Consider two descriptions of the same event.
It’s just before seven on a Tuesday morning and people are entering the great room at the Zen Buddhist retreat. They greet each other and make small talk as they settle onto cushions arranged among the sunbeams on the wide plank floor. The meditation leader shares a thought-provoking quote and then lightly taps a bell to begin the daily session of silent meditation. Latecomers take cushions at the back of the room and before long, the only sounds to be heard are the birds outside and the hushed exhalations of slow communal breathing. People shift slightly on their cushions and candles flicker. At the end of thirty minutes, the meditation leader again rings the bell and shares a thought. The participants slowly rise, thanking her and wishing each other a peaceful day before going off in different directions. One young man bows to the monk in the corner with a soft namaste and slips a donation into the box nearby.
In places around the planet, people of varied age, ethnicity, nationality and belief notice that it’s almost 7:00 am US Pacific time and go to their computers.They load a viewer program and log in to the Second Life service, watching as their avatars and surroundings rez (appear), and then open the Landmarks folder in their online inventories and double-click on “Kannonji”. The screen goes black and then another scene slowly rezzes: a large log cabin surrounded by trees and flowers. There are already some avatars inside the cabin, including a man dressed as a jester and a woman in an evening gown and very high heels. An oversized cat avatar wearing Buddhist robes sits in a corner. Each person uses the arrow keys and mouse on his own keyboard to move his avatar inside, right-click on an empty cushion, and command the avatar to sit. Text floods the screen as the meditation leader’s avatar pastes a quote into local chat and then activates a bell sound file. For the next thirty minutes, while the avatars occasionally fidget because of the animation scripts in the cushions and the area background sounds of birdsong and slow breathing play, the people controlling those avatars could be doing anything at all. Then, the meditation leader repeats the bell sound and the participants click “Stand” to pull their avatars off the cushions, quickly activating animation override programs to stop awkward and jerky motions. One of the participants triggers a gesture that makes his avatar bow to the cat monk and type “@–>– Namaste” in the local chat window, and then he right-clicks on a donation box, chooses ” Pay” from the pie menu, and transfers fifty Linden dollars (about twenty US cents) from his account to the account of the person who rents the simulator and disk space on which the Kannonji Zen Retreat is hosted. Some avatars vanish, others are moved outside the building before being teleported away.
For an anthropologist, could either of those be considered the lived experience of the people involved? Does it lie somewhere between? Can it be generalized or is it distinctly individual because not only is each person a separate entity, but in this case, at least two entities? Can we accurately describe someone as meditating in a virtual world when the avatar is in a meditation pose but the actions of the physical person are unknown?
I think this is a complex, intriguing problem and another where a researcher is well-served by lengthy in-world fieldwork rather than surveys or briefly peering in from outside. Even the self-descriptions of those involved in the meditation will have a lot of variance. While one could record either the scenario in-world or that on the other side of the keyboard, I think the richness of the experience comes from a combination of the two. As we move toward better interaction technology which makes avatar control less artificial (motion and facial expression sensors, wider use of voice or voice recognition, etc), I expect the gap between what is experienced simultaneously in RL and a virtual world will narrow. Qualitative data from this period might show the flexibility of the human imagination, which — at least for some — can construct a highly compelling, immersive reality despite the technical hurdles that must be leaped to do it.
[Sections of this post first appeared in my capstone paper on virtual embodiment for an anthropology theory course.]