Few of us have actually donned an HMD (head-mounted display) and DGs (data-gloves),
and entered a computer-generated, three-dimensional landscape in which
all of our wishes can be fulfilled: wishes such as experiencing an expansion
of our physical and sensory powers; getting out of the body and seeing
ourselves from the outside; adopting a new identity; apprehending immaterial
objects with most of our senses, including touch; being able to modify
the environment through either verbal commands or physical gestures; seeing
creative thoughts instantly realized without going through the process
of having them physically materialized. Yet despite the fact that virtual
reality as described above is still largely science-fiction, still largely
what it is called --a virtual reality--there is hardly anybody who does
not have a passionate opinion about the technology: some day VR will replace
reality; VR will never replace reality; VR challenges the concept of reality;
VR will enable us to rediscover and explore reality; VR is a safe substitute
to drugs and sex; VR is pleasure without risk and therefore immoral; VR
will enhance the mind, leading mankind to new powers; VR is addictive and
will enslave us; VR is a radically new experience; VR is as old as Paleolithic
This flowering of opinions is fanned by the rhetoric of the gurus of the
This sense of anticipation permeates all books about virtual reality. They
are less concerned with what has been achieved so far than with what will
be available in the (we hope or fear) very near future. We may have to
wait until the year 2000 to see VR become an important part of our lives,
but since it is depicted so realistically by its prophets, and since it
exists very much in the popular imagination, we don't have to wait that
long to submit the claims of its developers to a critical investigation.
In this paper I propose to analyze VR as a semiotic phenomenon, to place
it within the context of contemporary culture and to explore its theoretical
Worldwide, VR is happening in protected
pockets of technology; inside giants
corporations, universities, and small
entrepreneurial start-ups; in Berlin and North
Carolina; covering Japan and especially in the
San Francisco Bay Area. . . . A rare excitement is
in the air, an excitement that comes from
breaking through to something new. Computers
are about to take the next big step--out of
the lab and into the street--and the street
can't wait. (Pimentel and Texeira, 7)
My point of departure is this definition by Pimentel and Texeira:
While "computer generated" accounts for the virtual character of the data,
"immersive" and "interactive" explain what makes the computer-assisted
experience an experience of reality. To apprehend a world as real is to
feel surrounded by it, to be able to interact physically with it, and to
have the power to modify this environment. The conjunction of immersion
and interactivity leads to an effect known as telepresence:
In general, the term virtual reality refers to
an immersive, interactive experience generated
by a computer. (11)
Telepresence is the extent to which one feels
present in the mediated environment, rather
than in the immediate physical environment. . . .
This [mediated environment] can be either a
temporally or spatially distant real
environment . . . or an animated but nonexistent
virtual world synthesized by a computer.
Far from being restricted to VR, the features of immersion and interactivity
can be regarded as the cornerstones of a general theory of representation
and communication. The purpose of this paper is to explore the problematics
of their textual implementation and to assess their significance for contemporary
Since immersion depends on the vividness of the display, its factors are
closely related to the devices that lead to realism in representation.
A factor that comes immediately to mind is the projection of a three-dimensional
picture. The introduction of perspective in painting took a first step
toward immersion by creating a sense of depth that integrated the spectator
into the pictorial space. But because the medium of painting simulates
depth on a flat surface the spectator cannot break through the can vas
and walk into the pictorial space. In the visual displays of VR the barrier
disappears--there is no material plane of projection--and the user feels
surrounded by a virtual world which can be freely "navigated" (as a standard
metaphor of networking describes movement in cyberspace).
The creation of a 3D effect falls under a more general category that Steuer
(81) calls "depth of information." This depth is a function of the resolution
of the display, i.e. of the amount of data encoded in the transmission
channel. As the other main source of immersion Steuer mentions the "breadth
of information," a category defined as "the number of sensory dimensions
simultaneously presented." Breadth of information is achieved through the
collaboration of multiple media: image, sound, olfactory sign als, as well
as though the use of technical devices allowing tactile sensations. VR
is not so much a medium in itself, as a technology for the synthesis of
Sheridan (58) proposes another factor of telepresence which stands halfway
between immersion and interactivity: control of the relation of sensors
to the environment. In order to feel immersed the user must be able to
move around the virtual space and to apprehend it under various points
of view. The computer tracks his movements and generates the sensory data
corresponding to his position in a continuously shifting display. The control
of sensors can go as far as a leaving the body, relocating the center of
consciousness into foreign objects and exploring in this way places and
objects normally inaccessible to humans, such as the inside of a molecule,
or the geography of a distant planet.
Insofar as immersion is "the blocking out of the physical world" (Biocca
25), it cannot be experienced if the user remains aware of the physical
generator of the data, namely the computer. The "virtual reality effect"
is the denial of the role of signs (bits, pixels, and binary codes) in
the production of what the user experiences as unmediated presence. It
is significant that Pimentel and Texeira title their first chapter "the
disappearing computer": as in the trompe-l'oeil of illusionist art,
the medium must become transparent for the represented world to emerge
as real. VR represents in this respect the refutation of a popular myth:
the personification of the computer as an autonomous mind (a myth fostered
by artificial intelligence and its attempt to endow machines with creative
thinking). As Brenda Laurel declares in a book stressing the need for aesthetic
concerns in the design of software: "Throughout this book I have not argued
for the personification of the computer but for its invisibility" (143).
Jaron Lanier, a leading developer of VR systems, echoes: "With a VR system
you don't see the computer anymore--it's gone. All that's there is you"
(Lanier and Biocca 166). The disappearance of the computer--which constitutes
the culmination of the trend toward increasing user-friendliness in computer
design--requires the replacement of arbitrary codes with natural modes
of communication. Binary coded machine instruction once gave way to the
mnemonic letter-codes of assembly languages; assembly languages were in
turn translated into high-level languages with a syntax resembling that
of natural languages. Then arbitrary words were supplanted by the motivated
signs of icons on the screen. When machines are enabled to respond to spoken
commands, the keyboard will become superfluous. Next to go will be the
screen and the sight of the machine: visual displays should occupy the
entire field of the user's vision, rather than forming a world-within-the
world, separated from reality by the frame of the monitor. Last but not
least, language itself must disappear, at least in those areas where it
can be more efficiently replaced by physical actions. In the ideal VR system
the user will be able to grab and move objects, to mold them through the
touch of the hand, or to change their colors with the stroke of a virtual
paintbrush. In this mode of communication there will be no need for the
user to translate her vision into sets of precise instructions. Purely
visual thinking will be implemented by means of practical, non-symbolic
gestures. As Pimentel and Texeira put it:
The mystics of ages past (such as Swedenborg, an esoteric philosopher of
the XVIIIth century) had a term for this radically anti-semiotic mode of
communication. They called it "the language of the angels."
Simply, virtual reality, like writing and
mathematics, is a way to represent and
communicate what you can imagine with your
mind. But it can be more powerful because it
doesn't require you to convert your ideas into
abstract symbols with restrictive semantic and
syntactic rules, and it can be shared by other
Immersion and Literary Theory
Through its immersive dimension, VR inaugurates a new relation between
computers and art. Computers have always been interactive; but until now
the power to create a sense of immersion was a prerogative of art. It is
significant that when attempting to describe the immersive quality of the
VR experience, the advocates of the technology repeatedly turn toward a
metaphor borrowed from the literary domain:
For centuries, books have been the cutting
edge of artificial reality. Think about it:
you read words on a page, and your mind fills
in the pictures and emotions--even physical
reactions can result. (Wodaski 79)
The question isn't whether the created world
is as real as the physical world, but whether
the created world is real enough for you to
suspend your disbelief for a period of time.
This is the same mental shift that happens
when you get wrapped up in a good novel or
become absorbed in playing a computer game.
(Pimentel and Texeira, 15)
The concept of immersion promoted by virtual reality bears thought-provoking
affinities to recent theories of fiction based on the notions of possible
worlds and of game make-believe. The possible-world theories of fiction
come in many varieties (i.e. David Lewis, Umberto Eco, Lubomir Dolezel,
Thomas Pavel) and I cannot account for all of them; the following discussion
is mainly a synopsis of my own approach. Common to all theories, however,
is a reliance on the semantic model of a set of possible worlds in which
a privileged member is opposed to all others as the one and only actual
world. The distinction actual/non-actual can be characterized absolutely,
in terms of origin, or relatively, in terms of point of view. In the absolute
characterization, the actual world is the only one that exists independently
of the human mind; merely possible worlds are products of mental activities
such as dreaming, wishing, forming hypotheses, imagining, and writing down
the products of the imagination in the form of fictions. VR adds to this
catalog of "accessibility relations" a mode of apprehension that involves
not only the mind, but also the body. For the first time in history, the
possible worlds created by the mind become palpable entities, despite their
lack of materiality. The relative characterization of the concept of actuality--advocated
by David Lewis--regards "actual" as an indexical predicate: the actual
world is the world from which I speak and in which I am immersed, while
the non-actual possible world s are those that I look at from the outside.
These worlds are actual from the point of view of their inhabitants. Among
the modes of apprehension that enable us to contemplate non-actual possible
worlds, some function as space-travel vehicles while others function as
telescopes. In the telescope mode--represented by expressing wishes or
forming conjectures about what might have been--consciousness remains anchored
in its native reality, and possible worlds are contemplated from the outside.
In the space-travel mode, represented by fiction and now by virtual reality
technology, consciousness relocates itself to another world, and recenters
the universe around this virtual reality. This gesture of recentering involves
no illusion, no forgetting of what constitutes the reader's native reality.
Non-actual possible worlds can only be regarded as actual through Coleridge's
much quoted "willing suspension of disbelief." The reader of a fiction
knows that the world displayed by the text is virtual, a product of the
author's imagination, but he pretends that there is an independently existing
reality serving as referent to the narrator's declarations.
The notion of pretense and the related concept of game of make-believe
forms the core of Kendall Walton's theory of fiction. According to Walton,
a fictional text--as well as any type of visual representation--is a "prop
in a game of make-believe" (11). The game consists of selecting an object
and of regarding it as something else, usually in agreement with other
players (author/reader, in the case of fiction.) Just as a stump may stand
for a bear in a children's game of make-believe, the picture of a ship
is taken for a ship, and the text of a novel is taken for an account of
real facts (an account which may or may not be regarded as accurate, as
the case of unreliable narration demonstrates). Players project themselves
as members of the world in which the prop is a bear, a ship or a text of
nonfiction, and they play the game by "generating fictional truths." This
activity consists of imagining the fictional world according to the directives
encoded in the prop. Some of the fictional truths concern the players themselves,
or rather their fictional alter ego. The reader of a fiction does not simply
generate truths of the type "p is fictional" but also "it is fictional
that I believe p." And if p relates the pitiful fate of a character, it
will be fiction al that the reader's alter ego pities the character. The
emotions experienced in make-believe in the fictional world may carry over
to the real world, causing physical reactions such as crying for the heroine.
The affinity of Walton's theory of fiction with virtual reality and its
concept of immersion thus resides in his insistence on the participation
of the appreciator in the fictional world. It is truly a theory of "being
caught up in a story."
Like computer-generated VR, possible-world and make-believe theories of
fiction presupposes a relative transparency of the medium. The reader or
spectator looks through the work toward the reference world. If the picture
of a ship is experienced as the presence of a ship located in the same
space as the viewer, it is not apprehended as "the sign of a ship." If
readers are caught up in a story, they turn the pages without paying too
much attention to the letter of the text: what they want is to find out
what happened next in the fictional world. This reading for the plot focuses
on the least language-dependent dimension of narrative communication. And
if readers experience genuine emotions for the characters, they do not
relate to these characters as literary creations nor as "semiotic constructs,"
but as human beings.
The literary devices which create a sense of participation in fictional
worlds present many parallelisms with the factors leading to telepresence.
One of the factors mentioned above was the projection of a three-dimensional
environment. The literary equivalent of three-dimensionality is a narrative
universe possessing some hidden depth, and populated by characters perceived
as round rather than flat. By hidden depth I mean that the sum of fictional
truths largely exceeds the sum of the propositions directly stated in the
text. In a virtual world experienced as three-dimensional, the user knows
that reality is not limited to what what can be seen from a given position:
the outside conceals the inside, the front conceals the back, and small
objects in the foreground conceal large objects in the background. Similarly,
in a narrative world presenting some hidden depth (let us call it a "realistic
world") there is something behind the narrated: the characters have minds,
intents, desires, and emotions, and the reader is encouraged to reconstruct
the content of their mind--either for its own sake, or in order to evaluate
their behavior. The procedures of inference relating to inner life would
be inhibited in the case of the referents of human names in lyric poetry
or in some postmodern novels where characters are reduced to stereotypes,
actantial roles or allegories. When the reader feels that there is nothing
beyond language, inference procedures become largely pointless.
As is the case in VR systems, the reader's sense of immersion and empathy
is a function of the depth of information. It is obvious that detailed
descriptions lead to a greater sense of belonging than sketchy narration.
This explains why it is easier be be caught up in a fictional story than
in a newspaper report. But in purely verbal communication--in contrast
with the visual or auditory domains--depth of information may reach the
point of saturation and create an alienating effect: the length and minute
precision of the descriptions of a Robbe-Grillet, as well as their restriction
to purely visual information, constitute a greater deterrent to immersion
than the most laconic prose.
Breadth of information is not literally possible in fiction, since we are
talking about writing and not about multi-media communication. But insofar
as it relays sensations through the imagination, literary language can
represent the entire spectrum of human experience. This ability of language
to substitute for all channels of sensation is what justifies the comparison
of literature with a multi-media mode of communication such as VR.
Another factor of immersion that seems at first glance impossible in textual
communication is the control of the sensors. The reader only sees (hears,
smells, etc.) what the narrator shows. But to the extent that the narrator's
sensations become the reader's, fiction offers a mobility of point of view
at least as extensive as that of VR systems. The development of a type
of narrator specific to fiction---the omniscient, impersonal narrator--has
freed fictional discourse from the constraints of real world and pragmatically
credible human communication. The disembodied consciousness of the impersonal
narrator can apprehend the fictional world from any perspective (external
observer point of view or character point of view), adopt any member of
the fictional world as focalizer, select any spatial location as post of
observation, narrate in every temporal direction (retrospectively, simultaneously,
even prospectively), and switch back and forth between these various points
of view. Fiction, like VR, allows an experience of its reference world
that would be impossible if this reference world were an objectively existing,
The ultimate freedom in the movement of the sensors is the adoption of
a foreign identity. As Lasko-Harvill observes, "in virtual reality we can,
with disconcerting ease, exchange eyes with another person and see ourselves
and the world from their vantage point" (277). This "exchanging eyes with
another person" is paralleled in fiction by the possibility of speaking
about oneself in the third person, or of switching between first and third
when speaking about the same referent. (Cf. Max Frisch, Montauk.)
But there is an even more fundamental similarity between the role-playing
of VR and the nature of narrative fiction. As authors strip themselves
of their real world identity to enter the fictional world, they have at
their disposal the entire range of conceivable roles, from the strongly
individuated first person narrator (who can be any member of the fictional
world) to the pure consciousness of the third person narrator.
Both VR and fiction present the ability to transcend the boundaries of
human perception. Just as VR systems enable the user to penetrate into
places normally inaccessible to humans, fiction legitimates the representation
of what cannot be known: a story can be told even when "nobody lived to
tell the tale." Of all the domain represented in fiction, no one transcends
more blatantly the limits of the knowable than foreign consciousness. As
Dorrit Cohn observes: "But this means that the special life-likeness of
narrative fiction--as compared to dramatic and cinematic fiction--depends
on what writers and readers know least in life: how another mind works,
how another body feels" (5-6).
The effacement of the impersonal narrator and his freedom to relocate his
consciousness anywhere, at any time and in whatever body or mind conveys
the impression of unmediated presence: minds become transparent, and events
seem to be telling themselves. The mobility of the sensors that apprehend
fictional worlds allow a degree of intimacy between the reader and the
textual world that remain unparalleled in nonfiction. Paradoxically, the
reality of which we are native is the least amenable to immersive narration,
and reports of real events are the least likely to induce participation.
New Journalism, to the scandal of many, tried to overcome this textual
alienation from nonvirtual reality by describing real-world events through
fictional techniques. In the television domain, the proliferation of "docu-drama"
bears testimony to the voyeuristic need to "be there" and to enjoy fiction-like
participation, not only in imaginary worlds, but also in historical events.
Theories of fiction emphasizing participation in fictional worlds represent
a somewhat reactionary trend on the contemporary cultural scene. Immersion
in a virtual world is viewed by most theorists of postmodernism as a passive
subjection to the authority of the world-designer--a subjection exemplified
by the entrapment of tourists in the self-enclosed virtual realities of
theme parks or vacation resorts (where the visitor's only freedom is the
freedom to use his credit card). According to Jay Bolter, immersion is
a trademark of popular culture: "Losing oneself in a fictional world is
the goal of the naive reader or one who reads as entertainment. Its is
particularly a feature of genre fiction, such as romance or science fiction"
As we have seen above, the precondition for immersion is the transparency
of the medium. But we live in a semiotic age, in an age that worships signs.
Contemporary theories such as deconstruction teach us that the freedom
of the mind must originate in a freedom from signs. So does virtual reality,
in some respect, but while VR seeks this freedom in the disappearance of
signs, contemporary cultural theories regard signs as the substance of
all realities and as the prerequisite of thought. Freedom from signs cannot
be achieved through their disappearance but only through the awareness
of their omnipresence, as well as through the recognition of their conventional
or arbitrary character. The aesthetics of immersion is currently being
replaced--primarily in "high culture" but the tendency is now stretching
toward popular culture--by an aesthetics of textuality. Signs must be made
visible for their role in the construction of reality to be recognized.
A mode of communication that strives toward transparency of the medium
bereaves the user of his critical faculties. The semiotic blindness caused
by immersion is illustrated by an anecdote involving the XVIIIth century
French philosopher Diderot. According to William Martin, "he tells us how
he began reading Clarissa several times in order to learn something
about Richardson's techniques, but never succeeded in doing so because
he became personally involved in the work, thus losing his critical consciousness"
(Martin 58). According to Bolter, this l oss of critical consciousness
is the trademark of the VR experience: "But is it obvious that virtual
reality cannot in itself sustain intellectual or cultural development.
. . . The problem is that virtual reality, at least as it is now envisioned,
is a medium of percepts rather than signs. It is virtual television" (230).
"What is not appropriate is the absence of semiosis" (231).
In reducing VR to passive immersion, however, Bolter ignores the second
component of the VR experience. If contemporary art and literature are
to achieve an enhancement of the reader's creativity, it should be through
the emulation of the interactive aspect of VR, and not through the summary
condemnation of its immersive power.
Interactivity is not merely the ability to navigate the virtual world,
it is the power of the user to modify this environment. Moving the sensors
and enjoying freedom of movement do not in themselves ensure an interactive
relation between a user and an environment: the user could derive his entire
satisfaction from the exploration of the surrounding domain. He would be
actively involved in the virtual world, but his actions would bear no lasting
consequences. In a truly interactive system, the virtual world must respond
to to the user's actions.
While the standard comparison for immersion derives from narrative fiction,
the most frequently used metaphor of interactivity invokes theatrical performance.
The simile captures a largely utopian dream of dramatic art: putting spectators
on stage and turning them into characters:
As researchers grapple with the notion of
interaction in the world of computing, they
sometimes compare computer users to theatrical
audiences. "Users," the argument goes, are
like audience members who are able to have a
greater influence on the unfolding of the
action than simply the fine-tuning provided by
conventional audience response. . . . The users of
such a system are like audience members who
can march up onto the stage and become various
characters, altering the action by what they
say and do in their roles. (Laurel 16)
Whereas immersion may be a response to a basically static form of representation,
interactivity requires a dynamic simulation. A simulative system does not
simply respond to the user's actions by displaying ready-made elements,
it creates its data "in real time" according to the user's directions.
Like movies and narratives, a simulative system projects a world immersed
in time and subjected to change, but while these media represent history
retrospectively, fashioning a plot when all events are in the book, simulation
generates events prospectively, without knowledge of the outcome. Taken
as a whole, a simulative system does not reproduce a specific course of
events, but like a "Garden of Forking Paths"--to parody the title of a
short story by Borges--it is open to all the histories that could develop
out of a given situation. Every use of the system actualizes another potential
segment of history. The simulative system is like an alphabet containing
all the books on a given subject, while the simulation itself is the writing
of a potential book (except that there is no book left when the writing
in completed). In a flight simulator, for instance, the user enacts the
story of one particular flight out of a large set of possibilities by operating
the keys that represent the control panel of the airplane.
The degree of interactivity of a VR system is a function of a variety of
factors. Steuer enumerates three of them, without claiming that the list
The first of these factors requires little explanation. The speed of a
system is what enables it to respond in real time to the user's actions.
Faster response means more actions, and more actions mean more changes.
The second factor is equally obvious: the choice of actions is like a set
of tools; the larger the set, the more malleable the environment. A VR
system allowing an infinite range of actions would be like real life, except
that in real life our choice of actions in a concrete situation is limit
ed by pragmatic considerations. The factor of mapping imposes constraints
on the behavior of the system. Insofar as "mapping" is defined in terms
of natural response, it advocates the disappearance of arbitrary codes.
Far from being associated with passive immersion, semiotic transparency
is conceived by VR developers as a way to facilitate interactivity. The
predictability of the response demonstrates the intelligence of the system.
The user must be able to foresee to some extent the result of his gestures,
otherwise they would be pure movements and not intent-driven actions. If
the user of a virtual golf system hits a golf ball he wants it to land
on the ground, and not to turn into a bird and disappear in the sky. On
the other hand, the predictability of moves should be relative, otherwise
there would be no challenge nor point in using the system. Even in real
life, we cannot calculate all the consequences of our actions. Moreover,
predictability conflicts with the range requirement: if the user could
choose from a repertory of actions as vast as that of real life, the system
would be unable to respond intelligently to most forms of input. The coherence
of flight-simulation programs stems for instance from the fact that they
exclude any choice of activity unrelated to flying. Meaningful interactivity
requires a compromise between range and mapping and between discovery and
predictability. Like a good narrative plot, VR systems should instill an
element of surprise in the fulfillment of expectations.
speed, which refers to the rate at which
input can be assimilated into the mediated
environment; range, which refers to the
number of possibilities for action at any
given time; and mapping, which refers to the
ability of a system to map its controls to
changes in the mediated environment in a
natural and predictable manner. (86)
Interactivity and Literary Theory
Increasing the reader's participation in the creative process, and thereby
questioning such distinctions as author/reader, actor/spectator, producer/consumer,
has been a major concern of postmodern art. This does not mean that without
these efforts reading would be a purely passive experience: theorists such
as Iser or Ingarden have convincingly demonstrated that a world cannot
emerge from a text without an active process of construction, a process
through which the reader provides as much material as sh e derives from
the text. But the inherently interactive nature of the reading experience
has been obscured by the reader's proficiency in performing the necessary
world-building operations. We are so used to playing the fictional game
that it has become a second nature: as quasi native readers of fiction
we take it for granted that worlds should emerge from texts. This explains
why postmodernist attempts to promote active reader involvement in the
construction of meaning usually take the form of self-referential demystification.
As Linda Hutcheon writes: "The reader of fiction is always an actively
mediating presence; the text's reality is established by his response and
reconstituted by his active participation. The writer of narcissistic fiction
merely makes the reader conscious of this fact of his experience" (141).
The price of this consciousness is a loss of membership in the fictional
world. In the narcissistic work, the reader contemplates the fictional
world from the outside. This world no longer functions for the imagination
as an actual world--this is to say, as an ontological center--but is expelled
toward the periphery of the modal system, where it acquires the status
of a non-actual possible world. The metafictional gesture of de-centering
thus inverts a paradox inherent to fiction. Insofar as it claims the reality
of its reference world, fiction implies its own denial as fiction. By overtly
recognizing the constructed, imaginary nature of the textual world, metafiction
reclaims our "native reality" as ontological center and reverts to the
status of nonfictional discourse about non-actual possible worlds. In order
to enhance participation in, or at least awareness of the creative process,
the metafictional gesture thus blocks participation in the fictional world.
But the reader's interest is difficult to maintain in the absence of make-believe.
The most efficient strategy for promoting an awareness of the mechanisms
of fictionality is not to block access to the fictional world, but to engage
the reader in a game of in and out: now the text captures the reader in
the narrative suspense; now it bares the artificiality of plots; now the
text builds up the illusion of an extratextual referent; now it claims
"this world is mere fiction." Shuttled back and forth between ontological
levels, the reader comes to appreciate the layered structure of fictional
communication, a layered structure through which he is both (in make-believe)
narratorial audience in the fictional world, and authorial audience in
the real world. One of the most successful examples of this game of in-and-out
is John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. The fictional world
may be eventually demystified as a textual construct, yet the text succeeds
in creating an immersive experience. At times the reader regards the characters
as human beings and invests an emotional interest in their fate; at other
times he is made to acknowledge their status as literary creations. It
is the memory of the immersive power of the text that engages his critical
faculties during the self-reflexive moments. The object the reflexive activity
is as much the phenomenon of immersion as the artificiality of fictional
worlds. But if immersion alternates with an "interactive" stance toward
the fictional world and the plural ontological levels embedded in the textual
universe, the two experiences cannot occur at the same time. They imply
mutually exclusive perspectives on the reference world.
When applied to traditional forms of text--that is, preserved and transmitted
in book form--"interactivity" remains a largely metaphorical concept. It
stands more for the reader's awareness of his collaboration with the text
in the production of meaning than for personal initiative and decision
making. Not surprisingly, the textual mode in which the ideal of interactivity
comes closest to literal fulfillment is hypertext, a form of writing made
possible by the electronic medium. The idea of hypertext is well-known
and I will do no more than summarize it. Organized as a network of paragraphs
connected by electronic links, hypertext offers at given points a choice
of directions to follow. Each choice brings on the screen a different chunk
of text, to which are attached new branching possibilities. Rather than
consuming the text in a prescribed sequential order, the reader determines
her own path of traversal through the textual network.
Through the initiative given to the reader, hypertext realizes a very basic
form of interactivity. As Bolter observes: "The reader participates in
the making of the text as a sequence of words" (158). If we equate "text"
to one particular traversal of the network, then indeed every reading session
generates a new text, and the reader takes an active part in this writing.
In this view, "text" is not a static collection of signs but the product
of a dynamic encounter between a mind and a set of signs. If the concept
of text is indissoluble from the act of reading, the physical interactivity
of hypertext is a concrete metaphor for the mental activity required by
all texts. While every particular path of navigation through a hypertextual
network brings to th e screen different chunks of text, every particular
reading of a non-electronic text highlights different episodes, links different
images, and creates a different web of meaning. The difference between
the experiences of hypertext and of traditional text s is mostly a matter
of intensity, of awareness and of having no other source of pleasure than
what Nabokov calls "combinational delight" (69). In the absence of the
distraction created by a dominating storyline, it is hoped that the reader
will devote all of his attention to the tracking of links.
Alternatively, the concept of "text" could be equated to the sum of possible
readings, or rather to the written signs forming the common source of these
readings. In the case of hypertext, this would mean that the text is the
entire network of links and of textual nodes. According to this view, the
interactivity of hypertext is not a power to change the environment, as
is the case in VR systems, but merely a freedom to move the sensors for
a personalized exploration. The reader may choose in which order she visits
the nodes, but her choices do not affect the configuration of the network.
No matter how the reader runs the maze, the maze remains the same. Far
from relinquishing authority (as Bolter has claimed), the author remains
the hidden master of the maze. The reader's actions could only modify the
environment if the hypertextual system generated text in real time, as
an intelligent response to the reader's decisions."1
As I have argued above, this is what happens in simulative systems. The
computer calculates the position of the plane according to the user's input,
rather than displaying a pre-calculated position. This will not happen
in hypertext until it joins forces with AI--and until AI sharpens its story-generating
capabilities. In the meantime, the closest to a hypertextual system operating
in real time will be for the user to get on line with the author herself.
The fullest form of interactivity occurs when the reader is invited to
contribute text to the network. "2
This invitation may take one of two forms. The first possibility is the
user adding text and links which become permanent parts of the system.
When this input concerns a specific character, the user is less playing
the role of the character in question than taking over authorial responsibilities
for the writing of his fate. In other words, the user manipulates the strings
of a puppet, playing its role from the outside. The other conceivable form
of interactivity is more like playing a game of make-believe such as cops
and robbers. The system defines a cast of characters by specifying their
attributes. The user selects an identity from this repertory, and plays
the role from the inside. She encounters other users playing other characters,
and they engage in a dialogue in real time. This dialogue does not count
as description of the actions of the character b ut as performance of these
actions: the character's freedom to act is a freedom to select speech acts.
Of these two modes of contribution, only the second constitutes an immersive
experience. The first may be addictive--as any game, any activity might
be--but it maintains a foreign perspective on the fictional world.
Immersion or Interactivty: The Dilemma of Textual Representation
Whether textual interactivity takes the weak form of a deliberate play
with signs leading to a production of meaning, or the strong form of producing
these signs, one consequence appears unavoidable: in literary matters,
interactivity conflicts either with immersion or with aesthetic design,
and usually with both. The strong forms of interactivity run most blatantly
into the design problem: how can the contributions of the reader-turned-author
be monitored by the system, so that the text as a whole will maintain narrative
coherence and aesthetic value? An interactive system may be an alphabet
for writing books, but the user should be prevented from producing nonsense.
As Laurel argues: "The well designed [virtual world] is, in a sense, the
antithesis of realism--the antithesis of the chaos of everyday life" (quoted
by Pimentel and Texeira 157). Howard Rheingold stresses the need for "scenario
control": "They [VR developers] want a world that you can walk around in,
that will react to you appropriately, and that presents a narrative structure
for you to experience" (307). The control of a pre-determined narrative
script imposes severe limits on the user's freedom of moves (think of the
narrow range of choices in the children's books "Choose Your Own Adven
tures," where all the branches constitute a coherent story); but without
this control the hypertextual network would turn into a multi-user word
processor. In the worst case scenario, interactive fiction will be reduced
to a bunch of would-be authors e-mailing to each other the fruits of their
In the weaker forms of interactivity, design is easier to control, but
immersion remains problematic. The reader of a classical interactive fiction--like
Michael Joyce's Afternoon--may be fascinated by his power to control
the display, but this fascination is a matter of reflecting on the medium,
not of participating in the fictional worlds represented by this medium.
Rather than experiencing exhilaration at the freedom of "co-creating" the
text, however, the reader may feel like a rat trapped in a maze, blindly
trying choices that lead to dead-ends, take him back to previously visited
points, or abandon a storyline that was slowly beginning to create interest.
The best way to prevent this feeling of entrapment, it seems to me, would
be to m ake the results of choices reasonably predictable, as they should
be in simulative VR, so that the reader would learn the laws of the maze
and become an expert at finding his way even in new territory. But if the
reader becomes an expert at running the maze, he may become immersed in
a specific story-line and forget--or deliberately avoid--all other possibilities.
He would then revert to a linear mode of reading and sacrifice the freedom
It would be preposterous to pass a global judgment on the intrinsic merit
of hypertext: whether the maze is experienced as a prison or as the key
to freedom depends on the individual quality of the text and on the disposition
of the reader. But I would like to advance one general pronouncement concerning
the immersive power--or lack thereof--of the genre: a genuine appreciation
of a hypertextual network requires an awareness of the plurality of possible
worlds contained in the system; but this plurality can only be contemplated
from a point of view external to any of these worlds.
The various attempts by contemporary literature to emulate the interactivity
of VR thus involve a sacrifice of the special pleasure derived from immersion.
The more interactive, the less immersive the text. The texts that come
the closest to combining both types of pleasure are those that orchestrate
them in round-robin fashion through a game of in-and-out. The textual incompatibility
of immersion and interactivity can be traced back to several factors. While
immersion depends on the forward movement of a linear plot, interactivity
involves (and creates) a spatial organization. While immersion presupposes
pretended belief in an solid extratextual reference world, interactivity
thrives in a fluid environment undergoing constant reconfiguration. While
immersion looks through the signs toward the reference world, interactivity
exploits the materiality of the medium. Textual representation behaves
in one respect like holographic pictures: you cannot see the worlds and
the signs at the same time. Readers and spectators must focus beyond the
signs to witness the emergence of a three-dimensional life-like reality.
In computer-generated VR, immersion and interactivity do not stand in conflict--or
at least not necessarily. Immersion may offer an occasional threat to interactivity"3,
but the converse does not hold. The more interactive a virtual world, the
more immersive the experience. There is nothing intrinsically incompatible
between immersion and interactivity: in real life also, the greater our
freedom to act, the deeper our bond to the environment.
An obvious reason for this difference in behavior is the above-mentioned
difficulty for texts to integrate the reader's input into a coherent narrative
macro-structure. VR also experiences this type of problem when it attempts
to turn users into the characters of a multi-media dramatic production.
It is in very restricted domains regulated by narrowly defined "narrative"
scripts--flight simulators, golf, paddle-ball, etc.--or in areas not subjected
to the requirements of narrative logic--visual displays, or systems combining
visual data with sound and dance--that VR systems achieve the most complete
fusion of immersion and interactivity.
But there is a more fundamental reason for VR's ability to combine the
two types of experience. In a textual environment, the tools of interactivity
are signs. But signs are not the only mean of action. In the real world
we can act with the body by pointing at things, manipulating them, and
working on them with tools. We can also use the body as an instrument of
exploration by walking around the world and moving the sensors. Virtual
reality, as its developers conceive it, reconciles immersion and interac
tivity through the mediation of the body. "Our body is our interface,"
claims William Brickemp in a VR manifesto (quoted in Pimentel and Texeira,
160). When the reader of a postmodern work is invited to participate in
the construction of the fictional world she is aware that this world does
not exist independently of the semiotic activity; hence the loss in immersive
power. But the user of a VR system interacts with a world that is experienced
as existing autonomously because this world is accessible to m any senses,
particularly to the sense of touch. As the story of Saint Thomas demonstrates,
tactile sensations are second to none in establishing a sense of reality.
The bodily participation of the user in virtual reality can be termed world-creative
in the same sense that performing actions in the real world can be said
to create reality. As a purely mental event, textual creation is a creation
ex nihilo that excludes the creator from the creation: authors do
not belong to the world of their fictions. But if a mind may conceive a
world from the outside, a body always experiences it from the inside. As
a relation involving the body, the interactivity of VR immerses the user
in an world already in place; as a process involving the mind, it turns
the user's relation to this world into a creative membership. The most
immersive forms of textual interactivity are therefore those in which the
user's contributions, rather than performing a creation through a diegetic
(i.e. descriptive) use of language, count as a dialogic and live interaction
with other members of the fictional world. I am thinking here of children's
games of make-believe, and of those interactive hypertextual systems where
users are invited to play the role of characters. These modes of interactivity
have yet to solve the problem of design, but they point the way toward
a solution of the conflict between immersion and interactivity: turn language
into a dramatic performance, into the expression of a bodily mode of being
in the world.
Copyright © 1994 Marie-Laure
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hypertexts erase certain pathways after the reader has taken them. This
seems to be the closest so far to a self-modifying network responding to
the user's input. But the pruning of links is pre-programmed into the text,
so it does not constitute a response in real time.
This invitation is extended in "HotelMOO, the Hypertext Hotel" (originator
and "proprietor": Tom Meyer of Brown university), a hypertextual network
placed in the public space and accessible through the Internet. Users may
either visit the hotel as anonymous guests, in which case their limited
(inter)activity resides in the freedom to choose a path through the network,
or they can enter the system under the identity of a specific character.
In this case they are allowed to contribute to the expansion of the network.
Following McLuhan, Steuer suggests that the vividness of a virtual world
may "decrease a subject's ability to mindfully interact with it in real
time" (90). If a computer-generated environment is so rich in "fictional
truths" that its exploration offers great rewards, why would the user bother
to work on it?
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