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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Are People still People when they MOO?

My first encounter with a virtual world was actually LambdaMOO. In my junior year in college, I was in a small seminar with Doug Davis (who later became my thesis adviser) that looked at the intersection of Freud and the Internet. Although strange at first glance, the hyper-textual nature of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams makes sense once you flip through the book and see the quantity of footnotes and pointers to other parts of the book. In the seminar, after reading Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen, we had an assignment to try out a textual MUD/MOO ourselves. And so, one night in the late winter of 2000, I logged onto LambdaMOO.

As a gamer who grew up with graphical games, I found LambdaMOO's textuality eerily jarring. Every action had to be explicitly typed out and specified. Even looking at someone was a highly textual and specific action. In the real world and even in graphical games, looking at someone is a largely unconscious act, but in a MUD/MOO, looking at someone was a very deliberate and conscious action. To interact with anything and anyone in a MUD/MOO required an extraordinary level of articulateness and deliberateness. You can't just nod your head unconsciously. You have to "/nod" deliberately or "/em scratches head in utter confusion".

I was getting myself totally lost in the hallways and rooms of LambdaMOO when suddenly a female persona starting chatting me up in an isolated corridor. I told her I was a noob, and idle banter turned into a line of questions about having gone through medical physicals for sports or college entry. And suddenly this idle banter became a very serious question of: "Do you want to role-play one out? I'll be the doctor and you can be the athlete." Since I had nowhere else to go in LambdaMOO, I said yes. She then teleported us to a private room that she was able to lock. After all, you can't just go and do crazy things in the middle of virtual hallways. She then warned me, "If you do anything weird, I'm gonna teleport away".

What followed in the next ten minutes was the most sexually charged non-sexual experience I've ever had in a virtual world. The difference between physical nudity and virtual nudity is that you don't have to type everything out explicitly when you take clothes off in the real world. Typing out words about your clothing and your body requires a deliberate, conscious articulation that isn't necessary in physical reality. In the real world, your arms and legs just do what they're supposed to do. In the virtual world, you have to tell them exactly what to do. And doing so makes you hyper-aware of your physical body via the necessity of articulating your virtual embodiment.

My first experience with virtual worlds was the opposite of Barlow's. What struck me about LambdaMOO was how textual embodiment was able to highlight and make my embodiment salient in a way I'd never experienced in either physical reality or graphical worlds.

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Why So Seriosity?

In the spring of 2004, I began working for a start-up that was exploring the intersection of gaming and corporate work. The start-up was later named Seriosity. In the early exploration phase, part of our effort was focused on finding the magic ingredient of online games that we could then leverage in corporate settings. By that time, a couple of undergraduate gamers had also joined the team. What was strange to us at first, but soon understandable, was how the older members of the team latched onto the 3D element as the magic ingredient. Since it was the most salient aspect of online games, it made sense that 3D avatars and objects would appear to be the magic.

On this point, I think no one has said it better than Randy Farmer in 1996:

3-D isn't an interface paradigm. 3-D isn't a world model. 3-D isn't the missing ingredient. 3-D isn't an inherently better representation for every purpose.

3-D is an attribute, like the color blue.

Any time you read or hear about how great 3-D is and how it's going to change everything about computers and services, substitute the word blue for 3-D.


And yet, at that time in 2004 (and sometimes even these days), the notion that a virtual meeting room with virtual chairs and virtual tables and virtual whiteboards was somehow cool and efficient was echoing everywhere. Unfortunately, boring people are still boring when they are in 3D.

Moreover, there was an assumption that people and meetings would be cooler if everyone had an avatar. The attempt to leverage this aspect of online games may be misguided because it misses the point of how 3D bodies function in MMOs. Games are all about slowing you down so you don't reach goals instantaneously. Without the need to work to get to the next step, there would be no game. This is why it takes you longer and longer in the game to get to the next level. This is why you have to walk to places on foot. This is why you have to spend weeks playing the game to accumulate enough gold to buy a mount that only lets you move 60% faster. The virtual body that conforms to physical rules is the perfect constraint in an online game because it makes use of the familiar metaphor of embodiment, borrowing many of the limitations of our physical bodies--having to walk to places, not being able to walk through dungeon walls, and not being able to be at multiple places at the same time. Sure, there is customization and status associated with 3D avatars, but as a game mechanic, avatars function as a prop that slow you down by leveraging the familiar constraints of physical embodiment.

Everyone keeps looking for the killer app for virtual worlds, and the only one we know that works so far is gaming. And perhaps the reason for this is because it's the only application in which slowing people down is a good thing. If you were using a virtual world for work, why on earth would you want people to walk to places, open virtual file drawers, be blocked by virtual walls, or have to figure out what to put on in the morning?

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Melting Faces

At Stanford, my graduate career was spent conducting experiments in immersive virtual reality. We were interested in presenting what seemed to be physical reality but then changing the rules in the background. We had subjects interact with an agent who shared 30% of their facial features. Or we had subjects interact with an agent who mimicked their head movements at a 4 second delay. Or we created worlds where other participants would appear to be looking attentively at you even when they were looking elsewhere.

In one particular well-publicized study, we morphed a nationally-representative sample of voting age citizens into either Bush or Kerry right before the 2004 election (at a 35% ratio). We found that people were more likely to vote for the candidate they had been morphed with, enough to have swung the election if everyone were morphed with Kerry. What was even more interesting was that in our sample of about 200 participants, not one detected the self morph.

This line of research intrigued me because it foregrounded the possibility of breaking the rules of interaction in virtual worlds in productive ways. Melting faces could lead to an avatar becoming more persuasive. I was intrigued because it reminded me that virtual worlds were good for doing what was impossible to do in the physical world rather than simply produce replicates of physical reality.

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Do I Look Fat in These Virtual Jeans?

In a lot of academic research and commercial virtual worlds during the years when Second Life was hyped in the media, everyone seemed to be obsessed with replicating physical reality in virtual reality. It seemed important to create avatars that were as realistic as possible, with video-captured facial expressions and animations. People wanted virtual chairs for their avatars to sit in. People wanted virtual cars that their avatars could drive in. And in Second Life, there was virtual food and virtual Abercrombie and Fitch knock-offs.

I think that if we could go back in time and ask John Barlow what world he would make if he could be anything, do anything, and make anything he wanted in a virtual world, it would look a lot like the world on LSD. In other words, it would look nothing like the physical world. What's so odd about Second Life to me is that in a world where people can be anyone and do anything they want, that Second Life looks so much like Suburban America, except maybe with even more materialism than in real life (which I didn't think was possible).

On hindsight though, it does make sense. In a world where beauty is a click of the button away and where that form-fitting pair of designer jeans costs almost nothing, it makes it easy to spend way more time and effort on our virtual appearance and jeans than the ones we have in real life. Thus, in a strange way, the virtual world somehow can make us more focused on the physical and material aspects of the world. Virtual worlds make it easier to play out and satisfy the material needs we have in the physical world.

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Ending Thoughts

Barlow envisioned that virtual reality would take us away from the world of mundane physicality, but I think exactly the opposite has happened. Virtual worlds, in a variety of ways, have succeeded in reminding us of our physical embodiment and accentuating different aspects of our physical existence. Even in virtual worlds, we walk to places, sit in virtual chairs, and buy fashionable jeans.

Our bodies are so ubiquitous in both physical and virtual reality that they don't often don't appear to be objects worth thinking about, but the fact that bodies are ubiquitous in both worlds is in fact deeply interesting. What is it that our bodies do in virtual worlds? Why do we need virtual chairs if our virtual bodies never tire? It may very well be that embodiment carried over into virtual worlds because it is a familiar metaphor for interaction. And yet, if we interact and work in virtual worlds by borrowing a physical metaphor, do we end up limiting and constraining the potentials of being and interacting in virtual worlds? More importantly, what new forms of identity, interaction, and work might take place in virtual worlds if we could let our bodies go?