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).


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.