Saying what needs to be said, when it needs to be said

Many moons ago, I was a directing intern under Artistic Director Jon Jory of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. One morning a week, Jon would hold an acting class for the young, college-aged actors who worked in servitude for ten months at ATL to learn The Craft and tread the boards with the professionals.

Jon didn’t really subscribe to one acting style; he stole from everybody, mashed it up, and made it his own technique (Tips for Actors, in case you’re wondering.  That’s his book). Anyway, growing up in the theatre himself with parents who were Hollywood actors, Jon was a keen observer of timing, energy, and creativity – elements that contribute substantially to sustaining an audience’s attention in a performance. But Jon was also a master of the art of psychology, nuanced characterization, and subtext that made performances substantive and real.

One morning, Jon put a pair of actors mercilessly through the acting ringer. He nonchalantly had given these actors just little over a half of page of dialogue from Chekov’s Three Sisters, the scene where Tuzenbach and Irina talk amidst the trees in Act Four. The scene begins with Tuzenbach musing on the soliders’ departure, abruptly turns to Tuzenbach’s proclamations of love for Irina, and then come to a virtual screeching halt when Tuzenbach says:

———————

Tuzenbach: Tomorrow I’ll take you away from here, we’ll work, we’ll be rich, my dreams will all come true. You’ll be happy. There’s just one thing wrong; you don’t love me.

Irina: I can’t. I’ll be your wife, I’ll … I’ll do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll be faithful, but I don’t love you. I’m sorry. I’ve never been in love. I used to dream about love, I used to dream about it all the time, but now my soul is like a piano that’s been locked up and the key’s lost. (Pause). You look upset.

Tuzenbach: I didn’t get much sleep last night. I’ve never been frightened in my life.  I’ve never been afraid of anything, yet now I can’t sleep – I’m tormented by the thought of that lost key. (Pause) Say something. Say something to me…

Irina: What? It’s so quiet here; these old trees just stand in the silence.

———————-

Jon made the pair of young actors read these same lines over and again easily 10 times or more. He’d let them start, cut them off, make them start again, cut them off again – over and over again — because they just weren’t getting it right. The actors were completely exasperated after about 20 minutes as they had absolutely no idea what Jon was looking for. Finally, he took mercy on their young, naïve souls, and said, “Don’t focus on what are saying, but what you’re not saying. That’s the point of the scene.”

They still didn’t get it.

But I’ll spell it out for you, since we don’t have all day and the Stanley Cup playoffs are quickly approaching.

The point of the scene is about all the things that Tuzenbach and Irina won’t say to each other, about how they really feel, what they are really going to do, and what they really think about themselves and about each other.  It’s a scene about deception, ignorance, and heartbreak. And it’s about the loneliness and bitter disappointment in being so close to having everything you’ve ever dreamed of, and yet not.

In short, the point of the scene is about all the things not said, that should be said, that need to be said — that’s the heartache. That’s the bitterness Chekhov is showing us.

But as I think about it more carefully, I think Chekhov is also making a point about one of the root causes of chronic unhappiness: the inability to be grateful for what’s right in front of us, to be grateful for the possibilities of a life different then we imagined it would be. It’s the ingratitude that comes with thinking that if this life, or that person, isn’t exactly as I imagined it or they would be in my dreams, that somehow I have been wronged by them, by life, by the universe.

The tragedy of Tuzenbach and Irina is that neither of them are satisfied by what’s being offered, and instead are disappointed by the fantasies they have concocted in their imagination. However, instead of living a life of disappointment, Tuzenbach promptly gets himself killed in a duel within the next six pages of dialogue. And Irina, instead of mourning the sudden passing of her betrothed, pledges herself to a life of work as if she had just had gotten wind of a bad weather report.

Thank you, Chekhov, for the comedic relief.

In any event, why, you might ask, am I musing on Chekhov and not on the affordances of virtual learning, or serious games, or hand held devices? I suppose because as I sit here on my couch having been holed up in my home like a tepid Trappist this Palm Sunday weekend, I’m trying to practice gratitude for the people in my life who do indeed tell me the things perhaps I’d rather them not say but that should be said —  that need to be said. I’m grateful for the honest and substantive relationships that are indeed imperfect, as I am imperfect, but are courageous and loving in spite of all our imperfections. A far better thing, I think, to sustain the real and imperfect then turn one’s back and have all that potential turn to dust.

Becoming the Avadhuta

Oh life, it’s bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me…

Yes, yes, I’m still musing on the virtual worlds thing.  I’m not sure if the world of simulations is just getting better or my patience with the real world is eroding at lightening speed, but I think I’m getting a newfound appreciation for life with an avatar.

One of the great things about being a doctoral student is the freedom to choose what you actually want to study, because you’ve essentially earned the right to tell that Registrar: Yeah, multilinear regression can take a long walk off a short pier; I’m taking a class on Virtual Worlds.  And in this class, instead of weeping over SPSS pairwise comparison charts or homogeneity of the variance tests, you get to create an avatar and play two hours of World of Warcraft AS AN ASSIGNMENT.  How cool is that?!

Now, I’ve never played WOW or any other MPOG (multiplayer online game), though Big Bang Theory definitely piqued my attention.  However, I was honestly scared off playing WOW after watching Penny (BBT) turn into a slovenly, smelly, aggressive beast (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FZ4ycL_YcY).  Plus, my real life was just so full and busy and filled with, well, real things, I honestly believed my life was far better without any of this online gaming stuff.

The irony that my doctoral studies and research is completely centered on gaming and simulation is not lost on me.  But I believed that was work.  My life didn’t need graphic rendering to be complete.

And it still doesn’t, really.  I don’t need to play online games, build avatars, or complete quests to feel more complete or accomplished with my life.  But as my world increasingly becomes fraught with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, where on any given day I’m either awarded a badge of awesomeness or alternatively metaphorically kicked in the teeth because you just simply can’t please everybody, I’m finding myself drawn into the rabbit hole of immersive simulations and games.

Face it.  Games are cool.  Everybody plays games.  Those who know me in real life know my obsession with hockey (yes, in the off season I watched reruns of the playoffs and the Stanley Cup).  I have always enjoyed playing theatre games, was a fan of PacMan when it first came on the scene (I’m THAT old), and who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned drinking game with your high school buddies or the ladies from the PTA (can those girls pack it away…).

And then, of course, there are the games we play with other people: I’ll call you if you call me; I’ll say I love you if you say it first; let’s see if you still love me after I put you through the Labours of Hercules and a Thousand and One Nights of deafening silence, stuffing wax in my ears to navigate the treacherous waters of the Sirens.  Not to mention the games we play when we’re alone in the house with only our reflection through darkly mirrored hallways: games where we reward ourselves with badges of courage for saying all the things we should have said in the heat of the moment but didn’t, but are brilliant in the afterthought nonetheless.

So yes, games.  We’re all game players, and sometimes we’re honest and sometimes we cheat, but we play even when we don’t know the outcomes cause we can or because we think we’ll actually win.

So I’m going to say for the record that maybe I’ve been wrong about virtual worlds and maybe having a fictionalized embodied agent fight my battles is not the worse thing in the world.  The truth is I know full well that my innermost self is identical with the transcendental Self, and that which is of this earth is the same as all that which is not of this earth.  I am both the fiction and the reality — something I think game designers have hit on inadvertently.  We are both ourselves and our avatars at the same time we are not ourselves and not our avatars.  It’s the closest I’ll probably ever get to becoming the Avadhuta, a mystic who is beyond dualities and common worldly concerns. It’s the path of the saintly fool and the essence of crazy wisdom.  There are worse things to aspire to then be the hurt, lost and blinded fool stumbling about a land fully realized through mostly fantasy and imagination. Life’s a dream anyway.

I can’t go on, I’ll go on — for real

For those not aware, virtual worlds are vastly different then game worlds.

In game worlds, there is a delineated space in which the activity is driven by overarching objectives devised by the game’s authors. Virtual worlds, however, have no overarching objective. There are no goals or aims to be pursued by the player. Rather, the world contains a limitless supply of atomonics to create a world purely for amusing oneself.

As such, in the absence of an overarching aim, this void is filled with players devising social aims through their surrogate self, their avatar, deriving purpose and meaning in virtual interactions with other avatars.

I have commented before on my sense of unease with the virtual world: the vacant, zombie like stares, the absence of touch and warmth. However, I’ve come to realize that there is another element of the virtual world I dislike: the absence of purpose or meaning.

The virtual world exists for its own sake; a platform for the Self and what the Self, through the surrogate Self, can cajole, manipulate, and seduce from others. It is the recognition of this essentially Becketoinian landscape that fuels my unease. It’s as if scores of players are waiting for Godot, but they don’t even realize that they are, in fact, waiting. (I can’t go on, I’ll go on — virtually.)

I suspect for many, this virtual world mirrors very real, purposeless lives. Devoid of meaningful relationships, I know people who exist in a world where there is no Supreme Design, no meaning except to persist in the exploitation of others because the meaning of the universe begins and ends with what they can see, touch, and manipulate. This is the apocalyptic world of the existentialists — emotionally and psychology confined like Hamm in his wheelchair, or Winnie buried to her chin in sand, paralyzed by drivel and discreation, (Beckett, 1957, 1961).

I fundamentally reject this world. I vehemently rail against the idea that the six inches between anyone’s ears can contain and comprehend the infinite expanse of the universe and the mysteries contained therein. I cannot know the infinite variety of life as I experience it now — and therein lies my faith, I suppose. My belief that life and its meaning lay beyond the dark shadows of my limited knowledge and imagination.

I know nothing, and am nothing in the vast expanse of existence. This much I know. But in this perspicacity of a limited experience and understanding, I do recognize that I am part of something bigger than I can ever know in this lifetime. And in that enormity, there is purpose: the lifelong search to understand and know the mysteries of the universe and how I may contribute a verse.

It is interesting to me how both artists and scientists are interested in the interplay between order and chaos. Biophysicists, for example, are preoccupied with this space between order and chaos, and are beginning to discover new rules for life based on the dynamics of criticality.

Criticality is where one system transforms rapidly into another. Some believe criticality might play a role in some of biology’s fundamental and largely unexplained phenomena: how interacting genes shape an organism’s development, and how neurons give rise to complex cognitive functions.

Biophysicist John Beggs of Indiana University says, “You’ve got randomness, and you’ve got order. And right between them, you’ve got the phase transition. The idea is, you want to get as close as possible to chaos, but you don’t want to go into the chaos. You want to be on the edge, on the safe side, ” (Keim, 2015).

Exactly.

So with that, I’ll let the artists and physicists peer past the black curtain of nothingness, and I’ll try and remember to be compassionate with those who feel that a virtual world is more meaningful than the real one. As for me, I’ll embrace the real, orderly, and purposeful, no matter how close I get to the edge.

——

Beckett, S. (1957). Endgame.

Beckett, S. (1961). Happy Days.

Keim, B. (2015). Biologists Find New Rules for Life at the Edge of Chaos. Retrieved on 13 February 2015 at http://www.wired.com/2014/05/criticality-in-biology/?

Motivation and virtual worlds

What motivates people to check out of reality and into a virtual world? Lepper and Henderlong (2000) describes the 4 C’s of intrinsic motivation – challenge, curiosity, control, and context – and notes interestingly how there is often a detrimental effect on people whose initial intrinsic interest in an activity is diminished after the introduction of extrinsic incentives that are not a reflection of a person’s competency or value. More pertinent to the analysis of virtual worlds, Ryan & Deci’s self-determination theory (2000; 2000a) is used by Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan (2010) to examine the appeal and benefits of video games.

Essentially, Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan’s findings (2010) from a series of studies reveal that the motivation for sustained engagement in video games is based on how these games satisfy basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Csikscentmihalyi’s decades-long research on positive psychology (i.e., happiness and creativity) has included examining the motivations behind participation in creative and challenging undertakings. In this effort, Csikscentmihalyi has coined the term “flow” to describe the kind of engagement in activities in which people experience control, immersion, and a release from the pressure of external, distracting stimuli like time (2014).

While there has been and continues to be an interest in examining the benefit and draw backs of videos games and what motivates people to play them, there is less research done on why millions of people have been motivated to participate in virtual worlds. The documentary Life 2.0, however, fills that void by examining the lives of three very different participants of the virtual world Second Life, illuminating how virtual worlds can both advance and impede the growth of real world lives and relationships.

Examining what motivates people to spend sometimes hundreds of hours a month in a virtual world is a complex endeavor. Life 2.0 indicates that those that spend an inordinate amount of time in a virtual world seem to do so because their real lives are missing something or are generally unfulfilling. In virtual worlds, there are challenges, curiosity, control, and context (Lepper & Henderlong, 2000) that motivate people to engage in a world of fantasy. If the people in Life 2.0 are representative of virtual world players, their motivation to play is sustained, in part, because their real lives do not seem to have, as Ryan & Deci (2000, 2000a) note, competence, autonomy, and relatedness in their work or interpersonal relationships.

Too, virtual worlds can facilitate a sense of flow, where players are able to: (a) to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, (b) in which he or she can use his or her skills to meet clear demands, (c) thereby forgetting his or her own problems, and (d) his or her own separate identity, (e) at the same time obtaining a feeling of control over the environment, (f) which may result in a transcendence of ego- boundaries and consequent psychic integration with metapersonal systems, (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).

If Life 2.0 is a representative sample of people who engage in Second Life, than one can extrapolate that virtual worlds enable people to reinvent themselves as either they would like to be or wouldn’t dare to do in real life. Also, virtual worlds enable people to build a world limited only by their imaginations, where they can fly in the air, teleport from one location to another, and free of real world limitations of resources and physics.

Lastly, virtual worlds also enable people to obtain a sense of relatedness from others across great distances, connecting with them emotionally and psychologically if not physically. While this deep immersion in a virtual world might connote to some The Matrix made flesh, for many others this ability to escape and reinvent oneself unfettered by the limitations of reality seems to have actually become a conduit to a more fully realized existence.

Certainly not being at the mercy of reality and the capricious winds of change may be motivation enough to abandon ship and log-on to a world that ensures insulation from real world pain and disappointment.

Works Cited

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014).Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikscentmihalyi.  Chapter 10. Play and intrinsic rewards (pp. 135 – 152) and Chapter 14 Toward a Psychology of Optimal Experience (pp. 209-225).

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627–668.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.

Lepper, M. R., & Henderlong, J. (2000). Turning “play” into “work” and “work” into “play”: 25 years of research on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. In C. Sansone & J. M. Harackiewicz (Eds.), Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance (pp. 257-307). San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.

Przybylski, A. K, Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). A motivational model of video game engagement Review of General Psychology 14, 2, 154-166.

Value of virtual affordances

Since January 2013, I’ve been working on a study that is seeking to develop sensor-based and sensor-free detectors of affect for the intelligent tutoring system GIFT developed by the Army Research Lab (ARL). In this study, our central learning tool is the serious video game vMedic, which is a bit like the commercial game “Call of Duty.” Unlike “Call of Duty,” vMedic is a training simulation that seeks to support the warfighter’s learning about how to administer hemorrhage control and bleeding care while under fire in a combat zone.

One of the objectives of this game is to simulate the complications that often accompany administering care in a hostile environment. To accomplish this simulation, the developers designed the graphics, dialogue, and a sound design to replicate a real combat environment. This replication is important to promote the transfer of newly acquired skills and protocols necessary for warfighters to implement in a real world context.

Since the beginning of this project, I thought the care under fire training would be significantly improved if it could be made a more immersive environment. Using head-mounted gear like the Occulus Rift would go a long way in supporting a more immersive environment, removing the distancing effect (Rigby & Ryan, 2011) between the participant and the game environment. It would also support greater attentional focus, eliminating any real world interferences that might occur when just looking at a computer screen, e.g., a temptation to look around the room, check one’s phone, etc.

However, implementing an Oculus Rift would also need to be accompanied by the use of motion sensor equipment, like a Wii or a Kinect. To replicate a real world experience (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010), one would need to facilitate more natural gestures and movements as opposed to using a keyboard and mouse. This notion speaks directly to supporting authenticity in virtual worlds where experiences in the fiction of VR worlds are consistent with our real world experiences and understandings (Rigby & Ryab, 2011).

For the purposes of training warfighters for emergency response situations, doing so in a virtual world is superior to training through an augmented reality platform. The kind of emergency response training necessary to prepare warfighters is extraordinarily complex and costly to simulate in the real world – even with the assistance of a hand held device that could turn transform real world simulations into an augmented reality training platform. The beauty of the immersive virtual environment is that once the VR program has been developed, it can be utilized over and again by a number of participants in a variety of locations around the world. Contrast that to an augmented reality experience where there would still need to be some real world setup, and the complications of cost and complexity of execution still are major hindering factors (Dunleavy, Dede & Mitchell, 2009). Additionally, an AR training experience that still relied on some real world set up would not be easily transportable to military bases around the world, even if a portion of it could be offset to a handheld or some other portable technical device.

The objective of vMedic is to ensure that by the end of the training experience, warfighters should be significantly better equipped and prepared to respond without hesitation in a medical crisis situation. Employing a VR design to training for these kinds of crisis situations would arguably go a long way in supporting the depth of processing needed to master new procedural and domain skills in medical care, providing a sort of test run for a real world crisis situation.

While this is not something that is currently within the auspices of our current study with ARL, it is something that I believe warrants further investigation and empirical analysis. Intuitively speaking, there is something very appealing to being able to acquire life and death skills without the additional stress of actually being responsible for the life or death of a real person. I know the idea of test running potentially stressful and dire circumstances in my own life would be a most welcomed experience.

Works Cited

Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. W. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1), 10-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01038.

Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R. (2009). Affordances and Limitations of Immersive Participatory Augmented Reality Simulations for Teaching and Learning. Journal of Science Education & Technology,      18, 7-22.

Rigby, S., & Ryan, R. M. (2011). Chapter 5. Immersion and Presence. In Glued to Games. How video games draw us in and hold us spell  bound.

Virtual is not enough

Ralph Schroeder of the University of Oxford (2008) has defined virtual worlds as “persistent virtual environments in which people experience others as being there with them – and where they can interact with them,” (p. 2). Mark Bell of Indiana University (2008) has postulated that virtual worlds are: “A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers,” (p. 2). As a theatre practitioner, I am both fascinated and alienated by virtual worlds. Indeed, there are interesting commonalities as well as distinctions between the virtual world and the world of the play. It is my hope that both might be able to inform the other, rendering a richer experience both in the surrogate and the temporal world.

In a first analysis, donning a mask is not much different than adopting an avatar. Both transform the actor/player into an “Other,” rendering themselves into a liminal space where they are both themselves and not themselves at the same time. Actors in rehearsal do a sort of psychological dance when embodying a character. Jeanine’s solution to a bad situation is to walk away or find alternative solutions; but as Hedda Gabler, the only solution to a bad situation lies at the end of the barrel of a gun pointing directly at her self. How can I, Jeanine, make reincarnate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a character so unlike myself? This is where actor training comes in.

Some actors think As If they are the other character. They do a psychological mind shift, creating a history and breathing life into a fictional character and walk through rehearsals As If they really are their fictional character – to the point where if you call these actors by their real names in the rehearsal hall, they refuse to answer you until you call them by their character name. We fondly refer to this as Method Acting, and generally most actors take this approach with tenuous patience, with a dab of disdain behind closed doors. Some actors don’t really embody their characters until they have their character’s costume on; some until the set is fully realized.

I preferred the old school English training approach: I look for body posture, gestures, mannerism, vocal patterns, etc., that resemble what my character would look and sound like, using the adjustments to my body and voice to inform the psychology and affect of my character. I couple this with solid text analysis to understand why my character says what they do, what is their super objective, what tactics they use to achieve their tactics, and then find the spaces between the lines, the things that are not said – stolen looks, “unconscious” mannerism, proximity and distance to people and things – to bring a realism to my performance. As a director, I encourage my actors to think before, during, and after their lines: What does this line mean? Why are they saying that now? What is it they are not saying? Do they want to stay or go? Touch or not touch?

In this process we create the Schroeder virtual world where people experience others as being there with them – and where they can interact with them. Where we both are ourselves and yet represent ourselves as not ourselves but something other in an environment of our own creation. However, using Bell’s definition of a virtual world, we are not facilitated by networked computers, though we are supported by the technology of costumes, sets, lights, and sound. And it is in this way that the virtual world and the world of the play intersect. However, it is in how these worlds part ways that causes me discomfort and causes me to wonder if there is a way to overcome the alienation effect I feel whenever I engage in a computerized virtual world.

I suppose if I had to identify the elements of virtual worlds that disturb me, I’d have to say it is the effect of the non-gaze and the absence of touch that provoke feelings of alienation. The gaze of avatars, no matter how well rendered these avatars are, have the uncanny valley effect on me. The non-gaze of avatars are zombie like and impenetrable to me. And as for touch, well, the absence of touch, of warmth and human contact perpetuates a feeling of isolation for me as opposed to facilitating a sense of belonging or membership. I guess I just don’t see and feel the love in virtual worlds and I’m not sure how or if that can ever be remedied for me.

While I love to socialize with friends on Facebook, text and message the people I love, my surrogate self in these environments is not the real Jeanine. It’s the shadow of Jeanine, just the mask and not the substance behind it. So if I had to comment on how virtual worlds might be different in 50-100 years, I would have to say that they would likely have been able to figure out how to make the experiences more life like and less like rendered cartoon characters.

For now, no matter how great the technology or the ease in communicating through cyberspace may already be, I want the gaze, the touch.  I want the real deal and not just the virtual.

Bell, M. (2008). Toward a definition of “Virtual Worlds.” Journal of Virtual   Worlds Research, 1 (1): 1-5.

Schroeder, R. (2008). Defining virtual worlds and virtual environments. Journal of   Virtual Worlds Research, 1 (1): 1-5.

 

You’re the only one who knows

I am not perfect.

Don’t laugh. I’m being serious here.

Being sick for nearly a week during the holidays has made this abundantly clear to me in a number of ways. To list my imperfections, however, seems self-indulgent. They are the usual suspects. And then some (God forgive me).

But I’ve got Big Love, a wicked quick mind, uninhibited laughter, and Crazy-A$$ed Kitchen Dance Moves that I’m sure my neighbors will cash in on one of these days.  That stuff, I’ve got in spades: Perfectly uninhibited imperfection.

So as we end this year and anticipate the next one, here’s my proposition: Let’s Do This.

No fear.

Cause Time is not, nor ever will be, our friend.