The advanced dissertation by professor Sisse Siggaard Jensen Ways of Virtual World-making – Actors and Avatars is published by Roskilde University Press – it can be bought here. It contributes an interpretive, constructivist and semiotic understanding of the virtual worlds of EverQuest and Second Life. In this study empirical analyses of different ways of engaging with virtual worlds have been conducted, which means that the actors’ sense-making over time is at the very centre of analytical interest. Hence, the study is not primarily about the worlds with which the participating actors engage but about their engagement with the worlds.
World-making and metaphors
To support the study’s analytical aims, several actants of theory have been mobilised even if the study does not apply an overall theoretical framework to the empirical analysis. Inspired by ethno-methodological, ethnographic and grounded theory methodologies, theory has been mobilised in order to interpret the empirical data as the analytical process has developed. The interpretation of what is a world – be it real or virtual – serves to exemplify this: one of the analytical points that developed out of the empirical analysis was the question about how to understand the dynamics of engagement with the virtual worlds. To answer this, reference is made to the pragmatist and philosophical understanding as expressed by the notion of world-making, an understanding which is suggested by the American philosopher Nelson Goodman. This reference to philosophy and pragmatism was not part of an a priori overall theoretical framework applied to the empirical analysis but it grew out of this. The title of this dissertation is a reference to one of Nelson Goodman’s (1978) works “Ways of World-making.” It indicates the importance ascribed to his philosophy of world-making.
In line with this, a metaphorical understanding of virtual world-making was actualised by the philosophical conception of virtual world-making as well as by the empirical studies. The metaphorical interpretation of virtual world-making mainly refers to the work of the American philosopher Mark Johnson (1987 “The Body in the Mind”. In the present study it is suggested that virtual worlds may be seen as multi-user non-linguistic and digital realisations of metaphors and semiotic references by world-making.
Actor-network theory and sense-making metaphor
Two other actants of theory should be mentioned here. One is the analytical and metaphorical figure of a diagram which refers to actor-network theory and the French sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour’s (1991, 1998, 2005) analysis of innovation. In actor-network theory the interrelatedness of humans and non-humans is emphasised and the diagram serves to continuously focus attention on these aspects of connectedness. The triangle is another analytical figure of importance to the analysis of actors’ sense-making. Metaphorically it depicts the understanding of sense-making processes as developed by communication researcher Brenda Dervin (2003). Together the diagram and the triangle shape and focus the empirical analysis of 19 ways of engagement. These analyses and narratives do not aim to generate typologies or suggest models whereas the qualitative study seeks to flesh out and understand the uniquenesses, particularities and diversity of the actors’ engagement. The 19 compositions are at the core of the empirical analysis. They contribute to the overall question as introduced above and do so by addressing five foci of analysis: the actors’ choice of worlds and avatars, their building of social relationships and expressions of self, and the navigation of everyday life comprising their engagement with virtual world-making.
Diversity of engagements
In this way the study contributes detailed studies of a diversity of engagements. One of the main points made is that the diversity of the virtual worlds – within and between the worlds – is so extensive that generalisation allows us to say very little about engagement. Consequently, detailed, qualitative and empirical studies are required if we are to understand the many ways of engaging with virtual world-making. Although the aim of the study is not to build typologies and models, the analysis and narratives of the participating actors can easily be referred to some of the existing typologies about motivations as substantiated by Williams et al.’s (2008) research. As such the qualitative study contributes to fleshing out some of the typologies about gamer types and motivations even if it does not use these typologies as an analytical matrix.
Avatars’ semiosis and companionship
As the study gradually progressed, questions about how to understand the engagement and attachment between actor and avatar came to the foreground of analytical interest as the prevailing understanding of avatars as figures of identity and representation of the actors in front of the screen increasingly appeared to delimit rather than deepen our understanding. No doubt the focus on avatars as a means of identity and self-construal has made important contributions to our understanding but we also run the risk of missing important points. Therefore a shift of focus to supplement the many studies concerned with identity is suggested with reference to semiotic theory. The conclusion of a semiotic analysis of avatars suggests that we may also see the avatars as companions. With reference to Sherry Turkle’s notion of companionate objects (2006, 2011), this idea of a companionship between actor and avatar seems to be a promising analytical understanding, which needs to be subject to further empirical study.
Engagement is thoroughly emphasised as important to our understanding of virtual world-making. However, I did not realise until late in the analytical process that this notion and concept should also be subject to theoretical analysis. The notion of engagement was almost taken for granted even if it proved of analytical importance. This awareness grew out of questions about how to understand the participating actors’ deep felt involvement with their world-making. The widely held understanding of this as a sense of immersion was questioned as it appeared to be a notion and understanding which underemphasised the active and participatory aspects of the actor’s involvement. Engagement is therefore investigated from a theoretical point of view in this dissertation and it is part of the concluding reflections as are the semiotic analysis of avatars.
Ways of seeing
Finally, the empirical analysis exemplifies a method of video analysis which I denote reversed storyboarding. From many hours of open and in situ video interviews, thousands upon thousands of single videoframes have been selected in a process of deconstruction and visual description. In several analytical steps, series of snapshots have been generated, decomposed and “re”-composed into storyboards. From these storyboards only a few video keyframes of particular analytical importance have been selected and they are the building blocks of the analytical inscriptions composed of the actor-network diagram and the sense-making triangle. To study virtual world-making I suggest that we need to further develop and refine video analytical methods. It is as important to know how to see as it is to know how to ask questions in traditional interviews. Ways of seeing is therefore a research subject of importance to our further studies of virtual world-making