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European Review, Vol. 9, No. 2, 227–232 (2001)
Academia Europaea, Printed in the United Kingdom
Virtual worlds, real knowledge: towardsa hermeneutics of virtuality*
E S P E N A A R S E T HDepartment of Humanistic Informatics, University of Bergen, Ibsengatan 66,Bergen, Norway. E-mail: aarseth@uib.noWhat is the ‘virtual’ and what types of phenomena can be so described? Thisarticle tries to establish the context within which this unclear and ideologicalterm can be constructive. Phrases such as ‘virtual community’ are paradoxicaland weak, but ‘virtual’ applied cognitively to simulated phenomena, such asvirtual worlds or computer games, has validity and represents an alternativediscourse mode to narratives and storytelling in conveying experience andknowledge.
Much has been written about the ‘Virtual’ during the last decade, and the various meaningsand debates are too copious to be recapitulated here.
However, since this paper is concernedwith hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, I will first try to interpret the concept of ‘virtuality’ in such a way that may subsequently be fruitful for my discussion. I will outlinea perspective on virtuality that sees it as a new mode of discourse – scientific, pedagogical,aesthetic and cultural – that directly challenges the most dominant discursive mode we have:the story. I will then relate the virtual to the discipline of hermeneutics, and show how the twoare deeply related. Virtuality is not a new form of storytelling, although this is often claimed;it is a radically new way of interpreting the world, a new way of thinking and learning. Myprime example of this mode is the computer game.
Realizing the virtual
‘Virtual’ is a dangerous word, full of promise but possibly not so full of clarity. It stems fromthe Middle Latin Virtualis,
which comes from the Latin Virtus, strength or power(virtue). It has come to mean a substitute that contains some, but not all, of the original’sfeatures, something that pretends to be, but isn’t. The word is often used in phrases that onlysuperficially reflect this. Virtual reality, for instance, only makes sense if you do not stop to
* Presented at the Paderborn Conference on Informatics, supported by Westfalia Stiftung: ‘the Virtual Society?’Programme of ESRC and by the European Commission.
Espen Aarseth
think about what it really means. The strong meaning of the term is simply self-contradictory(arealitythatisthatisn’t),butactuallythetermismostoftenusedassynonymouswith‘digitalor computerized. A ‘virtual bank’, for instance, simply means a bank on the Internet, not abank that provides you with fake money. This is the weak meaning of the term, as MichaelHeim pointed out (Ref. 2, p. 5). For Heim, Virtual Reality is simply a type of presentationaltechnology, an advanced form of interface, involving visual feedback derived from bodymovement, and three-dimensional (3D) graphics that simulate realistic surroundings of somekind.However, even if we abandon extracting an analytic meaning from ‘virtual reality’ (andmany researchers have, and instead use terms like synthetic environments or virtual worlds),there might still be some use for the concept of virtuality, if we can manage to define it ina way that is useful and not too hair-splitting.What kinds of phenomena does the term illuminate? Can anything be virtualized? Let metry to answer first by pointing to a class of objects that cannot have virtual counterparts. Thesearephenomenathatexistprimarilyonametaphysicallevel.Takefriendshipforinstance.Thereis no such thing as a virtual friendship. You are either a friend, or not a friend. There are, of course, many degrees and kinds of friendship. In addition, false friends do exist, but they arenot virtual friends. They fall into the category of ‘not friends’. So ‘virtual’ is not the same as‘fake’.Another problematic phrase is that of the ‘virtual community’. This term is much used, butwhat does it mean? Perhaps a social structure that displays many of the symptoms of acommunity, but isn’t quite a community after all? The term is not used, as one might imagine,about artificial communities in a computer simulation (e.g.
), but about online meetingplaces where long conversations, romances, and friendships are developed and maintained. Itis almost a paradox that the people, such as Howard Rheingold, who most strongly advocatethe benefits of these ‘virtual communities’
– which they often describe as better than oldfashioned, local communities – should use this term. For, while the differences between theonline and the local communities are mainly geographical distance and the medium of socialization, these properties are not what communities are based on. It seems to me that touse the term ‘virtual community’ privileges the physical (distance and medium) above thespiritual, and therefore, in effect, belittles the communities one tries to promote. An onlinecommunity, judging by the glowing acclaims by Rheingold
et al
., is just as valuable to itsmembers as any other type of community, and therefore there can be nothing virtual aboutit. The word virtual is used in this context, I suspect, as in many others, simply because it isa fancier synonym for ‘computerized’ and not because the activities in the online communitiesare only virtually social.This list of unfruitful uses of ‘virtual’ could go on and on, but that is not very fruitful either.So let us examine what virtuality can offer as a descriptive term for something that cannot bedescribedjustaswell,orbetter,bycomputerized,digital,online,etc.Whattypesofphenomenaaremeaningfullydescribedasvirtual?Thisisabigquestion,notsuitedtoanexhaustiveanswerhere. I will instead point to a central group: whose systems are dynamic representations of anartificial world. There may be other meaningful uses of the concept of virtuality, but in therest of this paper I will confine my arguments to this group. They could also be called(computer) simulations, but sometimes (e.g. a fantasy world) there exists no real counterpart
Virtual worlds, real knowledge
that is being simulated, and so it cannot be called a simulation, although simulationtechniques are indeed used. Let us call these systems virtual worlds.A world is not the same as reality. There are fictional worlds, dream-worlds, andimaginary worlds of many kinds. The distinguishing quality of the virtual world is that thesystem lets the participant observer play an active role, where he or she can test the systemand discover the rules and structural qualities in the process. This is not true for a fictionalworld, where the reader/viewer can only experience what the author/designer explicitlypermits. In Ibsen’s
Peer Gynt 
, I cannot ask Peer for a cigarette, and I cannot go elsewherewhen Mother Ase is dying. There are no rules to
Peer Gynt,
only words. The virtual worldholds a quality that makes it potentially richer than the fictional world. This is of course adangerous claim, but as long as we do not confuse potential richness with achievedgreatness, we are in the clear.Current virtual worlds are still nowhere near as rich as the highest achievements of film orfiction, but since new media take time (50 years?) to mature, it should not be long beforevirtual worlds are counted among the most serious and influential art forms. In thepopular sector, the change has already taken place: in Norway last year people spenttwice as much on computer games as on cinema.
And simulators of all sorts are used inresearch, teaching, planning, and for military purposes to an ever-increasing degree. Thisrepresents a fundamental shift in our culture, not nearly as prominent and visible as theinternet and the world wide web, but with far greater potential for the way we learn andthink.Claims of how new technologies are altering our way of thinking should always be viewedwith suspicion. Usually, a new mode of communication will strengthen our habits andmethods, not change them. A good example is hypertext, heralded as a mode of writing thatwould free us from the tyranny of linear discourse, and produce a more natural way of writing and reading. Isn’t it strange that, when we look at the proceedings from hypertextconferences, all the papers are in linear form? One could almost suspect that the researchersdid not believe in their own invention. And as many have pointed out, hypertext, in the formof the www, turned out not to be a challenge to sequential writing and thinking, but asuperior distribution mechanism for traditional, sequentially written texts; a continuation of print publication by more efficient means.In the light of this, it is hard to claim that new and revolutionary modes of communicationdo exist. If hypertext could not do it, what can? It all depends on what ‘it’ is. What can avirtual world do, that could not be done before?
What’s the story?
In order to show this crucial development, I must first talk about something else. Thedominant mode of communication in our culture, long before the modern media, is the story.Everywhere we encounter stories, we tell each other stories, we teach and learn using stories.Storytelling is our dominant way of transmitting information and transferring experience.Furthermore, it is not a bad mechanism. However, even good systems may have betteralternatives. For instance, when we learn to drive a car, we are already bombarded with car

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