For those interested in literature, performance and the visual arts, the most fascinating dimension of the emerging technology of virtual reality (VR) is the perspectives it opens on representation. Approaching VR as a semiotic phenomenon, this book invites the reader to rethink textuality, literary theory and the cognitive processing of texts in the light of the new modes of artistic world-construction that have been made possible by electronic technology. VR has been defined as an "interactive, immersive experience generated by a computer." These two concepts are developed into the cornerstones of a phenomenology of reading which encompasses both traditional literary texts and the new textual genres made possible by the electronic revolution of the past few years, such as hypertext, electronic poetry, interactive movies, and synchronic role-playing games. The history of Western art and literature has seen the rise and fall of immersive ideals, and their replacement, during the twentieth century, by an aesthetics of active reader involvement, based on an attitude of critical distance and demystification, that culminates in the postmodern ideal of interactive participation in the creation of the text. This evolution calls for a synthesis which forms the central concern of this study: the reconquest of immersivity, a form of pleasure of the text that still thrives in the texts of popular culture, in an interactive environment that satisfies readers of a more cerebral disposition.
The book covers the following topics:
- The two faces of the virtual
In an introductory chapter, I explore the philosophical concept of virtuality, from the scholastic tradition to contemporary uses. This investigation reveals two different conceptions. One, associated with the work of Jean Baudrillard, regards the virtual as that which passes as real, but is not. The other, developed by Pierre LÚvy, the French philosopher of electronic media, conceives the virtual as that which could become real. One meaning suggests the negative idea of a "hyperreal" that takes the place of reality (or hides its absence, in the more radical interpretations); the other supports the positive idea of a field of possibilities. Yet both of these dimensions are implicated in the VR experience: immersion depends on a notion of fake reality, and interactivity can be seen as the development of the potential inherent to the virtual.
- VR technology as immersion and interactivity
This chapter develops the basic positions of VR developers concerning immersion and interactivity: immersion should be reached through the disappearance of the computer, which amounts, semiotically, to a disappearance of signs, while interactivity resides in the user's ability to change the environment during the course of a simulation through the movements of the body. If all technological problems are solved, this casting of the body as interface to the computer-simulated world should lead to a mutual reinforcement of the two experiences of immersion and interactivity. This ambition is analyzed as the literalization of phenomenological doctrine--especially of the views of Maurice Merleau-Ponty--concerning the mutual dependency of consciousness, embodied existence, and our sense of being-in-the-world.
- Theories of immersion
This chapter draws a parallel between the VR concept of immersion and the literary experience of "being caught up in a story." The negative connotations of the virtual as fake explains why, in contemporary poetics, immersion tends to be rejected as a passive and uncritical attitude. One of the goals of this project is to rehabilitate immersive aesthetics from the contempt of postmodern theory. In the phenomenology of reading, immersion is the experience through which a fictional world acquires the presence of an autonomous, language-independent reality populated with live human beings. Chapter 3 reviews a number of theories that have dealt with this phenomenon : Coleridge's classical idea of suspension of disbelief; Kendall Walton's theory of fiction as game of make-believe and his concept of "mental simulation"; Victor Nell's analysis of the psychological state of being "lost in a book" ; Richard Gerrig's concept of transportation; the spiritual exercise recommended by Ignatius de Loyola of a reading discipline involving all the senses in the mental representation of the textual world; the possible worlds approach to the semantics of fictionality and its description of the phenomenology of reading fiction as an imaginative "recentering" of the universe of possibilities around a new actual world. These theories will show that far from promoting passivity, as its opponents have argued, immersion necessitates an active engagement with the text and a demanding act of imagining.
- Poetics of immersion
Three forms of textual immersion are distinguished and discussed in two chapters. 1. Spatial: the reader develops a sense of place, a sense of being on the scene of the narrated events. 2.Temporal : the experience of a reader caught up in narrative suspense, the burning desire to know what happens next. 3. Emotional : the phenomenon of developing a personal attachment to the characters, of participating in their human experience. Narrative techniques are evaluated in terms of their ability to promote these various types of immersion, and immersivity is shown to be more important to the effect of literary realism than the life-likeness of the fictional world.
- The text as game versus the text as world
This chapter discusses the transition from immersive to interactive aesthetics though the contrasting metaphors of the world and the game. Through its implicit emphasis on the active role of the reader, the game metaphor parallels a conception of VR as a playground for the user. While the metaphor of world presupposes a certain transparency of language (the reader goes through the words toward the reference world), the metaphor of game views words as relatively opaque tokens which the reader arranges into various meaning configurations, as does a child with the pieces of a construction kit. The metaphor of the text as game is thus correlated to an emphasis on the material substance of the medium. "Game," however, is a broad concept covering a variety of activities, and it is too often used in a generic sense by literary critics. This chapters narrows down the metaphor by exploring what kind of games, and what specific features pertaining to these games provide meaningful analogies with the literary domain.
- The Poetics of Interactivity
Paralleling the discussion of immersion, two separate chapters are devoted to the poetics of interactivity. Concentrating on hypertext, chapter 7 examines the relation between interactivity, electronic support, and ergodic design (a concept proposed by Espen Aarseth); the properties of the electronic medium and their exploitation in the creation of new modes of interface between the text and the reader; the various types and functions of interactivity and the metaphors through which readers conceptualize interactivity. Chapter 8 takes a close look at the possibility of maintaining narrative coherence in an interactive environment, and at the loss of immersivity that takes place every time the reader is called upon to make a decision.
- Reconciling immersion and interactivity: the involvement of the body
While interactivity and immersion support each other in VR, it is argued that they conflict in literature because interactivity requires an awareness of signs, while immersion depends on their disappearance. The more actively and lucidly the reader participates in the textual game of the construction of meaning, the less she will be caught in the illusion of reality projected by the textual world. Some postmodern texts alternate between immersive and interactive moments, but as long as language is the only medium involved, the two dimensions cannot be experienced at the same time. Expanding the inquiry beyond the domain of solely language-supported forms of expression, two chapters explore various solutions to the artistic problem of reconciling immersion with interactivity. The first is devoted to non-electronic activities, such as children's games of make-believe, stage design in the theater, the art and architecture of Baroque churches, and ritual reenactments of myth. The second chapter pursues the inquiry in the electronic domain. It is argued that the potential contribution of electronic technology to the artistic synthesis of immersion and interactivity resides in the development of new forms of inscription of the body in a virtual world. These forms include the creation by the user of a virtual body in MOOs and MUDs; the assignment of a body-image to the user by the system and its projection on the screen in computer games and the literal, but limited involvement of the body in "goggles-and-glove" VR. Particular attention is paid to Interactive Drama, a form of VR that combines corporeal involvement with a narrative framework. The central idea of Interactive Drama is to minimize the difference between author, spectator, actor and character, as the user steps onto the stage, assumes the role of a character, and influences the development of the plot through her speech and actions. The chapter concludes with the discussion of two projects in interactive drama that offer contrasting design philosophies, and different solutions to the problem of maintaining narrative coherence in an interactive environment: Brenda Laurel's Placeholder and Joseph Bates' Oz.
Table of contents
The Poetics of Immersion
- 1. The Two (and Thousand) Faces of the Virtual
- Baudrillard and the virtual as fake--Pierre LÚvy and the virtual as potential--The text as double and as fake--The text as potentiality
- 2. VR Technology as Immersion and Interactivity
- Dreams of VR and some realities-- Presence, immersion and interactivity-- The phenomenological dimension of the VR experience
- Interlude 2: Virtual Realities of the Mind: Baudelaire, Huysmans, Coover
The Poetics of Interactivity
3. Theories of Immersion
- Immersion and the world metaphor-- Transportation and being lost in a book-- Possible Worlds-- Make-Believe-- Mental simulation
- Interlude 3: The Discipline of Immersion: Ignatius de Loyola
- 4. Spatial Immersion
- Spatial immersion: a sense of place and a model of space--Statio-temporal immersion: how to transport the reader onto the scene.
- 5. Immersive paradoxes: Temporal and Emotional Immersion
- Temporal immersion--Emotional immersion--Immersion and realism
- Interlude 5: Virtual Narration as Allegory of Immersion
Reconciling Immersion and Interactivity
- 6. From Immersion to Interactivity: The Text as World versus the Text as Game
- The texts as game--Comparing the game and the world metaphor
- Interlude 6: The Game-reader and the World-Reader: If On a Winter's Night a Traveler
- 7. Hypertext: The Functions and Effects of Selective Interactivity
- Interactive vs. ergodic design--Varieties of interactivity--Properties of the electronic medium--Conceptualizations of interactivity
- Interlude 7: Adventures in Hypertext: Michael Joyce's Twelve Blue
- 8. Selective Interactivity and Narrativity
- The structures of interactive narrativity--Hypertext and immersion--The future of interactivity
- Interlude 8: I'm Your Man: Anatomy of an Interactive Movie
- 9. Participatory Interactivity from Life Situations to Drama
- Children's games of make-believe--Erotic scenarios--The fair and the amusement park--Baroque art and architecture--Ritual--Drama as immersion and/or interactivity: a very short history
- 10. Participatory Interactivity in Electronic Media
- Computer games--MOOs --Automated dialogue systems --Interactive Drama--Design philosophy in two interactive drama projects: Placeholder and Oz
- Interlude 10: Dream of the Interactive Immersive Book: Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age