that differ from the rules of the real world; and their avatar is the actor in that space with whom they identify. Although the actor is not them, and may not act as they would, nonetheless they feel its joy and pain. They may regard this relationship as symbiotic, and spend some of their real life time planning and plotting on behalf of their avatar.

Augmentation and Immersion

The terms augmentation and immersion were arguably first introduced in this context in a paper written in 2006 by Henrik Bennetsen entitled Augmentation vs Immersion, and available from the wiki at

Bennetsen suggests that the immersion view is that SL is its own thing and should not be contaminated by anything from the outside. Many people in SL will bring up the metaverse. This term and a notion of self-contained internet worlds were introduced in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. [Stephenson, 2002] Since the early days these sci-fi worlds has been repeatedly mentioned as the inspiration for SL. Residents that subscribe to this belief often feel that SL should evolve at its own pace as we continue to gain a deeper understanding of how our metaverse should and could look.

He regards this as an initial utopian phase, that grew out of game-playing, and contrasts this with augmentation which he suggests has slowly developed (and is being developed) as the possibilities and limitations of SL became clear to more people. Mitch Kapor described in his keynote at the SLCC [Second Life Community Conference] how watching Susanne Vega perform live in SL had made him realize that we have to stop thinking about SL and RL as different spaces. Such realizations are at the core of this philosophy. SL adds things like real-time spatial design tools & a stronger sense of presence through avatarization in 3D space to the existing social software on the 2D internet. In a sense you could metaphorically call SL Wiki 2.0. SL is also related to games but removes the artificial constraints on creativity that these impose.

The view at Arcada, and indeed among other educationalists, about the definition of these two approaches, and the relationships between them, has been somewhat more complex and nuanced than the one that Bennetsen offers.

Figure and Ground

Immersion and augmentation may be described as strategies for involvement and, as strategies, both need to be viewed contextually with regard to the user’s objectives, and the environment within which these objectives are being pursued. Neither is objectively better or worse than the other, only more or less appropriate in a given context.

Bennetsen seems to regard Second Life as having a “natural” historical trajectory that means that it began as an environment that favoured immersion but matured (or is maturing) into an environment that favours augmentation.

He argues that virtual commerce will be a driving force that will lead augmentation to replace immersion. He quotes “professional SL developer” Hiro Pendragon as saying he considers his resident name a brand. When you hear the name you think of the products and services he offers. This leads to less shyness about letting your RL name out there. […] As the money gets bigger there is also the notion of “Who am I dealing with here?” Or as Hiro told me: “I don’t do business with someone whose RL identity I don’t know.”

This analysis suffers from seeing technology and commerce as driving forces equipped with the power of historical inevitability. It might be more useful to see them as the ground upon which human figures play out their desires and needs. Immersion, from this perspective, is a not a new strategy that depends on technology, and will thus be improved or completed by the arrival of data-gloves and sensory bodysuits.

It is a technique that has existed since oral storytelling held listeners spellbound. At its heart is what has been termed the suspension of disbelief, but may perhaps be more correctly described as the voluntary inversion of figure and ground.

When we are “immersed” in something, whether the world described in a novel or the events unfolding on a screen before us, we willingly for that time place this input at the centre of our perception and (while suspending our disbelief) we relegate the rest of the information we are receiving from the world-atlarge to a background hum that we try to notice as little as possible.

In terms of Second Life, my immersion consists of just such an inversion. For a time, I seek to ground myself in virtuality. I focus my perceptions and attention on the information I send to and receive from the virtual world, and attempt to dismiss the ringing telephone or the knock at the door as background noise.

This does not differ philosophically from the inversion that happens when I put on some headphones, close my eyes and sink into the world of Beethoven’s string quartets. Its important difference lies in the fact that a virtual world is, in William Gibson’s phrase, “a shared hallucination”, in which all the sharers can participate as actors, and where each actor feels the effects of the Others’ actions.

Augmentation, on the other hand, is the use of the same tools with no intention of inverting figure and ground. On the contrary, the intention is to make the tool as transparent as possible, and to use it to “fake” or simulate an interaction between two or more real people. The telephone is an example of augmentation. It abolishes distance and lets me simulate the conversation I would have with you if we were in the same room.

The telephone is not perfect. It fails to show visual information, and so we can merely hear each other – thus simulating the conversation that we might have if we were in the same room with our eyes closed.

Video-conferencing and virtual worlds like Second Life can be used augmentatively to overcome the perceived limitations of the telephone. The extent to which either suceeds in this endeavour is irrelevant here. All that matters is that it is demonstrably possible to use virtual spaces without any desire to be immersed in them.

As an illustration of this, both Teleplace and Venuegen are trying to build businesses around the augmentative use of virtual spaces. They are both developing business models that allow companies to book virtual rooms for real meetings on an hourly basis.

Trust and Knowledge

Henrik Bennetsen quotes the avatar known as Hiro Pendragon as saying that he would not do buiness with someone if he did not know their real life identity. The issue here is an issue of trust – or, more exactly, it is an issue about where trust springs from.

Hiro Pendragon is far from alone in his attitude. In many years of conversations with Steve Bronack from Clemson University, and John Tashner from Appalachian State University, it has become clear that where trust springs from is an important issue for the use of virtual worlds in their universities. They have both opted for closed virtual spaces, in which all the avatars bear their owners’ real names, in order to “build up trust”.

Again, the problem that they perceive is not a new problem, nor a problem directly linked to virtual worlds. My father would never let a shopkeeper or a waiter walk away with his credit card and would insist on following them. His argument was that, out of sight, they could copy the card and use it later themselves. When I once asked how many people he knew that had had this happen to them, he responded that this was not the point. The point was that it could happen.

Today I shop online, and have been known to order things from ebay – activities that my father, if he was still alive, would no doubt regard as criminally lunatic. Either I am naive or stupid, or the strategies that I use to define people and activities as trustworthy or untrustworthy are different from the ones habitually applied fifty years ago.

In any mediated transaction, trust is necessarily strategic; and any appropriate strategy will require a background understanding of the medium in which the transaction is taking place. The most cautious will view the situation, in McLuhan’s phrase, “through a rear-view mirror”. The cautious, though, will not get the bargains on ebay.

In personal interactions with a stranger we rely on a series of strategies to decide how, and in what measure, to allow ourselves to feel trust. We become acutely aware of body language, and in the direction and order of the conversation. We ask questions probingly to see what response we will get. If we are in a group we monitor the reactions of others, especially those who may know the stranger better than we do.

In mediated interactions none of these strategies may be available to us, while others may become available. We may, for example, be in an environment where connections, influence and reputation are made explicit, through Like It buttons, or Amazon reputation points, a public Buddy List, or an ability to check participation in relevant discussions instantly.

If the environment does not support these then we may be in an environment where, for whatever reason, trust is not deemed important. The question, then, is not “how can I trust this avatar?”. It is “why am I engaging in business that requires trust in this environment?”

Knowledge and Immersion

All fruitful interactions are creative acts from which new meaning is born. All meaning is inseparable from trust, unless we decide to take everything at face value.

When Robert Ryman painted plain white canvasses, we were invited not to take the canvasses at face value, but rather to trust that his intentions (” to be known as a “realist” because he is not interested in creating illusions, but only in presenting the materials he has used in compositions at their face value”) embued them with a meaning that was different from the meaning – or lack of meaning – we would derive from a canvas that was plain white only because it had not yet been “finished”.

When Ad Rheinhardt spent the last decade of his life producing paintings that were completely black (and was quoted as saying, “There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color; something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of my morality.”) we were invited to discover a meaning in them that was different from other areas of undifferentiated black; and different from both undifferentiated areas of white and the white canvasses of Robert Ryman.

In a case like this, we can be certain that a process of communication is occuring, and that this is creative in that meanings that did not exist before arise from the process. We can also map the ways in which these meanings are transferred. Can we, however, say either that what is transferred is knowledge, or that knowledge arises through this process of transference?

In Knowledge Transfer: A Basis for Competitive Advantage in Firms Argote and Ingram describe knowledge transfer as “the process through which one unit (e.g., group, department, or division) is affected by the experience of another”. While offering a definition of how we might recognise when knowledge is being transferred from one person to another, this does not address the question of what constitutes knowledge.

The primary definition of knowledge in the Oxford English Dictionary is “expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject”. We might note that this avoids any suggestion as to how expertise, skills and understanding might be validated or verified.

Insofar as immersion is viewed as a strategy of creative inversion in the service of heightened experience, then we can argue that the result of such a process will be knowledge. We can also surmise that this knowledge can be transferred both within the virtual space and, subsequently, in the real world. We might then note that not all spheres of knowledge are necessarily equal, and ask what makes some knowledge worth more than some other. We could also ask whether or not knowledge gained in a virtual environment has any wider applicability.

Am I a better, or more useful person, for being acknowledged by the residents of Second Life as a master designer, or am I simply an experienced user of Second Life? If I have completed every version of Pokemon with record scores, am I somehow better equipped for life, a sad example of wasted time, or neither?

There is a compelling argument that in an open, dynamic system the future value of any item or field of knowledge is difficult (or impossible) to predict. The history of art is constantly being rewritten as different presents call into being different narratives of the past in which the relative value of artists, art works and art forms rise and fall. McLuhan discusses just this when he talks of a media ecology, and the different sensoria that are called into being whenever a new medium arises.

In the defence of the possiblility of acquiring knowledge within virtual worlds, it can be argued, as the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce did, that human beings learn and reason through a process of mapping one thing onto another: a process of diagramming. This argument would allow us to explore the ways in which skills at games like Pokemon might be mapped onto other life situations, through the problem-solving approaches that they encourage, or the lateral thinking that they require.

In this way, immersion can either be seen as a tool for creating knowledge, or a distorting mirror within which we might see our current knowledge reflected in new shapes forming new patterns.

(Apparent lack of) Conclusions

This is a draft version of an essay that leaves many underlying questions unresolved, and those are what I wish to talk through at the CAVIC seminar in Stockholm.

These underlying questions might include:

  • the value (or lack of value) of immersion as a creative tool;
  • the relationship between virtual worlds and historical immersion;
  • the precise mechanisms through which knowledge becomes generalised (if it does);
  • the relationships between these generalising mechanisms and the scouting role of the artist as outlined by Innis, McLuhan and others.

This essay does not reach any direct conclusions, and it is not intended to. Rather it should be considered as an agenda for a necessary conversation. I hope we will find time to have it.