Psychology Of Virtual Reality Research Paper

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The term ‘virtual reality’ refers to a computer program that gives its users the sense of being in a world that exists outside physical space. The experience may be created through visual images and/or text. In some virtual realities we are alone as we navigate virtual oceans, unravel virtual mysteries, and engineer virtual skyscrapers. In others, we are in the company of other people, all connected to the same program and to each other through the Internet, the rapidly expanding global system of networks that links millions of personal computer users together.

The psychology of virtual reality includes a broad set of questions, both because of the diversity of virtual environments (everything from video games to Internet chat-rooms) and the wide range of psychological frameworks that may be brought to bear on their exploration. The field includes cognitive psychologists who study sensorimotor adaptation in immersive virtual environments, such as flight simulators, and clinical psychologists who study video game playing as a form of addiction. Current questions in the field include the role of simulated spaces on people’s experience of the physical ‘real.’ This issue is raised when a seven-year-old child looks at a seashore jellyfish and comments ‘It looks so realistic.’ It is raised when we compare a rafting trip down the Colorado River to an adolescent girl’s use of an interactive CD-ROM to explore the same territory. And it is raised in the contemporary practice of science, highly dependent on simulation, and in science education. Some scientists are concerned that once students have seen an experiment unfold perfectly in a simulation, the messiness of a real experiment—the imperfections of measurement, the crack in the equipment that means you have to repeat it—can come to seem like a waste of time (Turkle 1995).

The perspective taken in this research paper necessarily narrows the field, focusing on the experience of the self in social virtual realities, environments where people interact with each other through their self-representation in computational worlds. The current practice of social virtual reality enables people to recast their notions of personal identity in more flexible terms, because they are able to use relationships in cyberspace to explore multiple aspects of self. Virtual reality is not the only factor that is moving our psychological culture in this direction (Gergen 1991; Lifton 1993), but it is one of the most potent.

1. Virtual Personae

A key element of the psychological impact of on-line life is the possibility of creating and projecting constructed personae into virtual space. This can be done through the use of visual materials (virtual worlds may allow users to design their own virtual ‘bodies’) as well as through textual description. In cyberspace one’s constructed identity can diverge from physical realities: the obese can present themselves as slender, the beautiful can present themselves as plain. And text-based on-line ‘conversations’ allow time to reflect upon and edit one’s ‘composition.’ This makes it easier for the shy to be outgoing, the ‘nerdy’ sophisticated. The relative anonymity of Internet identities—in most virtual settings, one has the choice of being known only by one’s chosen ‘handle,’ or on-line name—gives people the chance to express often unexplored aspects of the self. The simplest form of this multiplication of selves takes place in the simple act of naming oneself when people take out multiple e-mail accounts on the web or multiple names or ‘handles’ on their on-line service. It is not unusual for one person to have three accounts such as, for example, armani boy, motorcycle man, pinstripe guy It is not unusual for one person to be in one chatroom as MrSensitive, a second as RollingStone, and a third as GayPal. And, of course, it is possible for the physical person behind armani boy or MrSensitive to be a woman rather than a man.

The on-line exercise of playing with identity and trying out new ones is perhaps most explicit in roleplaying virtual communities and in massively multiplayer games, where participation begins with the creation of a persona (or several), but it is by no means confined to these somewhat exotic locations. In bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chatrooms, the creation of personae may be less explicit, but it is no less psychologically real.

The creation of site-specific on-line personae is not only dependent on adopting a new name. Personaeshifting happens with a change of virtual place. Cycling through virtual environments is made possible by the existence of what have come to be called ‘windows’ in modern computing environments. Windows are a way of working with a computer that makes it possible for the machine to place you in several contexts at the same time. As a user, you are attentive to only one of the windows on your screen at any given moment, but in a certain sense, you are a presence in all of them at all times. Your identity on the computer is the sum of your distributed presence.

Technology has always provided psychology with metaphors for mind; perhaps the best-known example is Freud’s use of hydraulics to represent the play of forces in the psyche. In our time, the computer has become a model of mind in the academic world (Dennett 1991) and in everyday practice, the windows technology that we use when visiting cyberspace provides a potent metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed, ‘time-sharing’ system. The self is no longer simply playing different roles in different settings—something that people experience when, for example, one wakes up as a lover, makes breakfast as a mother, and drives to work as a lawyer. The windows metaphor suggests a distributed self that exists in many worlds and plays many roles at the same time. It suggests a life experience in which one ‘cycles through’ and is able to experiment with different ‘aspects of self.’

2. Identity, Moratoria, And Play

Cyberspace, like all complex phenomena, has a range of psychological effects. For some people, it is a place to act out unresolved conflicts, to play and replay characterological difficulties on a new and exotic stage. For others, it provides an opportunity to work through significant personal issues, to use the new materials of cybersociality to reach for new resolutions. These more positive identity effects follow from the fact that, for some, cyberspace provides what Erik Erikson (1963) would have called a ‘psychosocial moratorium,’ a central element in how Erikson thought about identity development in adolescence. Although the term ‘moratorium’ implies a ‘time-out,’ what Erikson had in mind was not withdrawal. On the contrary, the adolescent moratorium is a time of intense social and intellectual activity. It is a time of passionate friendships and experimentation. The adolescent falls in and out of love with people and ideas. Erikson’s notion of the moratorium was not a hold on significant experiences but on their consequences. It is a time during which one’s actions are, in a certain sense, not counted as they will be later in life. They are not given as much weight, not given the force of full judgment. In this context, experimentation can become the norm rather than a brave departure. Relatively consequence-free experimentation facilitates the development of a ‘core self,’ a personal sense of what gives life meaning that Erikson called ‘identity.’

Erikson developed these ideas about the importance of a moratorium during the late 1950s and early 1960s. At that time, the notion corresponded to a common understanding of what ‘the college years’ were about. Today, the idea of the college years as a consequence-free time-out seems of another era. College is preprofessional, and AIDS has made consequence-free sexual experimentation an impossibility. The years associated with adolescence no longer seem a time out. But if our culture no longer offers an adolescent moratorium, the possibility of a virtual life often does. This is part of what gives virtual reality its psychological holding power.

Erikson’s ideas about the importance of a psychosocial moratorium for successful identity development were part of a larger theory of the stages of the lifecycle. Erikson’s ideas about stages did not suggest rigid sequences. His stages describe what people need to achieve before they can move ahead easily to another developmental task. For example, Erikson pointed out that successful intimacy in young adulthood is difficult if one does not come to it with a sense of who one is, the challenge of adolescent identity building. In real life, however, people usually have to move on in their lives with significant deficits. With incompletely resolved ‘stages,’ they simply do the best they can. They use whatever materials they have at hand to get as much as they can of what they have missed. Now virtual social life plays an important role in these dramas of self-reparation. Time in cyberspace reworks the notion of the moratorium, because it may now exist in an always-available ‘window.’

3. Virtual Reality And The Psychology Of Everyday Life

Recent psychological theory has stressed the importance of appreciating multiplicity or ‘decentering’ as a cornerstone of identity (Bromberg 1994, Dennett 1991, Gergen 1991, Lifton 1993). But despite the prevalence of such critiques of traditional, unitary notions of ‘the ego’ or ‘identity,’ it is usually difficult for people to make a personal connection with these ideas—hard, for example, to accept a challenge to the idea of an autonomous ego. The normal requirements of everyday life exert strong pressure on individuals to take responsibility for their actions and to see themselves as unitary actors. And our very language gives us a unified self in our first-person assertions: ‘I do,’ ‘I want,’ I desire.’ This disjuncture between theory (the unitary self is an illusion) and lived experience (the unitary self is the most basic reality) is an important reason why, in the history of psychology, multiple and decentered theories have been slow to catch on—or when they do, why we tend to settle back quickly into older, centralized ways of looking at things. But today, the everyday practice of people using personal computers and modems to participate in on-line life provides experiences that bring theories of multiple selves ‘down to earth.’ When virtual reality enables an individual to construct multiple personae that can explore different aspects of the self, the notion of a decentered identity is concretized. In this way, cyberspace becomes an ‘object to think with’ for thinking about identity.

The popular appropriation of Freudian ideas had little to do with scientific demonstrations of their validity. Freudian ideas passed into the popular culture because they offered robust and down-to-earth objects-to-think-with (Turkle 1992). The objects were not physical but almost-tangible ideas, such as dreams and slips of the tongue. People were able to play with such Freudian ‘objects.’ They became used to looking for them and manipulating them, both seriously and not so seriously. And as they did so, the idea that slips and dreams betray an unconscious started to feel natural. In Freud’s work, dreams and slips of the tongue carried the theory.

Today, virtual reality—life on the computer screen—carries psychological theory. People decide that they want to interact with others on a computer network. They get an account on a commercial service. They think that this will provide them with new access to people and information, and it does. But it does more. When they log on, they may find themselves playing multiple roles; they may find themselves playing characters of the opposite sex. In this way they are swept up by experiences that enable them to explore previously unexamined aspects of their sexuality or that challenge their ideas about a unitary self. To use the psychologist Philip Bromberg’s (1994) language, on-line life may enable people to ‘stand in the spaces between selves and still feel one, to see the multiplicity and still feel a unity.’ To use the computer scientist Marvin Minsky’s (1986) language, on-line life may enable people to experience themselves as cycling through their ‘society of mind,’ a notion of identity as distributed and heterogeneous.

4. A Heightening Of Projection

The psychological power of virtual reality is enhanced by the fact that phenomena associated with projection and transference are heightened in virtual space. As in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which takes place in the isolation of a sanitarium, relationships in cyberspace become intense very quickly because the participants feel themselves to be in a remote and unfamiliar world with its own rules. Electronic meeting places breed an easy intimacy. In the first phase of electronic friendships, people describe the excitement of a rapidly deepening relationship and the sense that time itself is speeding up. In virtual encounters, the lack of information about the physically real person to whom one is talking, the silence into which one types, the absence of visual cues, all encourage projection. This can lead to disappointment when, in a second stage of friendship, people who have had only virtual encounters move to bring them into the physical ‘real.’ However, it also has a positive side. Virtual reality offers a new tool for self-reflection. In close virtual friendships, it is not unusual to ‘log’ one’s interaction with an intimate. It is possible to compare the text of the ‘relationship’ with the depth of feeling it has evoked. Very often, the gap between the two provides a rough but potentially useful approximation of the ‘transference.’ More frequently, people do not have an actual transcript of an on-line relationship to work with, but as they become more experienced in virtual social interaction, they are in a good position to notice recurrent patterns of on-line behavior. In this sense, it is possible to use the virtual to reflect constructively on the real. Otherwise put: people who make the most of their lives on the screen are usually those who are capable of approaching it in a spirit of self-reflection; they examine what they are doing on-line and ask themselves what it says about their desires, perhaps unmet, about their needs for connection, perhaps unfulfilled. They make efforts to use what they learn in virtual reality to improve the quality of their lives in the physical ‘real.’

The study of the psychology of on-line life requires a better understanding about how to instill and nurture this discipline of self-reflection. Among psychologists, this enterprise has met some resistance by a movement to label the medium ‘addicting’ and requiring control much as one would control a drug (Young 1998, Greenfield 1999). There is a lively debate among psychologists (Young 1999) about the usefulness of the concept of Internet addiction. For some, the analogy is justified by the compelling hold of virtual life and computer games and by the fact that the term ‘addiction’ is employed by many who are drawn to chat-rooms, on-line communities, and computer games and who find themselves spending more and more time using them. For others, the addiction analogy seems misplaced (Turkle 1995, Grohol 1999). The argument against the addiction metaphor is that it closes down the important psychological questions that discriminate among computer users and the use to which they put virtual reality. Cyberspace may be compelling, but it is only a medium and can be used for ‘acting out’ or ‘working through’ for both constructive and destructive psychological ends. From this point of view, a parent whose child is on heroin needs to help the child stop taking the drug, whereas a parent whose child is on-line needs to be curious about what he or she is doing there. Is the child forming on-line relationships that are serving important developmental purposes? Are the specific on-line experiences likely to serve as stepping-stones for important emotional or intellectual growth? From this perspective, when we try to understand the psychological state of a person at a networked computer, it is most constructive to think of the Internet and its virtual spaces as a Rorschach, rather than as a narcotic.

5. Future Directions

Early writings about virtual reality stressed the possibilities of fully immersive environments, as well as the possibilities of full-body suits that would open up erotic possibilities for long-distance sexual activity and, less sensational but equally exotic, experiences for world exploration (Rheingold 1993). One could thrash one’s way through a Brazilian rain forest and feel the thickness of the brush or walk through the Latin Quarter of virtual Paris and feel the roughness of the cobblestones under one’s feet. These possibilities may well be in the future. But it is significant to note that the most robust applications of virtual reality, even after more than a decade of technical progress, remain some version of role-playing community creation. When hundreds of thousands of people join online gaming communities, they appreciate the technical innovations that make their ‘worlds’ increasingly well rendered. But what keeps them engaged is the way they become taken up by roles in which they can be somewhat ‘other’ and play on teams, where they can socialize with other players. Sociality and the pleasures of talking to other real people remains the ‘killer application’ for the virtual.

In on-line games set in virtual medieval landscapes, players do not only make friends and have romances, they join guilds, develop strategic alliances, and have political disagreements that lead to the formation of political parties and the drafting of political constitutions and bylaws. But it is one thing to raise a virtual child in a simulation game and quite another to confront the problems of real children, who so often face lives without adequate parenting or schooling, or health care or hope.

I have interviewed 20to 30-year-olds who consider themselves politically active in virtual communities but who do not bother to vote in local or national elections. They say that they feel more powerful in their virtual communities than in the politics of the physical world, which they see as cynical and unresponsive. One might fear that virtual reality, to borrow a concept from Marx, is like religion, a kind of opiate. It is important to confront the seductions of simulation: our real communities need us badly, and we can ill afford to abandon them for virtual citizenships, no matter how gratifying. This essay began with the thought that having literally written our on-line personae into existence, they can be a kind of Rorschach. We can use them to become more aware of who we are and what still feel we need. The same can be true of our lives in virtual communities. Hopefully, the future will bring greater emphasis on learning how to use the virtual to reflect constructively on the physical real.


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