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 serious of studies reveal that the motivation for sustained engagement in video games is based in how these games satisfy basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

And lastly, 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. Lastly, virtual worlds can facilitate a sense of flow, where players experience 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.

Soon it’s gonna rain

Renowned American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, noted that a person’s final level of psychological development is achieved when all basic and mental needs are fulfilled and the “actualization” of a person’s full personal potential takes place. Examples of self-actualization include the ability to express one’s creativity, pursue spiritual enlightenment and knowledge, and contribute meaningfully to society. In order to achieve this self-actualization, however, one’s basic needs – food, security, shelter, belongingness – must be first met. When we live lives that are different from our true nature and capabilities, we are less likely to be satisfied as compared to those whose goals and lives are in harmony.

I have always been partial to the idea of striving for self-actualization as opposed to seeking some abstract notion of happiness. Happiness, as far as I am concerned, is fleeting. It is unsustainable in an ever-changing world with constant demands. In this way, my objective in relationships has never been to be with someone who has made me happy per se. Rather, the litmus test includes: Is there mutual passion and desire to understand? Can we see the beauty and potential in each other? Do we seek to own the other or can we love so fiercely that we can set each other free to choose rather than bow down to obligatory actions?

This is a complex analysis, no doubt, fraught with potential pit falls. For example, it leaves me vulnerable to affective forecasting error: the belief that future positive and negative effects will have a bigger impact on my future happiness than they actually will. Essentially, there is no way to guarantee that my future self will be happy with my present self’s decision making. But I take solace in Maslow’s belief that ultimately people are essentially motivated to realize their full potential. It’s what drives them to make the day-to-day decisions, and dream about future goals. And to this end, if I can be in a partnership with someone who also seeks to realize themselves completely, who allows me to do the same, I think that is the beginning of the greatest love story ever.

But what does it mean to live a life seeking self-actualization? Researchers say it includes the following: being able to judge situations correctly and honestly; accepting mine and other’s shortcomings (with humor and tolerance); relying on my own experiences to form opinions and not being swayed by questionable cultural values; embracing a spontaneous way of living despite what others may want; finding tasks that take me beyond myself to contribute to a greater good; striving for autonomy in thought, deed, and word; appreciating the world around me; finding comfort in solitude while being socially compassionate; nurturing close relationships; and lastly, forging deep, loving bonds.

This last one — the development of loving bonds — for me requires kindness and intelligence, both on my part and in my beloved. When those two elements are absent, suspicion, hostility, and anger invariably rear their ugly head despite our best of intentions. I really believe that kindness goes a long way in staving off broken dishes, slammed doors, cold shoulders, and lonely nights.

Ultimately, I may not always have made the best choices for my future happiness, but prescience about our future selves is a complicated, if not impossible matter for most people. However, I am hopeful if I start from a place of kindness and intelligence, I can, to paraphrase Tom and Schmidt:

Find four limbs of a tree,

build four walls and a floor,

bind it over with leaves,

and run inside with you to stay.

Then we can let it rain,

we’ll not feel it

nor complain

if it never stops at all.

We’ll live

and love

within our own four walls…

I know that the question of “Does this person make me happy?” is a much simpler analysis. And perhaps if I were a simpler person, this would satisfy me. But it doesn’t. And honestly, I’d rather be alone in a corner with a puppy and a goldfish then deny my chocolaty, complex, actualized-seeking spirit.

Youth, technology & civic education

Civic engagement is a normative concept. This is particularly salient when we consider what are valid and viable civic actions in a digital age. User-generated content sites expand the opportunities for young people to connect, engage and create. Rooted in social relations, young people’s civic identities, political views, and values are driven by the digital media. Youth and digital media disrupt the traditional power relations between adult authority and youth voice. Recognizing this disruption is an important one. In addressing how to promote democracy and a culture of democratic practice, we must first recognize that our current political system no longer has a stranglehold on how we engage in meaningful dialogue about ideas and policies. Indeed, youth who are tethered to online communities also engage in the discussion of important ideas, but a mere cacophony of opinions does not in and of itself contribute to the progressive development of a democratic society.

While youth have access to digital media tools to build social and personal identities, they lack the skills to communicate their common concerns in effective ways to larger audiences. An informed opinion — clearly expressed, and rooted in history and philosophy — is key to meaningful civic participation. But how do our youth learn to become democratic citizens in a society where civic education is disappearing from our public learning institutions? The withering away of civic education in our public education system should be a trend reversed and revised. Part of this revision must include a consideration of how technology can and should contribute to a more fully realized democratic society worthy of the root meaning of “civic”.

“Civic” comes from civis, or “citizen,” and the corona civica denoted a garland of oak leaves and acorns given to ancient Romans who had saved a fellow citizen’s life. With this in mind, then, to be civically engaged and promote a civic education means to engage in life promoting acts rooted in ethics and morality. And perhaps this is one of the sticking points as to why addressing a civic education in the public school system has become so problematic: how does one maintain a separation of church and state when on the tightrope of discussing ethics and morality? I think the answer comes in embracing the power of inquiry as a means of instruction as opposed to didactic instruction. We need to educate our youth to ask important questions and discover meaningful answers for themselves – not spoon-feed them with standardized, limited answers.

I believe the new millennium will come into politics but in a manner different than their parents and grandparents. Enabled to be both producers and consumers of information with unprecedented speed, online networks can be galvanized at critical moments and not merely employed at yearly election of representatives who may or may not be responsive to radical decision-making when necessity dictates. But in the absence of a formal digital civic education agenda that can support the development of effective and meaningful civic participation, it seems that educators should integrate across the curriculum principles of a civic education framed within the trends and potential of our current technological landscape. Much in the same way that socio-emotional learning is increasingly being incorporated in traditional learning domains, civic education should similarly be incorporated to support the development of the well-informed, online, civically engaged problem solvers of tomorrow.  And doesn’t the world need better problem solvers? I know I do.