Types of Boundaries (Hartmann et al. 2001)
My previous research sought to address the general question of whether the use of virtual worlds and video games may induce experiences that fit the language used to describe dissociative disorders. The method of investigation was the development of a survey instrument based on the Structured Clinical Interview for Depersonalization – Derealization Spectrum (Mula et al., 2008). The new survey was in turn administered to a population of users of the virtual world
A significant number of people spend a significant amount of time using virtual worlds for gaming and entertainment. According to the market research company KZERO WORLDWIDE (http://www.kzero.co.uk/) the cumulative total of registered accounts for virtual worlds, MMOs (massive multi-player online games) and social gaming stands at 1.92 billion. The Entertainment Software Association (http://www.theesa.com/facts/index.asp) reports that 72 percent of American households play computer or video games. According to the Pew Research Center 97 percent of teens in the United States play videogames of some sort. (Pew Research Center 2008).
Edward Castronova argues that virtual worlds and games attract our attention because they offer more positive experiences than the real world. This places the real and the virtual in competition for people’s time and attention. Castronova invokes simple economic theory to claim, that “the real world is going to lose.” (Castronova 2008). With Castronova’s exodus people are “moving their attention, not their bodies, and they are moving back and forth all the time.”
If Castronova is right and the data on the growing numbers of users of games and virtual worlds appear to support his speculations, then we need to understand how is it that people “are moving back and forth all the time” but manage not to confuse the real and the virtual. We need to understand why and how “reality testing is intact” as people migrate back and forth from the real to the virtual.
The use of virtual worlds is no longer an activity at the margins of society. It is now a part of the cultural fabric. Yet we have a poor understanding of the impact of this activity on the psychological well being of players. More to the point we do not understand how human beings sort out the differences between virtual experiences and real life experiences. How is it that most people easily recognize and separate these two domains of experience?
In the near future this ability will be challenged. Rapid advances in wearable computing (compact computational and sensing devices molded to comfortably fit the human body) have introduced new viewing devices that promise to further blur the lines between the real and the virtual. Announced in April 2012 Goggle’s Project Glass introduces augmented reality eyewear that offers anywhere, anytime connectivity (Hill 2012). The display visible with the eyewear merges together a view of the real world with the overlay of the capabilities of web browsers and smartphones.
With augmented reality the distinction between the real and the virtual collapses and becomes a single unified experience. A person viewing the Grand Canyon through augmented reality glasses might a see text overlay identifying prominent features of that landscape. It seems quite unlikely that someone might confuse this text overlay as part of the observed reality as they can simply take off the glasses and view the natural world as it is. But what if that overlay includes a video conferencing feature similar to Skype? The individual sees a Park Ranger (who is not physically there) and hears the voice of the Ranger through their ear buds (headphones built into the glasses). The Park Ranger responds to questions, gestures to geological features in the environment (much like the weather man or woman against a green screen), engages in conversation and can even make eye contact.
For all intents and purposes this experience is real, feels real to the viewer and will be remembered just as vividly (perhaps even more so?) as the experience of talking to a person standing next to him or her on the South Rim. What is substantively different about this experience is that it is a broadband, information rich, real time interaction. This experience completely engages the participant in the visual, auditory domains and more importantly in the realm of human social affairs.
A determined materialist might argue that this is simply a pseudo question and concern. We know the physics and electrical engineering of how the bits and bytes are represented as electrical impulses and stored on a hard drive. The engineering is well established for how the data is read, parsed into instructions and the algorithms are executed, while user input is processed resulting in the real time display of 3D computer graphics along with the playback of stereo sound. We know a great about the systems of visual and auditory processing, from the anatomy of the eye and ear to the neural correlates in the brain. The reductionist can confidently say that we objectively know what is out there, is real. We thoroughly understand the science and engineering how the virtual worlds are generated. The light from a pattern of pixels that hits the retina is just as “real” as light coming from the “real” or natural world. We even understand a great deal about perception, both how the brain creates the world out there from sensory inputs to even how the brain processes illusions.
But that is not the point. This reductionist argument is like trying to explain the experience of reading a novel by describing the technology of papermaking, publishing and printing. The real question centers on that human capacity to imagine fictitious worlds when hearing or reading stories or watching a play or film or play a game.
What is happening when we experience the “suspension of disbelief”? What is this capacity to simultaneously know that the experience (reading fiction, watching a play or movie) is not real but still responding as if it were real? When dreaming one’s motor control is suppressed. When we read a book, watch a play or film we remain seated. When we play a video game we interact within the constraints defined by the interface. Historically game interaction has been accomplished by use of a mouse and keyboard, or with the buttons on a game controller. More recently motion tracking and motion sensing technologies motion used with the Wii or Microsoft Kinect make it possible to interact using one’s whole body.
There is also the temptation to dismiss this as a topic best suited for an introductory class in philosophy. After all the question of what is the reality of the virtual is an epistemological one. Yet this does not mean that such questions have to be abandoned and left to metaphysics. Testing a series of questions and gathering data using quantitative and qualitative methods can provide meaningful results. To return to the question suggested at the onset of this chapter, does the language used to describe the diagnostic criteria for dissociative disorders specifically from the
In the DSM–IV–TR dissociative disorders are described as the “disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment” and “partial or complete loss of the normal integration between memories of the past, awareness of identity and immediate sensations, and control of bodily movements.” Why is it that frequent migrations between the real and virtual do not trigger a “disruption in the usually integrated functions…”? If a subject presents symptoms of dissociation in real life do these symptoms carry over or are aggravated by use of a virtual world like
The DSM-IV-TR acknowledges that dissociative states “occur frequently and are not inherently pathological” and are even “sought-after experiences as part of long standing religious and cultural rituals and practices.” Many conditions present similar clusters of symptoms, yet the language used in the DSM for the diagnostic criteria for depersonalization and de-realization is a fitting description for how avatars (the user’s onscreen representation in a virtual world or game) look “unreal” and one's surroundings looks “unreal” in a virtual worlds like the
The DSM-IV-TR uses the following criteria for derealization: “The perception or experience of the external world so that it seems strange or unreal; Feeling as though one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional colouring and depth.” In
The diagnostic criteria for Item 300.6 Depersonalization Disorder specifies the following: “Persistent or recurrent feelings of being detached from one’s mental processes or body; as if an observer; During depersonalization, reality testing is intact.” In
Updated in DSM-IV-TR, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) refers to the “presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states” that “recurrently take control” of a person’s behavior. It is a common practice for
2. A Survey and results
It is an informal observation to say that the language of the diagnostic criteria of the DSM is an apt description of the experience using a virtual world like
To suggest that users and players who have multiple avatars may experience something akin to dissociative identity disorder is another matter. These terms and phrases have real import when used as part of the diagnostic criteria for dissociative disorders. If users self-report and respond in the affirmative to a self-administered questionnaire related to the diagnostic criteria then there may be something worth further scrutiny. In order to conduct a more systematic investigation the development of a survey instrument and its deployment was required.
The Structured Clinical Interview for Depersonalization – Derealization Spectrum (SCI-DER) (Mula et al., 2008) was chosen as a model for a new survey. Questions were selected on the basis of how well they applied to the experience of using
The SCI-DER introduces the survey questions with this general question: “Have you ever experienced just for a few seconds or for days or months. …” After that each of the specific questions follow such as the first:
This preface from the SCI_DER is rewritten for the new survey as: “While in Second Life have you ever experienced just for a few seconds or for a longer period of time…” The first question is modified as follows to refer directly to the experience of being logged into
…that the virtual world was strange and unreal?”
Questions were added that addressed gender, age and length of time spent as a registered user (resident) of Second Life. In the end the new survey instrument comprised a total of 23 questions. Respondents answered Yes or No to each. While the SCI-DER is considered a validated instrument with high reliability, this new survey does not make any such claims. Additionally this new survey was not intended to be used for the purposes of diagnosis. The survey was administered by the Social Research Foundation (http://www.socialresearchfoundation.org/) to a sample population of 110 “residents” of Second Life. Respondents completed the survey online anonymously. The following charts show sample results of this new survey using questions modified from the SCI-DER. As noted above the list of twenty-three questions is prefaced by this general question:
Question 1 uses the descriptive phrase directly from the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-IV-TR and corresponds to the first domain of questions in the SCI-DER. Items in this domain focus on derealization or “referring to an altered experience of the external world (Mula et al., 2008).” Question 2 is another example of this domain. Survey responses suggest that it is “normal” and expected to view other avatars and objects as “not real” when logged into
Question 12 references the
Questions 17 and 18 reference the third domain of Auto Psychic depersonalization which includes “unfamiliarity of the self in terms of sensation of being an outside observer of one’s mental process, not being ‘in charge’ of their own behavior or mental processes, the automaton-line experience and anomalous subjective recall.” Yes responses are not surprising given that the default viewpoint in
Question 18 references the déjà vu experience. Sims (simulations) in Second Life have a sameness to them because of the basic technology consists of complex shapes built out of primitive shapes with simple texture maps. Question 18 also references item 300.13 Dissociative Fugue in the DSM-IV-TR where the “predominant disturbance is sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one's customary place of work, with inability to recall one's past.”
Question 23 references the DSM-IV-TR category 300.14
Some value lies in this survey’s potential to define and recognize potential manifestations that (weakly) correlate to DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. This has led to further research questions (as noted above) that suggest the development of new instruments and methodologies.
3. Other considerations
Digital games conjure up virtual worlds by means of graphical displays. Play further establishes the divide between the real and the virtual by demarcating what play theorists call the magic circle. First described by Huizinga in his seminal work on play (1955) the magic circle is a place set apart for not only play but also much more:
Gregory Bateson (1972) links play to Goffman’s frame analysis (1974): “play occurs within a delimited psychological frame, a spatial and temporal bounding of a set of interactive messages.” Goffman himself aims at a certain granularity of experience by using the term “strip” by which he means “any arbitrary slice or cut from the stream of ongoing activity, including here sequences of happenings, real or fictive, as seen from the perspective of those subjectively involved in sustaining an interest in them (Goffman 1974).” In a similar fashion Zerubavel (1991) speaks of “mental fences,” which “delimit geographical areas, historical events, people, ideas, and so on that appear to be contiguous, similar, functionally related, or otherwise associated.” Zerubavel, (1991) reminds us that boundaries allow us to “visually as well as mentally to grasp any entity at all.”
Salen and Zimmerman (2003) link Huizinga’s (1955) notion of the ‘magic circle’ to Bateson’s analysis of play as a frame that “delimits the peculiar space of play.” When someone engages in play, he/she crosses a boundary (into the magic circle) that separates the artificial world of the game from “real life.” The magic circle is a frame that sets a thick boundary between real life and the make believe of game play. This cognitive frame establishes the “reality” of the game. Anthropologist Tom Boellstroff (2008) suggests that the “magic circle”– may constitute a virtual world meaningful in its own right. Bateson points out that this is a paradoxical state of mind (Bateson 1972, p. 84). For the player the game is simultaneously real and not real. This boundary is likewise thin–the player can easily stop and step instantly back into “real life.”
Work-family-life border/boundaries theories (Ashforth 2000; Clark 2000) likewise make use of the concepts of boundaries and borders to understand how daily life is “sliced” into discrete domains. These theories study the conflicts and interactions that arise between the domains of work, family life and what is termed third places defined as social activities outside the home or work place. This partitioning makes it possible for “one to concentrate more on whatever domain is currently salient and less on other domains.”
These borders can be both flexible and permeable. Behavior can spill over from one domain into another when flexible boundaries allow a role to “be enacted in various settings as various times (Ashforth et al. 2000).” Flexible borders or boundaries can be characterized by the “degree to which the spatial and temporal boundaries are pliable.” A role having flexible boundaries “can be enacted in various settings and at various times”. Permeability can be measured as “the degree to which a role allows one to be physically located in the role’s domain but psychologically and/or behaviorally involved in another role (Ashforth et al. 2000).”
The framework of border/boundary theory does not take into account domains beyond so-called third places. I have argued elsewhere (Garvey 2010) that the virtual should be considered as a fourth place. The analytical tool set of work-family-life border/boundary theories does not capture the full dynamic of the phenomena of immersion in the domains of virtual worlds and video games. These theories as currently formulated have little to say about how gamers are “quite facile at juggling roles” and how gamers can easily and quickly navigate back and forth between the domains of play (the virtual) and real life.
4. Toward a new survey
The foregoing discussion suggests that a number a new survey instruments could be devised that would examine the notion of the magic circle, paradoxical states of mind as manifested in game play, role-playing and boundaries. Goffman’s notion of frames has enormous intuitive appeal but suffers from an awkwardness of how to design experimental questions that get at this idea, that are testable and indeed quantifiable. Boundaries and borders have likewise a certain conceptual appeal. But as discussed above the border/boundary framework suffers from certain limitations when we try to apply this framework beyond the work/family balance framework.
The Boundary Questionnaire (Hartmann, 1991; Hartmann, Harrison and Zborowski 2001) offers another approach to using the notion of boundaries as an investigative tool. The BQ is a 138-item instrument that covers 12 categories of boundaries. Hartmann et al. point out that there is a long tradition in the field of psychology of investigating “perceptual boundaries, boundaries related to thoughts and feelings, boundaries between states of awareness or consciousness, sleep-dream-wake boundaries, boundaries related to memory, body boundaries, interpersonal boundaries, boundaries related to sexual identity and other forms of identity, group boundaries, and boundaries in opinions and judgments.” Hartmann et al. (1991; 2001), distinguish thick (solid) boundaries from thin or permeable boundaries. They have also developed a theory of dreams based on a “wake-dreaming continuum (Hartman 1989; Hartmann & Kunzendorf 2007).” This continuum begins on one end with “focused waking thought” having thick boundaries characterized by “solid, divisions, categorizations.” On the other end of the continuum is “Dreaming” having “thin boundaries” characterized as “merging, condensation, loosening of categories.” Hartmann et al. (2001) introduces the following table compiling types of boundaries:
|Between sensory inputs|
|Sensory focus or “bandwidth”|
|Around perceptual entities|
|Boundaries related to thoughts and feelings|
|Between two thoughts or two feelings|
|Between thought and feeling|
|Around thoughts and feelings (free association)|
|Boundaries between states of awareness or states of consciousness|
|Between sleep and waking|
|Between dreaming and waking|
|In and around the dream|
|Boundaries related to play|
|Boundaries related to memory|
|Recent memories and memory organization|
|Boundaries around oneself (body boundaries)|
|Barriers against stimuli|
|The skin as a boundary|
|Posture and musculature as boundaries|
|Boundaries between conscious and unconscious and between id, ego, and superego|
|Defense mechanisms as boundaries|
|Boundaries related to identity|
|Age identity: Between adult and child|
|Constancy of identity|
|Boundaries in organizing one’s life|
|Boundaries in environmental preferences|
|Boundaries in opinion and judgments|
|Boundaries in decision making and action|
The Boundary Questionnaire (BQ) organizes those various kinds of boundaries into twelve categories (Hartmann et al. 2001):
|Category 1: Sleep/Dream/Waking|
|Category 2: Unusual Experiences|
|Category 3: Thoughts/Feelings/Moods|
|Category 4: Childhood/Adolescence/Adult|
|Category 5: Interpersonal|
|Category 6: Sensitivity|
|Category 7: Neat/Exact/Precise|
|Category 8: Edges/Lines/Clothing|
|Category 9: Opinions re Children, etc.|
|Category 10: Organizations|
|Category 11: Peoples/Nations/Groups|
|Category 12: Beauty/Truth|
Hartmann et al. (2001) argue that “thick vs. thin boundaries appears to be a robust personality measure, which can be considered an important dimension of personality.” Boundaries related to “sexual identity” and “constancy of identity” are of direct relevance in a discussion of the use of avatars in virtual worlds and games. Thus the BQ might serve as a model for a new survey. In order to make such an instrument relevant to the target population the questions in the BQ could be slightly revised in a similar fashion to the approach described above with the SCI-DER.
The following table (Hartmann et al. 2001) lists the each of the twelve categories of boundary types. Under each category are two sample items from original the BQ followed by revisions of each items modified in such a way that it applies to the experience of using the virtual world
|Agreement with these questions are indicative of thin boundaries. Question 1 and 37 could be modified as follows:|
|The modified questions are:|
|In Second Life users can change the appearance of their avatar. A large group of users choose to be furries – avatars that have animal heads, tails and paws. The modified questions are:|
|The modified questions are:|
|The modified questions are:|
|The modified questions are:|
|The modified questions are:|
The following modification is problematic as Linden Labs (makers of
The modified questions are:
The modified questions are:
The modified questions are:
A subject’s score is obtained by adding up all the scores (0-4) for all items. Some items are scored backwards i.e. an answer of "0" is scored as 4, "1" is scored as 3, "2" is scored as 2, “3” is scored as 1, and “4” is scored as 0. A reverse logic is built in to the questionnaire design so respondents need to think about each response instead of answering mechanically. A subject with a low score is interpreted as having “Thick boundaries” and those with higher scores are determined to have “Thin boundaries.”
The prediction would be that subjects with thick boundaries would keep the domains of the real and the virtual clearly separate. It would also be expected that subjects whose scores are low would be able to quickly navigate back and forth and still maintain the boundaries. Subjects with thin boundaries would possibly experience spill over effects from one domain to another. Subjects with thick boundaries will be on the “focused waking thought” end of the “wake-dreaming continuum” which is characterized by “solid, divisions, categorizations.” Those subjects with thin boundaries are on the “Dreaming” end of the continuum characterized as “merging, condensation, loosening of categories.” Hartmann et al. (2001) notes: “… people with thick boundaries spend more time and find themselves more comfortable at the left-hand end of our continuum involved in focused waking. They can be considered, “thought people,” whereas the people with thinner boundaries are more comfortable at the other end of the continuum and can be thought of as “dream people,” although these terms are obviously an over-simplification.” The authors acknowledge at one time or another individuals can exhibit both thin and thick boundaries. Most individuals experience the different aspects of the “wake-dreaming continuum” during the course of entire day.
Subjects with thin boundaries might be predicted to experience spill over effects such as daydreaming about the virtual world or perhaps confusing dreams about the virtual world with actual experiences as a user of that virtual world. However the BQ is not able to determine exactly what those spill over effects might be, rather it predicts the tendency for a subject to behave in a manner consistent with thin or thick boundaries. In fact it really is a measure of self-assessment of attitudes in regard to each of the identified categories. To determine how a subject actually behaves, what they perceive, whether or not there are spill over effects with daydreams or dream recall between the domains of the real and virtual likely requires another research methodology. In related dream research Hartmann employs a qualitative approach where subjects provide written descriptions of dreams. Such methodologies may get at other details that quantitative measures miss.
As part of a theory of dreams Hartmann introduces the concept of a Central Image (Hartmann & Kunzendorf 2006-7) or Contextualizing Image (Hartmann et al. 2001) that dominates in “big” and generally memorable dreams. The CI is often the feature that is readily remembered about a dream. Individual with “thin boundaries” tend to remember their dreams while individuals with “thick boundaries” tend to not remember their dreams. Do users of virtual worlds with thin boundaries have dreams where there is a high intensity Central Image based on their experiences in Second Life?
To make real progress in understanding the complex nature of the borders and boundaries that separate the real from the virtual necessitates a multifaceted approach. A new “boundary questionnaire” is one step toward further study. There remains a broader question. In an age where new technologies such as augmented reality blur the boundaries of the real and virtual how do we achieve a consensus about norms of mental health against which we make judgments about what is to be considered deviations from that norm? Since the period of the enlightenment science has been the answer. But today we live in era of climate change denial, political campaigns that ignore “fact checkers”, the rise of religious extremism where competing versions of reality clash. If we add on to this the overlay of virtual worlds and augmented realities, along the real possibility of malware and cyber attacks that might distort what is heard and seen, where does it leave the rational understanding of the “real?” How do we determine if “reality testing is intact?” And whose reality is it?