Research imitates (science) fiction, or which way around is it?

Lately I’ve been trying to get to the core of things around virtual reality and the metaphors that are commonly used when describing the experience of being immersed in computer-generated virtual environments such video games. The deeper I get in comparing the virtual and the actual, the more fuzzy it gets.

Interestingly, it seems to be the case that many current definitions about cyberspace or somehow explaining the virtual experience rely on a single book, namely Murray’s (1998) Hamlet on the Holodeck. In her book, she describes virtual reality through the Star Trek holodeck concept. A holodeck is a room that transports its users to different times such as old London, and creates tangible objects and natural characters who notice your presence and interact with you. All of this seems like real.

I have to assume Murray intended the holodeck to be a metaphor, and not analogy as people seem to have started to treat it. If you believe we humans have a an actual body and that we are even little bit a bodily construction instead of just floating brains, in no way can we “go” to a virtual environment. What tangible concrete part of us would actually go there? And if we went there, where in the bytes was this “there” anyway?

For example Jesper Juul (2005), Salen and Zimmerman (2004) have challenged this very notion of transporting to virtual, which as a starting point for research in my eyes skews studies perhaps slightly towards some odd directions. Concepts such as presence emerge, that try to explain our experience in the digital realm with the terms of our physical experience. Some make comparative studies and find odd results that state we experience more presence in the virtual than the real. Is there a problem in the instrument or is there actually something in this?

I guess that’s the skewness of the thing. As I’ve confronted in several cases, virtual should not be considered as the opposite of the real (e.g. Shields, 2003; Lévy, 1998). As a light note, if it was, the logical outcome would be that there’s no use to get university to fund any research in that domain: “I am researching the virtual. The virtual is the opposite of the real. This means virtual is non-real.” How can you study something that does not exist?

I’m sure many would consider this kind of pondering (which used to be called ‘thinking’, ‘logic’ or even something nowadays rather underrated called ‘philosophy’) rather useless. But as mentioned, I think it is the core of things. I somehow consider this whole ‘presence this and presence that’ discussion rather odd. For example, whenever I go to see a boring lecture, I might be physical present but actually very absent. On the other hand, playing Halo Reach, I might feel really ‘in the game’. So what is the use of this kind of physical presence thinking then? I agree with several authors like Gordon Calleja (2011) that we need to define clearly what we are talking about, and also open up the ontological basis of our definitions, and not assume that more naturalistic accounts are the only ones.

Coming back to Murray’s holodeck as a transportation to a virtual world. Recently I read a very interesting article by Dourish and Bell (2014) called “Resistance is futile”: Reading science fiction alongside ubiquitous computing”. Basically their article contrasts popular accounts in science fiction to actual technological developments and research literature. It is interesting to notice that there is this kind of a back and forth movement between fiction and real studies, sometimes even to the point of seeing them merging.

As it is long known e.g. in media studies, stories are a (virtual?) place for humans to ponder many levels of developments from culture to technology and so on. Such themes ooze to research literature. What makes this interesting, is that they are often taken for granted metaphors that come together in simple terms such as “immersion” or “presence” – and often very revealing about how their users preconceive what constitutes the world for us.

But hey, of course everyone knows what terms such as “presence”, “immersion” or “embodiment” mean! Well, go and ask 5 people near you. I’m sure you’ll get 5 different answers – and of course how you asked varies that even further. Even in studies, we seem to stick with our implicit ontological views which are affected by popular fiction metaphors from sources like Neuromancer, The Matrix or more contemporary Sword Art Online. These accounts fuzzily combine concrete real (e.g. existing social structures) with possible real (humans can put a VR helmet on and ‘actually’ live in a VR world). What amazes me is how are we capable of maintaining a solid research body in things virtual, when our very foundation is build on such quicksand?

Check these out:

Dourish & Bell: Resistance is futile: Reading science fiction alongside ubiquitous computing. Retrieved from

Juul, Jesper: Half-Real. Book website at

Lévy, Pierre: Becoming virtual.

Murray, Janet H.: Hamlet on the Holodeck.

Salen & Zimmerman: Rules of Play (especially “The Immersive Fallacy”).

Shields, Rob: The Virtual.