Retrieve June 11, 2008, from http://www.brandeis.edu/pubs/jove/HTML/V6/presence.HTML
Jacobson, D. (2002). On theorizing presence. Journal of Virtual Environments, 6:1.
On Theorizing Presence
Jacobson @ brandeis.edu
Presence is the experience of being engaged by the representations of a virtual world (Lombard & Ditton, 1997, Lombard, 2000a). Most research on presence has focused on technologies that use a variety of sensory inputs (e.g., visual, auditory, haptic) to create a simulacrum of a real environment, a virtual reality (VR) that mimics perceptions in the physical world (cf. Biocca 1997, Heeter 1995, Kim and Biocca 1997, Lombard and Ditton 1997, Lombard 2000b, Witmer and Singer 1998). Less attention has been paid to presence in the context of text-based virtual worlds. This paper presents a brief overview of theories that identify factors that promote or undermine a sense of presence in text-based virtual worlds.
In the context of text-based virtual worlds such as MUDs, MOOs, IRC, and Chats, presence is usefully described as a feeling of getting lost or wrapped up in the representations of the text--of being involved, absorbed, engaged, or engrossed in or by them (Lombard 2000a). Immersion is another term that is used in the literature on presence, but it seems better suited to the kind of virtual reality afforded by head-mounted displays and data-gloves, in which participants are surrounded by or submerged in software-generated images, than to text-based virtual worlds (cf. Schubert et al 1999:270, Slater and Wilbur 1997:604-606).
As Lombard notes (2000b), analysts use different terms to describe a sense of presence. Similarly, participants use different idioms in talking about their experience of it. They may say that they are “caught up” in an activity, that they are “there” or “here” when speaking of a virtual place, or that a virtual world is “real.” However, from the context of their statements and from their descriptions of the situations in which they experience presence, it is evident that participants are referring to their engagement in a virtual world and to what Lombard (2000a) describes as an “illusion of nonmediation.”
Different theoretical frameworks are relevant in explaining experiences of presence. Various analysts (e.g., Jacobson 1999, Lea and Spears 1995, Walther 1992, 1996, 1997) argue that individuals engaged in text-based computer-mediated communication cope with absent or attenuated cues, ordinarily present in face-to-face interaction, by engaging in processes of "optimized self-presentation" and "overattribution" (Walther 1996, 1997). In the former, individuals selectively construct self-images, imagining how they will appear to others; in the latter, they idealize others, imagining how they appear. In these processes, people become invested in such presentations and idealizations. This theoretical perspective recalls Stone's analysis of phone sex. She writes (1995:93-95):
The effect of narrowing bandwidth [from offline, physical reality to computer-mediated communication, especially text-based CMC] is to engage more of the participants' interpretive faculties….Frequently in narrow-bandwidth communication the interpretive faculties of one participant or another are powerfully, even obsessively, engaged….In phone sex, once the signifiers begin to "float" loose from their moorings in a particularized physical experience, the most powerful attractor becomes the client's idealized fantasy. In this circumstance narrow bandwidth becomes a powerful asset, because extremely complex fantasies can be generated from a small set of cues. In enacting such fantasies, participants draw on a repertoire of cultural codes to construct a scenario that compresses large amounts of information into a very small space….client and provider mobilize erotic tension by taking advantage of lack--filling in missing information with idealized information.
According to reception theorists and other analysts of reading (cf. Barbatsis, Fegan, and Hansen 1999, Gerrig 1993, Gerrig and Pillow 1998, Iser 1978, Miller 1995, Ochs and Capps 1996, Ryan 1991, 1994, 1999, Segal 1995), participants become caught up in virtual worlds when they exercise their imagination to fill narrative and/or descriptive gaps. Moreover, the greater the opportunity to imaginatively construct a virtual world, the more a sense of presence will be strengthened. This is the “less is more” view of the factors that promote the involvement of readers. That is, presence is enhanced when the "glory of imagined description" (Brann 1991:468; cf. Reed 1991:30) is not undermined.
Although analysts agree about the importance of imagination in facilitating the experience of presence in the context of textual representations, there are different views regarding the processes that affect it. One view emphasizes the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Coleridge (1847:1-2) used the phrase in his account of “exciting the sympathy” of readers of poetry in which “the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural.” For him, the act of the “willing suspension of disbelief” enabled readers to engage with what they otherwise knew were “shadows of imagination.” (The concept of the “willing suspension of disbelief” plays an important role in semiotic and sociological theorizing about the construction of and engagement in various kinds of realities--see Wiley 2000a and 2000b.) Laurel (1991), a theorist of human-computer interaction, and Ryan (1994, 1999), a literary theorist, draw on Coleridge in analyzing the sense of presence generated in interacting with computers and in computer-mediated communication. Ryan writes (1999:89):
This idea of suspension of disbelief is the literary-theoretical equivalent of the VR concept of immersion. It describes the attitude by which the reader brackets out the knowledge that the fictional world is the product of language, in order to imagine it as an autonomous reality populated by solid objects and embodied individuals.
The suspension of disbelief model suggests how individuals may become engaged in textual representations, but it does not explain why such engagement fails or is otherwise limited. Research in cognitive psychology addresses this issue.
Cognitive psychologists offer a view of the processes underlying both engagement and disengagement in the context of textual representations. Gilbert and his colleagues, drawing on Spinozan rather than Cartesian perspectives, argue that people initially assign a truth value to a mental representation, subsequently rejecting it only if warranted by rational assessment. As Gilbert, Krull, and Malone note (1990:601; cf. Gilbert 1991; Gilbert, Tafarodi, and Malone 1993):
Baruch Spinoza…suggested that all ideas are accepted (i.e., represented in the mind as true) prior to a rational analysis of their veracity, and that some ideas are subsequently unaccepted (i.e., represented as false)….In short, the mental representation of a proposition or idea has a truth value associated with it, and by default this value is true. This default value remains unaltered when the idea is subsequently assessed to be true, but is changed when the idea is subsequently assessed to be false.
Gerrig (1993; cf. Gerrig and Pillow 1998), in a critique of “toggle” theories, including Coleridge’s theory of the suspension of disbelief, extends the Spinozan argument in analyzing people’s engagement with “narrative worlds,” including the worlds represented in text-based computer-mediated communication. Like Gilbert and unlike Coleridge, Gerrig argues that readers are inclined to accept information as valid in the course of comprehension, disbelieving it only after conscious appraisal warrants otherwise. His theory assumes that people will believe what they read --"persuasion by fiction is the default outcome" (Gerrig 1993:227)--until they critically scrutinize such claims and reject those that are, on inspection, incredible or unwarranted. In this sense, Gerrig “replaces a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ with a ‘willing construction of disbelief’ (1993:230; cf. Gerrig and Pillow 1998:1-2-103). Gerrig's model implies that comparing a fictional world with a factual one will undermine a sense of presence. Moreover, since people’s knowledge of or beliefs about the factual world will vary, different people will accept (and reject) different claims about represented (or virtual) worlds.
As predicted by the research of Gilbert, Gerrig, and others, presence is affected when participants compare the textual description of what is imagined and the reality it simulates. When the real (or offline) referent of a virtual world is unknown, presence is enhanced (or at least not diminished by reference to knowledge and/or beliefs about “real life”); when the actual referent is known, presence is inhibited or undermined, especially when there is a discrepancy between the image (that which is imagined) and the actual world it is supposed to resemble (see Jacobson 2001).
If knowing the real world represented by an imaginary one decreases a sense of presence, knowing participants offline, in real life, increases the sense of presence. This seems to happen when participants view a virtual world not as an imaginary one, but, rather, as a medium of communication. They are engaged not by the textual representation of the faux world, but by interacting with people they know. This pattern is consistent with the observations of Towell and Towell (1997; see Jacobson 2001), who report a stronger sense of presence among MOO participants who knew one another in real life and/or who knew one another's real names than among those who did not know one another and/or who used pseudonyms.
The effect of offline knowledge of others holds when people know one another before they interact online. The effect of meeting people or seeing photographs of them after having first encountered them online appears to produce a different outcome (especially when interaction is confined to cyberspace), one that reinforces the argument that imagination (and projection) plays a role in creating a sense of presence. This pattern is consistent with findings about the role of pictures in fostering online relationships. Walther and his colleagues (2001) found that for people who had interacted online for a long time before seeing photographs of their virtual partners, the pictures were disappointing and hindered the maintenance of intense and engaging relationships, and when people saw photographs of their partners before they began to work together online, the pictures somewhat facilitated the development of such experiences. In the case of virtual partners who formed impressions of one another before seeing photographs, idealized images did not match reality, and the difference was disappointing.
When a virtual world is viewed as a locus of activity, Csikszentmihalyi's theory of "flow" explains a sense of presence (1982, 1988; cf. Trevino and Webster 1992; Webster, Trevino, and Ryan 1993). Conceptualized as a "flow" experience, presence entails a "merging of action and awareness," during which a person loses "self-consciousness" and a sense of time, focusing on "the present, blocking out the past and the future" (Csikszentmihalyi 1982:38-42; cf. Danet et al 1998, Fontaine 1992, Novak et al. 2000). Flow theory addresses the experiences people have when participating in activities that are intrinsically rewarding and in which a person's abilities and skills match the challenges she or he encounters. Intrinsically rewarding activities are those in which satisfaction is derived from engaging in "the activity itself, the pattern, the action, the world it provides" (Csikszentmihalyi 1982:14). Although such activities provide participants a sense of challenge, people have to feel they are capable of meeting challenges; otherwise, an imbalance between challenges (demands) and abilities and skills (resources) will produce boredom (if the resources exceed the demands) or stress (if the demands exceed the resources), both of which are said to undermine, rather than enhance, a sense of absorption. In Csikszentmihalyi's view, activities that induce a sense of flow include play, exploration, problem-solving, and those of companionship and friendship--activities that commonly take place in MOO type virtual worlds (see Jacobson 2001).
Theorizing about presence is found within different disciplines, although the convergence is largely unnoted, perhaps because practitioners tend to ignore the relevance of work done outside their own fields. Although theoretical frameworks in psychology and of literary studies, especially those focusing on the role of imagination and on flow experiences, each provides a partial understanding of the experience of presence in text-based environments, considering them together may contribute to a fuller and more satisfying explanation.
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