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date: 22 October 2020


Abstract and Keywords

The introduction provides a summary of the diverse thinking to be found in this handbook, presenting the many different conceptualizations of virtuality and the virtual to be found within and the many different approaches to the use of such concepts across the multiple disciplines represented. The reader’s attention is directed toward the debates raging over the contested relationship between virtuality, reality, and actuality; there is no one answer to the form this relationship takes, nor, indeed, is there one answer as to what virtuality is. Additionally, an explanation of the rationale for the handbook’s structure is given; the 44 chapters are divided into nine parts that broadly move from philosophy to technology and applications before a return to philosophy to close the book. Finally, the reader is introduced to the main arguments and themes in each chapter.

Keywords: virtuality, the virtual, actuality, reality, philosophy, technology, applications

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?

—Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto

The nature of virtuality, and its relationship to reality and actuality, is one that has vexed the academy for many years. While a precise understanding of the concept remains elusive, the application of that concept, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, has profound implications for the public, particularly in one of its modern incarnations, that of a virtuality enabled by an increasing digitalization of society. As a brief perusal of the list of contents of The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality will show, the understanding of virtuality, its manifestation, its applications, and its effect on humanity, is a diverse and multifaceted one. Readers will be as hard-pressed to find a definitive answer to the question of what virtuality is—although several chapters here present definitions—as they will be to find common agreement as to the usage of the concept and its connection, or opposition, to reality and actuality (terms equally difficult to pin down). The 44 chapters do, however, agree that there is such a thing as virtuality, that there is a long history of debate on the subject and the meaning and theorization of the term, that it is a concept that has practical applications, that it has a wide-ranging effect on human society and culture, our relationship to and use of technology, our bodies, and our perception, and that it is a term and a concept coming increasingly to the fore with the advent of computers and computer networks.

This book had its genesis in 2010 when, following discussions with commissioning editor Norm Hirschy, I submitted the proposal for this handbook to Oxford University Press. At the time, I envisioned 21 chapters in six parts dealing almost exclusively with the virtuality of online worlds. Following feedback from reviewers, the final submitted proposal grew to over 50 chapters across 10 parts (which later settled down to 44 chapters across nine parts) and overflowed the boundaries of its original premise. This is illuminating for a number of reasons, not least because it demonstrates the wide and varying understanding of the concept and application of virtuality among the reviewers who helpfully suggested many, many other potential contributors and the inclusion (p. 2) of other areas of study. Indeed, this book might well have comprised over 100 chapters, so varied and wide-ranging were the suggestions, were it not for the limits imposed by book-binding technology.

But the tale of this book’s evolution tells another story, one that has import for the reader attempting to navigate a path through the diverse opinions offered here. While their meanings may differ to some degree, terms such as virtuality and the virtual are common currency across many academic disciplines, and the growth of this book’s proposal reflects the inclusion of contributions from many of those disciplines. Naturally, as with any anthology on such a broad subject, not everything can be included, but this anthology is certainly a very multidisciplinary one and a challenge for an editor who comes from one particular academic background, as I do, that of the humanities. The decision to make it so multidisciplinary allows many approaches to the theme of virtuality to be voiced, but it carries its risks too. The reader will therefore find a wide range of writing styles and differences in degree of objectivity or subjectivity; some chapters concentrate on application, whereas others are of a more philosophical bent, and there are different methodologies, approaches to essay structure, and discipline-specific jargon. As the editor, I have applied a light touch to these issues: where I might have imposed a single discipline’s stylistic unity across all chapters, I have instead allowed discipline-based forms and terminology to stand (for example, the near synonyms: computer game, video game, and digital game), limiting myself to the occasional request to clarify particularly opaque jargon and concepts. Virtuality is not the domain of one field of study alone.

It is therefore an impossible task to give one concise account in this introduction of what virtuality is. I do not attempt to do so, preferring to let the chapters speak for themselves. However, this introduction does serve to introduce the varying definitions and approaches to virtuality that appear in each chapter; indeed, the contributors were encouraged to explicitly state their conception of virtuality from the start. Each illustrates varying approaches to and manifestations of virtuality as used by different theoretical and practical disciplines, and the reader will not find definitive answers that are uncontested across all chapters, merely more questions. This is as it should be. One thing should be noted, though: it is clear that the concept and the application of virtuality are not new and have not been born with the advent of digital computers. Terms such as “virtual world,” “virtual environment,” “virtual character,” and “virtual reality” and their application and usage may well be ingrained in the modern digital consciousness, but thinking about virtuality has a history almost as long as that of Western civilization itself. Digital technology simply provides new ways to conceptualize, to use, and to experience that virtuality.

I have already noted that the book’s contributors come from many disciplines. Another editorial decision was to ensure that those contributors comprised a wide age range. There were several reasons for this. The young, being young, are more likely to put forward provocative and contentious views, and, indeed, there are several such chapters balanced against the, dare I say it, more mature and experienced views of the older generation. I particularly wanted this friction. But the decision was also a nod to the influence of the digital revolution, and the latter network revolution, on virtuality; there are contributors here who, like myself, have seen these revolutions occurring and can (p. 3) remember a more leisurely, slow-paced world of courteous letter-writing and precise spelling, a time of more privacy and less digital intrusion, and there are contributors here who have known nothing else but a fast-paced, ready-to-hand, and very public digital world. Because digital artifacts figure heavily in the discussions here, each group brings different perspectives to bear on what it means to act and be in digital virtual domains.

Writing the proposal and editing this book over the last three years, it has become increasingly apparent that there is no monolithic approach to virtuality and, as previously noted here, that there is no one academic field with ownership of the term. Accordingly, I asked the anthropologist Tom Boellstorff to read all the chapters and to write a short afterword that would provide a meta-analysis, a more objective summing up of the approaches to virtuality in this book than any editor, with his nose buried deep in each chapter’s dense thematic content, length, style and formatting issues, and the management of such a large project, could ever hope to undertake. The reader looking for such a summary of the many conflicting views arising from such approaches and a teasing out of any consensuses will find it in the afterword. It is another editorial decision to make such writing an afterword rather than place it in the introduction, where it might normally be expected to be; this allows the introduction to provide the editorial context, and to function properly as an introduction to the purpose and structure of the book, and the afterword to function as an analytical summing up of the use of the term “virtuality” to be read at the end.

The Structure of the Book

This book has a carefully plotted trajectory across its 44 chapters and nine parts. It moves from philosophy and theoretical concerns to the technology and applications of virtuality before returning to philosophy again. This is not to say that each part is exclusive and that, for example, there is no dirtying of philosophers’ hands with the grease of technology or that those who apply do not care to think. Precisely the opposite is true, and the reader will find what appear to be, prima facie, interlopers flaunting their charms in the wrong place. The development and use of technology in the context of the virtual is the art of the currently possible supported by the imaginings of philosophy, and such development spurs further considerations and speculations as well as new possibilities. As some of the chapters here make clear, language itself is a virtual technology, and an understanding of the implications and applications of virtuality requires contributions from both philosophy and technology, each prodding the other forward.

Part I: The Foundations of Virtuality

The opening part of the book explores the foundations of the existential concept of virtuality. These foundations are uncovered through six chapters dealing with the changing (p. 4) history of the usage of the term, its semantics and ethics, and modern interpretations both theoretical and practical. It becomes clear that, despite its recent connection to the digital domain, the virtual has a long bloodline concerning its relationship to the real and the actual and that ideas and applications of modern digital virtuality are merely late arrivals to the party.

In the opening chapter, two early implementers of digital virtual worlds, Bruce Damer and Randy Hinrichs, offer a history of the origins and development of such worlds before taking a look at what the future might hold. For the authors, virtual worlds have not yet achieved what was envisioned for them in both science fiction and the hype of start-up companies because of a lack of something meaningful to do coupled with a lack of rich situational feedback. The authors offer their thoughts on the challenges that must be met before that potential can be realized.

Philip Brey conducts an ontological analysis of digital virtual worlds as a means to question the mode of existence of virtual objects, events, and actions and to ask whether aspects of such virtuality can be considered part of the real world. In response to these questions, Brey defines a number of uncertainties in virtual environments: ontological, semantic, contributive, existential, and the role of the institution. Through this framework, it is shown that, while some aspects of virtuality exist only in the virtual, others occupy uncertain ground between the virtual and the real and shift between being imitations and simulations of reality to being real themselves.

From the starting point of the Deleuzian view of the virtual as potential, and thus an aspect of reality, Brian Massumi asks how such potential, never appearing as such because it is fundamentally abstract, can be perceived. To answer this philosophical conundrum, Massumi looks at the case of optical illusions, in particular the pop-out effect of the Kanizsa triangle. From this study, three types of virtuality are identified, forms, events, and values, leading Massumi to suggest that a theory of the virtual must be explicitly ethical as it deals with actions that lead to dynamic life differences.

André Nusselder’s essay references the work of philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Badiou to argue for an ethical framework to regulate the excess of virtuality brought about by the computer and Internet revolution. Virtuality is approached from the perspective of the signs and tools that humans use. The instability of the self arises from the dimension of virtuality that is called freedom, and through this freedom, brought about by our use of symbolic representation, virtuality permeates the human world. Nusselder concludes by calling for a framework to protect humankind from the nihilism we are at risk of suffering through the excesses brought about by the freedom implicit in virtuality.

Rejecting the Platonic distinction between the world of simulacra and the world of ideas as the basis for a theory of virtuality, Maria Beatrice Bittarello instead focuses upon more recent ideas showing that virtuality is both dependent on and effective on reality. This conception is used to demonstrate the similarities in the imagination of virtual worlds across cultures and across ages. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to More and Shakespeare to digital virtual worlds, Bittarello finds shared structural elements demonstrating that our shared reality is constructed by a shared virtuality.

(p. 5) The paradox of virtuality, according to Michael R. Heim, is that it gradually falls victim to its own success. The more virtual something is, the weaker the meaning of virtuality becomes, and, over time, virtuality becomes absorbed in the reality of its culture. Reaching back to first-century Rome, Heim uses the technology of virtuality as a lens to analyze the shifting semantics of the term. Rather than construct theories of virtuality, the richer vein of research is to be found in the street use and normalization of the products of technology. Indeed, there is a pathology of virtuality, and the virtual aims at its own extinction.

Part II: Psychology and Perception

As human beings, we experience virtuality in many domains and thus have a conception of the virtual as being a part of reality, as forming a continuum with reality, or as opposing our notions of reality. These views are debated in the next part, comprising seven chapters, that uses concepts such as self and presence to explain how we perceive of our relationship(s) to virtuality and reality.

James K. Scarborough and Jeremy N. Bailenson discuss the psychological effects on humans of the use of avatars. Empirical research is provided to show that there are distinct psychological implications for humans as they interact in virtual societies as avatars; the use of avatars affects and alters human behavior outside virtuality. The chapter analyzes this use and both beneficial and negative effects of avatars through various debates on spatial presence, self-presence, and social presence, before concluding with a look to what the future might bring and where research in the area should head to.

In dealing with the question Can virtual characters replace humans in experiments? Elizabeth J. Carter and Frank E. Pollick’s chapter on person perception relates how the development and use of virtual characters and improving animation techniques have advanced understanding in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and social perception. The chapter starts with a brief review of findings in behavioral research using virtual characters, particularly where such findings contribute to knowledge on psychological processes and virtual character design, before concluding with a look at the problems and limitations of conducting such research. In particular, the double-edged sword of improvements in technology necessitates the rerunning of experiments with better-realized virtual characters but also raises the specter of the Uncanny Valley.

Jean-Claude Martin’s chapter is an exposition of the role of emotions in human-computer interfaces and concerns an assessment of real emotions versus virtual emotions and questions if there is indeed such a difference. The chapter takes a multidisciplinary approach that reviews theories of emotions from psychology to theater studies before addressing affective computing: the design of computational models of emotions and the development of affective agents and their applications. A number of questions are raised for future research: do users of virtual reality feel the same emotions as in real life? Should virtual agents be capable of expressing and, importantly, feeling emotions? And should these emotions be any different from those expressed by humans in real life?

(p. 6) In 1970, Masahiro Mori developed the Uncanny Valley theory to explain why, the more humanlike robots become, the more uncomfortable humans become when confronted with them. Angela Tinwell develops this theory in the context of virtual characters and psychological theories on the notion of the self to suggest that the cause of the Uncanny Valley phenomenon is a lack of empathy expressed by such characters. It derives from missing facial cues and the lack of expected mimicry responses to a human, and this leads to an inability to predict the behavior of the character; thus we become detached from the character and experience discomfort. For Tinwell, this theory of the Uncanny Valley explains why the boundary between the virtual and the real may never be crossed.

What is it about social networking systems such as Twitter that makes them, according to some studies, more difficult to give up than alcohol or nicotine? Virtual addiction, in the context of interactive, digital environments and activities having a real-world parallel, is the subject of Deborah Abdel Nabi and John P. Charlton’s chapter. The authors review previous studies of virtual and Internet addiction, discuss the relationship between flow and immersion and escaping from negative moods, and conclude that, while virtual addiction bears similarity to substance-related addiction, online digital environments offer other conditions for addiction such as narcissistic self-reflection and the opportunity to present an idealized, new embodiment of self to an unseen audience.

Giuseppe Riva and John A. Waterworth also look at the issue of self in their chapter but from the perspective of presence. Inner presence is used as a means to explain the phenomenon of media presence whereby presence is mediated by technology. Inner presence is, according to the authors, a neurophysiological phenomenon that is related to the evolution of a conscious sense of self. Inner presence allows subjects the sense that they can act upon an external world and is intuitive, provides feedback to the self, and allows the self’s evolution through the incorporation of tools. Particularly this last point helps to explain media presence; in digitally mediated environments, we have the potential to perceive and act as if unmediated.

Gordon Calleja continues the theme of presence by including the related term immersion and focusing the discussion on digital games. For Calleja, the two terms are confusingly used and are inadequate metaphors to describe the player-game relationship; their use assumes a division between the physical “here” and the virtual “there” rather than virtual worlds being a part of our consciousness and coextensive with our reality. Instead, incorporation is proposed as a term that is specific to games and that accounts for the assimilation of virtual environments to mind and for the embodiment of the player, an embodiment that, Calleja claims, is fundamental to our experience of such virtual worlds.

Part III: Culture and Society

The seven chapters of the third part of the book deal with forms of culture and structures of society as represented through technologies such as spoken and written language and (p. 7) computers and networks. Themes of imagination, proximity, distancing, and the uses of new technologies and old are used to explore the effects of virtuality on societal practices, our comprehension of cultural heritage, and our use of social media for the purposes of sex and religion.

A historical analysis of forms of communication allows Paul C. Adams to describe the virtual spaces of the word, writing, and printing and how these prior forms of virtuality remain fundamental to new media despite their claims for ownership of the concept. If virtuality can be understood as a system permitting communication without proximity of communicators, that is, distanciation, then language is a virtual technology. A language’s grammar imposes a temporal and spatial virtuality of distanciation, writing reorganizes the space of the word, and printing incorporates the fixed word into society, allowing the creation of utopian spaces far removed from the control of the authority provided by proximity.

David Rudd takes a Lacanian perspective to argue that fantasy novels hint at deeper truths and are therefore not, as they ostensibly appear to be when they are compared to other forms of fiction, about the virtual. The Lacanian Real is mediated by the imaginary, by childhood experiences, and by the symbolic (when we become users of language), and we rarely experience the Real directly, only through this mediation. Using extraliterary examples such as trompe l’oeil and trompe l’oreille as well as examples from the writings of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Rudd’s chapter shows that such mediation means that the Real is already virtual.

There is an increasing move toward the practice of “learning by doing” through digitally simulated means of history and cultural heritage, but, argues Erik Champion, technology often overwhelms content to the detriment of understanding one another’s cultural heritage. Cultural heritage in a digital world is not just a question of spatial presence and ownership of cultural knowledge but also of the contexts of practices, expressions, skills, and the knowledge of that culture. Champion examines various forms of virtual heritage artifacts and suggests that existing forms are all too often context free and that, rather than replicate heritage facts as a means to demonstrate the latest technology, we should concentrate on understanding through context.

Recent research in America and Europe shows that online matchmaking has become the third most common way to meet a partner, and its many forms and techniques have evolved hand in hand with the development and proliferation of digital technology. Julie M. Albright and Eddie Simmens chart these changes in a chapter that ranges from predigital antecedents, such as letter-writing and the sending of photographs, to the impact of social networking on self-representation, and the influence of smartphone mobility on location-based and short-term dating and sexual relationships.

The interface and interplay between sex and digital technologies is the subject of Ståle Stenslie’s chapter on cybersex. It raises a number of questions about the virtuality or reality of such sexual encounters as it charts the development and forms of cybersex, from its historical origins to current experimentation and future possibilities and from chat-based cybersex to teledildonics and cybersex machines. Stenslie critiques the allure of cybersex: that it promises a technologically enhanced and telematic body to sexually, (p. 8) but safely, experiment with in an environment where you can be anyone and anything you want.

Robert M. Geraci makes use of actor-network theory to investigate the place of virtual worlds in religion and the effect they have on religious practice and belief. For Geraci, a virtual world, as religion is, is an assemblage of the natural; the social and virtual worlds’ constituents, human and nonhuman alike, are all actors. The simple fact of using virtual worlds to sustain religious life or, indeed, to create new religious forms will indelibly change our religious practices and beliefs: as objects, virtual worlds have as much power as religious objects, such as books, have to affect and effect religious life.

The recent introduction of voice-chat into virtual worlds such as video games is the topic of William Cheng’s enquiry into the practices of assimilation, repression, deception, and revelation made possible by such technologies. Voice-chat can be seen as an unwelcome intrusion of reality and can militate against the suspension of disbelief that allows virtual worlds to function. The power of the voice to divulge, Wizard of Oz-like, that which game players may prefer to remain hidden reveals the voice as a prosthetic stamp of self; disembodied voices evoke real human bodies and affect ludic relationships as shown by the changing sexual politics when voice-chat is used in male-dominated games such as those involving a first-person shooter.

Part IV: Sound

Part IV deals with sound in the context of virtuality. The use of sound and music to separate spaces, to permeate boundaries between spaces, and to construct previously unheard and often ambiguous spaces is one of the main themes of the four chapters here, and it is explored through discussions about sound in computer games, music performance in Second Life, and the art of constructing music in the recording studio.

The constructed nature of theatrical space can be exposed by breaking down the fourth wall, the artificial boundary that exists between actors and audience. The concept of the fourth wall has recently been extended to the boundary between fictional and nonfictional spaces, and Karen Collins extends it further by examining how user-generated content, particularly sonic content, breaks down the fourth wall between virtual worlds and physical worlds. Sound is useful as a mediator between such spaces because, uniquely among the content of virtual worlds, it always penetrates our physical space. For Collins, when users can cocreate video games with their own sonic content, video games become participatory and performative art.

Tom A. Garner and Mark Grimshaw propose the notion of acoustic virtuality for digital games in a chapter that uses sound in games to explore the subjective nature of reality. Here, virtual reality is explained in the area of games as a subjective perception of reality. Sound in games blurs many of the supposed boundaries between the virtual and the real not merely through its context and its semantic associations but also because it exists in the same acoustic environment as that of the player sitting in front of the screen. The chapter uses embodied cognition as the theoretical glue with which to combine theories (p. 9) of acoustic ecology and virtual reality for the purposes of exploring our relationship to sound.

Ethnomusicology is a study of the relationship between music and culture, focusing on the processes of music-making, and Trevor S. Harvey uses this perspective to investigate the practice of live music performance in Second Life. Through the technology of music streaming, musicians are able to broadcast performances into the virtual spaces of Second Life, and this produces a discrepancy between what is heard and what is seen, between physical distance and virtual distance. For Harvey, such music-making mediates social interaction and contributes to meaning-making, thus actualizing social relationships in virtual worlds.

Martin Knakkergaard’s chapter is an exposition of the transitory nature of music, its articulation of time through the medium of air, and an investigation into the creation of virtual acoustic spaces that can only be brought about by technological construction in the recording studio. The perception of space comes about through interaction between sound sources; recorded music is the primary musical reference for the public, and recording studios have a long history of constructing abstract auditory spaces with an ambiguity of location. The recent digitalization of the recording process creates, for Knakkergaard, a double virtuality where the digital mimics the analogue but imposes a further abstraction, where the recorded bits can be anything but what was originally performed.

Part V: Image

The following four chapters of the next part discuss visual art either as a form of virtuality itself or as virtuality mediated, in both practice and reception, through digital technologies. The subjects range across traditional practices and reception of visual art through painting, the various forms in which older art forms are transferred to new media platforms, the innovative art forms enabled by digital technologies, and the relationship between the virtual, the real, and the actual as perceived by artist and viewer.

In a chapter that traces ancient uses and understandings of the concept of virtuality to its incarnation in the art of virtual worlds, Gary Zabel makes the claim that such art is a unique medium of aesthetic expression and that the art of virtual worlds has a computer-generated virtuality with a form of worldhood. Zabel defines six dimensions of the art of virtual worlds that, in their comprehensive use, distinguish such art from earlier forms that, since the Renaissance, have steadily moved toward a process of artistic productivity without bodily production: immersion; interaction; ambiguity of identity; environmental fluidity; artificial agency; and networked collaboration.

Anthony Steed delivers an assessment of the technology required to create images in mixed reality systems and discusses how various technological possibilities and external drivers, such as industry needs, lead to new forms of mixed reality. Hardware and system architecture is discussed before an extended analysis of the virtuality continuum, the conceptual model that currently underlies much of the thinking behind mixed (p. 10) reality’s image creation and processing. Here Steed extends the model with the notion of the primary environment and the concept of immediacy of representation before concluding with a look at the future possibilities of image presentation in mixed reality.

In his chapter on art in virtual worlds, Patrick Lichty tackles modes of representation that raise questions of modality, context, audience, and formalism. Concentrating on artistic practice in and around Second Life, Lichty identifies five modes of representation: transmediated, the translation of physical work into virtual space; remediated, where tangible performance art is represented in the virtual; virtual, where art derives from and exists only in-world; evergent, where art traverses the boundary from virtual to tangible; and cybrid, where art forms occupy both spaces. While artists initially tend to represent the tangible on taking their first steps into virtual worlds, in seeking an embodied conceptualism, practices soon diverge.

The relationship between viewer and painting, and how this relationship is attended to during the process of painting, is the subject of the painter Simon J. Harris’s chapter. Harris views the virtual as an extension to the actual that is the surface of the painting. Viewer and painter have different perspectives on the painting as a result of their different encounters with the surface, the one subjective, the other the painter’s objective relationship with that surface. Deleuze’s crystal image is the unseen image that arises from the surface of the painting, a painting that continuously oscillates between virtual and actual.

Part VI: Economy and Law

The intersection between real-world economies and legal systems and virtual practices is the subject of the two chapters of Part VI. Ideas and effects travel in both directions: virtual economies affect real economies; the application of intellectual rights and property laws has impact upon virtual-world objects and avatars; and virtual law is expanding at the expense of the traditional laws that struggle to keep pace with developments in online worlds.

Through a variety of illustrative examples, Greg Lastowka demonstrates the many intersections between legal institutions and virtual worlds, shows how real law has been applied to the virtual, and asks how far real law should go in its attempts to regulate realms of representation and simulation. Lastowka presents two concurrent views of the present situation: that legal institutions enhance the technological power wielded by companies operating in the virtual sphere; and that the expansion of virtual law and private powers is paralleled by a decline in traditional legal institutions.

Vili Lehdonvirta exposes the illusory nature of the supposed dichotomy between virtual economy and real economy through a study that takes in examples from the negative view of the post-Soviet virtual economy to the gold farmers of today’s online worlds. Where once virtual economies were a simulation of real economies, now virtual economies encroach onto real economies with tangible economic and political consequences. Practices of virtual consumption parallel the consumption of material goods and virtual (p. 11) money, and when they begin to have an influence outside of online worlds, they become a threat to governments.

Part VII: A-Life and Artificial Intelligence

The next four chapters concern practical questions of human interactions with digital virtual environments and the interactions and codependencies that take place between artifacts inside those environments. The topics in this part range across imbuing computer game characters with emotional responses to provide new experiences to players, new solutions to modeling virtual worlds with evolvable virtual organisms, understanding ancient civilizations through the combination of the simulation of ecologies with 3D modeling, and an analysis of how the brain learns the dynamics of body movements in the context of real environments as a means to model a mode of interaction with virtual environments. In their scope, these chapters explore how the virtuality inherent in new technologies provokes fundamental questions about the world we live in and the bodies we inhabit.

Phil Carlisle looks at the development of an emotional relationship to the player in video games; whereas this was previously attempted using noninteractive methods, the trend now is the development of interactive game characters who are behaviorally believable and are capable of responding with, for example, movement, emotion, and nonverbal cues to the actions of the player. Where games had been using passive narrative forms, similar to those used in other media such as films, the question now is what new narrative forms must be designed to account for the prototype emotive digital actors who are now appearing and what new experiences await the player.

The question Tim Taylor deals with in his chapter is whether virtual worlds can be programmed with the neo-Darwinist principles of reproduction, heritable variation, and competition for limited resources such that complex virtual organisms may then arise from evolutionary processes. This is a problem of open-ended evolution, and Taylor identifies a number of problems with past and current models that have meant that such a goal remains elusive. Rather than focus on individual organisms, Taylor argues, we should focus on the relationship between organism and environment. The organism must be fully embodied in the medium of the world; the greater the degree of embodiment, the greater the evolvability of the organism.

How can we solve the many puzzles about ancient civilizations? How can we predict the ecological consequences of genetic manipulation? The solutions, according to David G. Green and Tom Chandler, might be found in the recent combination of simulation and 3D modeling, creating virtual models of ecologies and environments that can reach into the past or see into the future. Such virtual models offer the potential to approach many problems in environmental science and create the opportunity for many disciplines to work together. However, many challenges remain, such as integration, complexity, and scale, before environmental virtual models can realize this potential.

(p. 12) Touch and other haptic processes are understudied when compared to vision and hearing, yet such a focus can offer a unique window onto our interaction with real and virtual environments. Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre proposes a new computational model for how the brain learns the dynamics of the body within an environment; apparently random neural spiking follows a Poisson point process that can be used to learn internal models and which, in turn, can be used to predict the body’s spiking response to motor commands. Robles-De-La-Torre presents the model within a larger framework that asks how such models are used for interaction and how and why the brain responds to virtual environments as if they were real.

Part VIII: Technology and Applications

The six chapters of the penultimate part begin with an assessment of the role digital technologies have in our evolving conception of self before looking at the application of such technologies, and their potential, in a diverse set of fields. These fields include the military, health, and education and cover topics such as augmented reality and the use in virtual worlds of sensory stimuli beyond sight and sound in order to create not a virtual reality but a real virtuality.

Distributed embodiment is the subject of the first chapter, where John A. Waterworth and Eva L. Waterworth suggest that new technologies have the potential to give us an embodied sense of presence in a physical-virtual world where our sense of self is transferred to one or more other bodies. To this end, they map out a research agenda that takes account of the notion that the increase in forms of virtuality that we are witnessing is a part of the evolution of the human sense of self and nonself. As the virtual body is incorporated into our sense of self, and as technology becomes part of the self, presence coevolves with virtual forms of self.

For Alan Chalmers, virtual reality systems have a low level of realism because they typically work only with sight and hearing and because scarce computing power is given over to the required interaction. Real virtuality systems, on the other hand, supply a greater range of sensory stimuli, including feel, smell, and taste, and they also work to provide a perceptual equivalence to the experience of the physical world. Such systems take account of the individual’s context, work cross-modally, and selectively prioritize stimuli in a similar manner to how the brain attends to the most salient stimuli. Real virtuality systems thus potentially have a greater level of realism than virtual reality systems.

Mark Billinghurst, Huidong Bai, Gun Lee, and Robert Lindeman provide an overview of augmented reality applications on handheld devices; interactable virtual imagery overlaid onto the user’s real surroundings within a device such as a smartphone. In providing a set of design guidelines illustrated through three case studies of such applications, the authors also provide some of the history of augmented reality applications and discuss concepts including a variety of interaction metaphors for viewing images and the manipulation of objects.

(p. 13) Almost since their inception, virtual worlds have been touted as a medium for training, learning, and education, but, as Keysha I. Gamor shows, the history of learning applications in virtual worlds has had mixed results, and debate continues over their instructional merits. There are aspects of virtual-world learning design that can be mapped transparently from real-world learning scenarios, and there are other aspects that offer possibilities otherwise unavailable. Virtual worlds have the potential to provide memorable experiences, contextually authentic representations, and social interaction—all of which point to the possibility of rich experiential learning—and Gamor presents a set of design guidelines to take advantage of this potential.

Using the current state of research and technology in the field, Giuseppe Riva presents a view of the principles, concepts, and outstanding issues in the use of virtual reality and virtual worlds for medical clinical uses. Their application has grown dramatically since the early 1990s and now includes uses in surgery (both planning and operational), neuropsychology, and rehabilitation. However, there remain many technology challenges and outstanding safety issues, in addition to which Riva outlines a number of concerns about the state of research in the area (such as the paucity of controlled trials).

Roger Smith’s chapter starts with a look at the history of military simulations, from sand tables and board war games to mechanical devices, before turning its attention to the use of virtual worlds for such purposes. Smith identifies the close relationship between computer game technology and modern military simulations and discusses how changes in computing technologies and networks lead to new possibilities. Questions of degree of emulation are dealt with, as is the potential for virtual worlds to move beyond their use solely for training to their use in logistical, intelligence, and even operational roles.

Part IX: Utopia and Dystopia

The last part, comprising four chapters, returns to questions of philosophy in order to explore aspects of utopia and dystopia in the context of virtuality. The part covers topics including the ethics of the use of networked digital technologies for the purposes of adultery and the distribution of child pornography, the utopian and the ideological bases of the contemporary social imaginary, the effects on our humanity of the increase in use of digital virtuality, and the sublime nature of virtual dystopias as realized in literature, film, and computer games.

If virtuality is disparate from our everyday practices, our common reality, new ethical frameworks are required; if not, then current ethical considerations continue to hold. Charles M. Ess takes the latter view and shows that real-world practices remain the touchstone of ethical consideration despite the potential of virtual technologies. The potential for adultery and child pornography in virtual worlds is used as an example to explicate a virtue ethics; we ineluctably embrace the novelty offered by new technologies within existing ethical frameworks because we cannot but help bring an embodied sense of self into our experiences of virtual worlds.

(p. 14) Patrice Flichy examines the roles of common social representations and the imaginatively created common world that give birth to new technologies such as virtual reality. This contemporary social imaginary is not the creation of an individual but a shared understanding that combines utopian imagination and ideological views. The notion of a utopia stands opposed to ideology, as it allows the exploration of alternatives rather than seeking to preserve social order; yet ideology can mobilize, and it can legitimize choices and provide social cohesion. Flichy shows how the imaginary is a shared constituent of social identity that is present in mass culture and that utilizes and combines forms of utopia and ideology; this is what leads to the development of new technologies of the virtual.

Is there a cost to be borne by humanity in the encroachment of digital virtuality? Does it offer more scope to express our humanity, or does it lead to an overload of engagement that exhausts our limited faculties? Does its use lead to our ideal or instead further entrench existing power structures? David Kreps addresses these concerns in a chapter that explores the nature of virtuality, humanity, and reality through the philosophies of Bergson and Foucault, among others. Digital virtuality, Kreps argues, is a continuation of human consciousness, and designers of virtual worlds should take heed that such spaces are as real and replete with knowledge and power as any other space.

Andrea Hunter and Vincent Mosco, using three modern examples drawn from literature, film, and computer games, explore the attraction of virtual dystopias. In this, they link such dystopian visions to historical understandings of the sublime; dystopian virtual worlds have the allure of the sublime and are compelling because they offer an experience of horror without the necessity of actually experiencing that horror. Such experiences provide distance and therefore safety while still allowing us to undergo the astonishment, awe, and terror that are the hallmarks of the sublime.

The Companion Website

Oxford University Press provides a companion website to this handbook at Here the reader can find color versions of the images and diagrams given in the book as well as links to other media such as the videos and music that are referred to in some chapters. Individual chapters can be accessed and downloaded, and the intention is that this online, virtual version will, from time to time, be updated both with updated versions of the current chapters and with new chapters as the story of virtuality unfolds.