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.


Frustration and desirable difficulties

I find it only a little ironic that some of my most recent research tasks include devising interventions for GIFT (Generalized Intelligent Framework for Tutoring) based on the affect frustration, important when one considers how frustration is negatively correlated to learning gains. Post the heyday of Behaviorist research, Amsel (1992) proposed a theory of frustration as it relates to learning. In this theory, he identified how frustration in achieving a goal can be overcome in partial reinforcement extinction conditions when the outward manifestation of conflict disappears after overcoming emotional conflict in circumstances and the subject reengages in approaching a goal even in the presence of anticipated frustration. One idea in regards to devising an intervention to overcome frustration is in providing the frustrated learner with a meaningful factoid that provides information that should motivate the learner to reengage with mastering their goal task, encouraging the learner to push through frustration and reengage with achieving their goal.

While the Behaviorist approach to learning has fallen out of favor amongst educational psychologists, what’s old is what’s new in Bjork’s theory of desirable difficulties (1994). Bjork has demonstrated that certain difficult training conditions that would seem to impede performance actually yield more significant benefits than easier training conditions. The objective in this condition is not to ameliorate the frustration of the learner through reducing the level of difficulty in a task, but rather support conditions that would have the learner push through the difficulties in achieving their goal contributing to greater long-term learning.  Think of weight lifting to build muscle, and you’ll get the general drift.

I suppose the layman’s interpretation of these two approaches is essentially what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And so in these frustrating times, here’s a little factoid to keep you warm at night: Keep Calm and Drink Scotch (we will find our way).

Please don’t test my better nature

For over a year now, I have been focusing my work on detecting and identifying affect and behavior in learning environments. Predominately, this work has been tech-based learning platforms, e.g., students participating in intelligent tutoring systems and serious video games, but I’ve also begun to do work in much less structured environments. Being skilled at this detection work, it doesn’t take me very long to construct meaning from discourse.


However, I know full well that the constructing of meaning from utterances alone is a fool’s task, because what we say and what we mean is not usually the same thing. Luckily enough for me, I’m good at ferreting out the subtext of utterances: analyzing them, reinterpreting them, placing them in a context that renders them substantively more meaningful than their phonemic parts. I’m so good, in fact, in translating everyday parlance that it stuns me not a little bit when speech actually matches subtext and intentions with such ferocity that it defies any attempts at reinterpretation. I find this particularly true when words are used to hurt or distance one person from another; usually the text and the intent is so well aligned there can be no misunderstanding, no room to pretend the distress was due to carelessness or random error.


When well-aligned text hits its mark, I’m faced with two options: retaliation or alienation. My faith is actually pretty clear at which is the better path. Matthew 18:8 says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” I have always extended this understanding to include instances when a person causes you to disrespect and devalue your very self, than that person should be cut off from your life than continue to be welcomed in your life to persist in the pain making.


But if you read a little further in 18:15-17, things get a little more complicated. Matthew says the following: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”


Now, this heathen tax collector thing is a bit of a slippery slope, because at the time when Jesus said this the good people of Yahweh would shun heathens and tax collectors. However, Jesus made it clear in his teachings that we should welcome the heathens and tax collectors to our table – should they come willingly to said table.


My interpretation of this seemingly inconsistent precept is this: I have every right to remove those people from my life who seek to hurt and devalue me, but I must also be willing to forgive, should forgiveness be sought. Even if all I really want is have them take a long walk off a really short pier.

Superbus scientes

While trying to get the attention of my predominantly devout, fasting Saudi Arabian students today, I got a little pedagogically extreme. Typically when it is time to lecture, I give a bellow out in my amber alto that all eyes should be on me. A reasonable request since I hand over most of the class time to peer work and collaborative cognitive experiences. Today, however, my people (as I so fondly refer to them) seemed giddy with hunger and fatigue, and it took a little longer to wrestle the attentional focus of 25 pairs of distracted eyes.

     “Eyes on me… eyes on me,” I said.


A little louder:

       “Eyes on me! Guys, hey, eyes on me…”

Better, but still not 100%.

I stood dead in the center of the room, cocked my hips to one side, and firmly planted my hands on that asymmetrical, yet authoritative frozen swag.

        “You guys do know I AM the MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE ROOM, right?”

… Got ’em.

After the chuckling subsided, I scanned the room assuring my position of authority was reestablished, and proceeded to explain the difference between numeric and non-numeric quantifiers that supply referents for phrases with no previous explicitly mentioned referent.

While my attention-getter was mostly a humorous tactic to redirect my students’ focus, I was also keenly aware of the fact that I did, in fact, believe that I was the most important person in the room. This in and of itself was not troubling. What was troubling was the realization that I wrap this unabashed hubris around me like a metaphorical, ridiculously obvious scarlet cloak in almost every area of my life. At least, I suspect I do.

This is not to say that I am narcissistic. I don’t, in fact, like spending the energy to have all eyes on me 80% of the time. (I can do 20%, but not much more than that.) But I do, however, expect to have the respect afforded a person who thinks they’re pretty darned smart and the coolest cat around.

So what I’m getting at is this: if you think you’ll keep my attention with anything less than your best behavior, you can KISS IT. As Katy so eloquently says: takes more than a wink, more than a drink, more than you think. There’s no discount price for this girl. Not now, not ever.