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Leading a symbembodied life: a phenomenological investigation of second life
thesisposted on 06.02.2017, 02:19 by Veerapen, Maeva Pillay
This thesis explores the structure of the experience of participating in the virtual world Second Life, or as commonly termed by users, of being inworld. I use Second Life as a specific case of a phenomenon which will doubtless change in the future as a result of technological progress. The focus is on the elements of the experience that elicit a sensorial, emotional and affective response to the inworld experience through the body of a user. I examine the structure of a user’s perception of and interaction with the virtual environment and its contents as mediated by and through technology. My original contribution to the field of knowledge is the thorough examination of the relations a user forms during the inworld experience, especially with her avatar, places and other avatars. I adopt an approach that privileges embodiment and lived experience to examine concepts commonly discussed in relation to virtual worlds such as human-computer interaction and telepresence. I have undertaken two and a half years of ethnographic participant observation in Second Life. After each inworld session, I recorded my experiences and observations in the form of fieldwork notes. I regularly read blogs maintained by Second Life users to preserve the intersubjective quality of the research. Phenomenology has informed the analysis of the collected data by providing both an approach to thinking about them and a framework of analysis in the theories of Merleau-Ponty, Leder and other phenomenologists. The findings of the study reveal that the inworld experience consists of a Gestalt figure-ground structure in which various elements are continually foregrounded and backgrounded. Multiple relations – between user and physical surroundings, user and computer, user and avatar, user and other avatar via her own avatar, etc. – are formed and re-formed for the duration of an inworld session. One or more relations recede to the background of a user’s experiential realm while others are foregrounded. The backgrounded relations never cease as long as a user is still participating in the virtual world. A specific form of embodiment emerges during the inworld experience. Due to the mediated nature of the experience, a physical body must work in symbiosis with a computer and an avatar in order for the inworld experience to exist. Consequently, I introduce the term symbembodiment to describe the structure of the embodiment operating during the inworld session. I also discuss the implications of these findings for future research.