Embodiment, Reality, and Sheer Delight (Coming of Age in Second Life book report)

Over the last several days I read Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. It was very enjoyable and also fascinating! By way of commentary and response I am going to tell a seemingly unrelated story.

In August 2013 I was at the Mysterium convention in Rochester, NY. This is an annual convention for fans of the Myst series of games (which is interesting for another reason: there is a real community built around an entirely virtual place, most of which only exists in single-player mode (Avery, unpublished)). One attendee had brought an Oculus Rift. For the unfamiliar, this was an open-source 3D-display virtual reality headset (it has since been purchased by Facebook). I put it on. I looked around. I was standing in a little cabin.

“OH MY GOD I want to LIVE here!!!!” was my immediate reaction. The elation didn’t fade as I used the game controls (controller? keyboard? don’t remember, doesn’t matter) to run around, up the stairs, down the stairs, outside to the little yard, around and around the house. I spun myself around with the controls and looked the opposite direction to make myself incredibly dizzy. I tried it with my head looking in the direction of spin and didn’t feel it nearly as much. I looked up, I looked down. I ran some more. It was amazing. It was wonderful. I wanted to live in VR.

The next day the Starry Expanse devs hooked up the Rift to their real-time walk-around-in-able build of Riven’s Prison Island. It was, again, totally amazing. The only thing missing was my hands! Now, this would be a technically fixable thing: add a camera to the outside of the Rift headset, put motion-capture-marked gloves on, program some hand textures into the game. There are ways. My friend T and I immediately started dreaming them up. “Oh my goodness. I want to live here. I want to live in this game.”


Why? Why did I have such a strong positive reaction to putting on a Rift and looking around? I didn’t have words to explain it.

Thanks to Boellstorff, I now do. It comes down to embodiment.

I experience plenty of sheer joy when I’m doing intellectual work, as many of my friends will attest (my former advisor remarked that giggling while reading Marx was the sort of thing that, properly worded, *could* go in a letter of recommendation). But moments of completely transporting joy and “OMG I want to LIVE HERE” experiences? They’re all about feeling competently embodied. I’ve felt this a few times playing capoeira, when I was able to let my muscle memory and instincts take over. I’ve felt this when I was strapped into the rotating hip harness, doing ball-bearing flips on a wire. I feel this almost every time I hop on my bike. What all these moments have in common is that I can stop being conscious of the fact that I’m operating a body, and simply experience the way the body operates.

I have had this kind of experience in third-person video games, as well. When I play the hang glider minigames in Ratchet & Clank (on PS2), I do briefly almost feel like I’m flying. I can almost play the hoverboard race minigame in the first R&C by feel, even though I get zero haptic feedback. It’s very cool.

I have never, ever, EVER had this experience playing a real-time first-person point of view video game. I rely far too much on my peripheral vision to be comfortable substituting the rectangle of a computer screen for my entire field of view. Even now I can consciously notice the place where my ankles cross on the chair, the recycling bin in the corner, the dog’s crate in the other (diagonal) corner, the white square of my power brick on the carpet, without moving my eyes from the computer screen. I feel half-blinded in first-person video games, with their narrow, flat field of view. Consequently, I’ve never adapted to the controls, and when I do play I usually bump into things, fall off ramps and stairs, can’t aim to save my (virtual) life…

The Oculus Rift let my body fall away. For the first time in my life, I was effortlessly embodied inside the head of a digital person, a virtual person. It was a virtual embodiment, but felt no less real for the pixellation of the world around me.

In fact, that the virtual and actual are both real is a major theme of Boellstorff’s book; it feels as though he returns to it over and over because he thinks that his audience is unlikely to understand and accept this. I cannot say he is wrong, either. I know the virtual is real because I, like most SL residents he discusses, have sustained friendships and loving connections by communications in virtual spaces (usually chat boxes). And now I, too, have experienced a virtual embodiment that felt as real as the actual one.

I want to go back.