Thursday, April 30, 2009

Erotic Chat as an Exemplar of Sense Extension in Virtual Worlds

The secret of TV's tactile power is that the video image is one of low intensity or definition and thus, unlike either photograph or film, offers no detailed information about specific objects but instead involves the active participation of the viewer. Marshall McLuhan
The experience of being an embodied avatar in a virtual world is facilitated by biological and psychological processes that transform a stream of sense impressions into the visceral sense of being there. The sense of presence one experiences within a virtual world is more a product of the mind than of software.

The external representation of Second Life depicted on a computer screen is a series of far-from-photorealistic images animated at sub-optimal frame rates. The internal virtual world within an active participant's mind is a deeply experienced reality including pseudonymous relationships that seem as authentic as those in the physical world.

A strong sense of immersive presence within a virtual world is because of, as much as in spite of, limitations of sensory information. The vacuum is filled by the engagement of the subconscious mind through active imagination. What is missing externally, is created internally. This integration of the actual and the imagined is often facilitated by text chat, which can help create a shared inner environment that extends and enriches the shared digital environment.

Erotic text chat is an exemplar of sense extension within virtual worlds. It can evoke sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations and actions that are otherwise difficult or impossible to create visually within the digital world. Intentional activation of the imagination can induce powerfully realistic experiences because the brain does not qualitatively distinguish between physically produced and intensely imagined sensory experience. For instance, studies have shown that the brain is activated by imagined smells and tastes in the very same way it responds to actual sense impressions.

Erotic chat shifts the balance of immersion from an external focus on computer images to an inward focus on the imagined experience. While the experience adds energy and substance to one's internal mental model, it also projects the localization of presence outward to the external virtual reality. It reifies the psychological experience as an external and independent entity.

In short, when two people get together, there are three worlds in the room: One is displayed on our screens; and one is within each of our minds. The use of text chat can extend the sensory range of our experience within a virtual world and harmonize our internal representations.



Unknown said...

Great post, even though I fundamentally disagree with the premise.

Virtual food does not satisfy real hunger. My avatar can run all day and I'll never get tired.

Fear and sex are different -- our brains are wired to receive simulations of those activities on a deep and visceral level. We've all had the experience of vertigo at a Second Life vista, and the sexual attraction we feel for a comely avatar is real (at least for men, for whom visual sexual attraction seems to be more direct than for women. Although maybe that's not quite true).

This is complicated, and will require more thought. "Virtual" is a very complicated word.

Unknown said...

P.S. One thing I noticed when I first got into Second Life -- screenshots never seem as vivid as the actual Second Life experience.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful and on the mark ...
The whole aspect of interactivity and engagement arises as one person's text influences and attempts to anticipate that of the other.
I haven't attempted it but I suppose erotic voice chat could convey that same sense extension but I've heard many state it's a disconnect or distraction. (I know I would just start giggling!)

Botgirl Questi said...

Mitch: Which premise? Nothing in your comments seems to be in disagreement with the post.

Writer: Writing and speaking are very different processes. I recently tried to use voice-to-text to write an article and it totally threw me off.

Unknown said...

Botgirl - I think I'm reacting as much to your statements on twitter as to your blog post here -- my perception that you are asserting that RL and experiences are somehow the same.

The relationship between real sensations and the virtual worlds equivalent are complicated.

Representations of food in SL have no impact on my RL appetite, likewise reading about food. If I look at a photo of food, or see food on TV, and I'm already hungry, I might get more hungry. If I'm not hungry, it wont make me hungry.

Descriptions of smells have no effect on me. At the moment at least, there's really no way to have "virtual smells" in Second Life, so that's not an issue.

Sex is uniquely wired in our brains, emotionally and physically. When I see an attractive SL avatar, I react much in the same way that I react when I see an attractive woman in RL. The part of my brain that perceives sexual attractiveness doesn't know or care that the woman isn't real. And the effect of attractive avatars on RL self-esteem has been documented in studies.

I like the word "ficitonal" as opposed to "virtual." When a favorite character dies on our favorite TV show, we feel sad. The emotion is real, even if the character isn't. I still remember how I felt when Col. Blake died on M*A*S*H.

Botgirl Questi said...

Mitch: Thanks for continuing this dialogue!

I definitely do NOT believe that the physical and digital worlds are equivalent. However, I do believe that emotional experiences are psychologically and biologically the same, regardless of what world triggers them.

My intention in writing on this topic is usually to remind people that although one's feeling are real, the associated thoughts and beliefs about the external world (including other people) may not be accurate.

As for the food reference in the post, I still think we are in general agreement. My intended point was that depictions of food in virtual worlds DO NOT usually activate a biological response, but a detailed textual description of a luscious meal in chat (assuming you're hungry and like that type of food) can set the gastric juices flowing.

So, in closing, I still contend that we are pretty much in agreement. :)

Unknown said...

Where is the border between imagination and reality? Can we be sure that things we feel in our REAL world are really REAL? When the thing that triggered our emotional response is physical - we can touch it we say that its triggered by RL but when the thing does not exsist we say that its surreal.

Our perception is material but I think that material is very connected with imaginary because without the imaginary we could not name the material.

Even in real life imagination has important role in our lifes