Some classmates and I spent the good part of last month working on a glossary for virtual worlds as part of our Resources for Digital Humanities course at San Jose State SLIS. Admittedly, I’m skeptical about the future of virtual worlds like Second Life, but I was fascinated to learn that virtual worlds, at least when talked about in critical works, include more than just the digital kind: print literature, theme parks, cosplay, fan culture, and religion can all be discussed using the theoretical terminology of virtual reality.
Our glossary contained terms like avatar, effectors, in-world, metaverse, synthetic economies, etc. Some terms were only relevant to digital virtual worlds (hover text), but many were applicable to any virtual reality (which was the route I chose to take). Here are some of the terms I contributed:
Cyberpunk: A conflation of the words cybernetics and punk, it typically refers to (1) a sub-species of science fiction popularized by author William Gibson, (2) a particular style of life, fashion, etc. that mimics cyberpunk fiction, or (3) a mischievous character in an online virtual world. Cyberpunk culture explores the conflict between hackers, artificial intelligence, and mega-corporations and, thus, provide a rich language for discussing virtual worlds. Virtual worlds, especially computer-mediated ones, are an essential characteristic of cyberpunk fiction.
Immersion: Defined three ways: (1) The extent to which the viewer or participant in a virtual world is no longer aware of the medium used to create the world, (2) The process by which a participate in a virtual world no longer recognizes his/her presence in their immediate, physical environment, or (3) The intentional blocking of physical stimuli in favor of digital stimuli.
Paratexts: The discussions about a virtual world that do not occur in-world. These may include blog posts, discussion forums, IM chats, etc. Typically, paratexts are created by participants of the virtual world, but also could include editorials, press releases, and reviews written by non-participants. In some ways, paratexts are an extension/expansion of the virtual world into non-world space, ultimately bringing that space in-world.
Skeuomorphs: An item manufactured in one material that evokes items regularly made in another material. In pottery, for example, the fabrication of weave patterns on to the surface of a ceramic vessel mimics a reed basket. In virtual worlds and game development, a skeuomorph is a design feature that refers to a previous feature that no longer exists or is no longer functional.
Telepresence: The extent to which a user feels present in a mediated environment. This environment can be temporally or spatially separate from the user’s immediate environment. It can also be mediated by computer software to produce an animated, simulated, or digital environment. A heightened awareness of telepresence is directly related to increased levels of immersion.
Skeuomorph is by far my favorite and now I look for any excuse to use it in a sentence. =)