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.