The Unbearable Likeness of Being
This is a somewhat non-linear reflection of virtual bodies that also traces out how I’ve encountered and thought about the issue of embodiment over the past 10 years since I first began doing research in virtual worlds.
Kool Aid in Goggles
In the spring of 2005, I was taking a cultural studies course that traced the development of personal computing from the Cold War era through the Counterculture era. Virtual reality (VR) intersected with the Counterculture in an interesting way. During the countercultural movement, the fascination with technology that triggered feelings and sensations of global consciousness drove the appeal of strobe lights, Day-Glo paint, LSD, and also virtual reality systems. What was special about VR was that it allowed people to become disembodied in a space that could be distorted at will. As Barlow wrote after his first experience in virtual reality, “Suddenly I don’t have a body anymore … the closest analog to virtual reality in my experience is psychedelic”.
What was interesting was that this historical theme seemed so out of place in the context of contemporary virtual worlds where embodiment was the unquestioned status quo. Whether in Second Life or World of Warcraft, it would probably baffle most gamers to ask them what a virtual world would look like without bodies? Or what such a world would be used for? But in the same way that games like World of Goo and Crayon Physics Deluxe challenge the status quo of gaming genres, it’s important to keep in mind that the virtual worlds we currently have may not encompass what virtual worlds can be.
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