Henrik Bennetsen, in his old masterpiece article Augmentation vs. Immersion, launched one of the biggest debates in the history of Second Life®’s psychology. The clarity of his ideas finally defined the two possible relationships a resident of Second Life might have towards the virtual world: either as a different space or as an extension of the real space.
Bennetsen cleverly explains that both visions are imaginary ideals on the opposite sides of the scale, and that, in reality, there aren’t any “pure augmentists” or “pure immersionists” in SL, but always a mix of both. As time goes by, immersionists will slowly give way to augmentationists, but they will never disappear completely. In my article here I claim that one reason for that is because some immersionists will become post-immersionists instead.
Escapism and the Magic Circle
Current-generation SL residents generally scorn self-proclaimed immersionists by considering them merely escapists, a term that actually fits well to many (most?) MMORPG players. In MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, for instance, few players are anything but role-playing a game for fun (granted, there might be exceptions, since even WoW has a huge social component that is alluring for many; just because you look like an Orc that doesn’t mean you can’t use WoW as a dating service!). A game is just a game with rules, and you act according to those rules. What happens “outside the game” has little relevance — after all, few games give you extra levels for establishing RL business or marrying your partner in RL (I might even be persuaded to say that no game does that!), but only by completing tasks or quests or whatever they might be called inside the game’s rules and environment.
A few illustrious thinkers call this the “Magic Circle” of games, where gamers deliberately step into the “magic circle” and leave their RL problems behind, in search for some fun and entertainment — under the rules of the game world. While online computer games are definitely the ultimate in possible escapism, they are by far not the only type; you just need to take a look at how perfectly normal and calm people become furious football fanatics during a match to see how there is a “magic circle” for non-computer games as well. Similarly, one can argue that watching TV or reading a very good novel has the same kind of “magic circle”.
Escapism is usually used as a pejorative word, in the sense that someone who deliberately tries to “ignore” what really exists around themselves in order to fulfil a need for having fun and entertainment — instead of having fun and entertainment without escapism, of course. Closed-minded individuals attribute escapism to either immature minds, or disturbed minds, or simply weak individuals who are unable to deal with their own troubles and seek a refuge in a “different place” (inside their minds) to escape from those troubles instead of dealing with them. They argue this is a mental condition that ought to require some sort of treatment (usually, fighting depression or lack of self-confidence). This is naturally one typical way of describing escapism, one that is popularised by the mainstream media and many authors of novels or plots for TV series. Immersionism is thus often described by them as collective escapism, where groups of individuals simply engage in escapism together — a sort of collective hallucination which exists by sharing the same set of rules and ideas about a world that doesn’t exist in the physical reality.
This is, of course, looking at things from the worst possible angle. In fact, most people engage in escapist activities without even thinking twice about it; and even fully “immersed” individuals, as the Wikipedia article on the Magic Circle points out, will “leak” to the outside world — for instance, by having your WoW character listed on eBay for sale.
Second Life (and social virtual worlds with the complexity of Second Life) make everything so much complicated because, well, not only it’s not a game, but there are no rules but the ones you define for yourself. The usual references to escapism are made about how one party (namely, the entertainment industry) defines an environment where escapism is possible, and the rest of the individuals just accept that environment as a valid one for their escapism. SL allows self-escapism, perhaps not unlike what an artist experiences when creating their own piece of art (or performing on a stage), and where the only “reality” is the one they create. A similar experience is described by computer programmers when developing software applications. It’s thus different from, say, watching a football game and forgetting all about your true self; it’s more like being so engaged in designing the rules of how football should be played that you forget everything else.
Studies about what happens to our mind when we’re logged in to SL are as yet scarce and not conclusive; we have mostly a lot of anedoctal evidence to present, but no statistical, scientifically formulated results. What seems apparent is that escapism in Second Life comes mostly from re-inventing your own self while immersed in a virtual world and this is definitely not universally widespread. It is also just one aspect of immersionism — immersion can occur without bringing any “urge” or “desire” to “re-invent yourself”. As we’ll see, the “urge” might not be there, but it nevertheless happens.