Compartmentalization v. Immersion in Virtual Worlds

Over the weekend, I heard an interesting presentation by Helene Michel, a business school professor from France. She described the experience with Vacheland.com, a simulation where visitors can manage a virtual farm. The project was initiated by a public agency to increase awareness of farm issues and to help address negative perceptions due to mad cow disease. The thinking was the participants’ attitudes would be positively affected by their experiences managing the virtual farm.

On one level, the project is a success, with 320,000 people tending a virtual farm and an active community developing to discuss the game and figure out how to optimize participation.

However, on the more important level, the simulation failed to accomplish its goals. Many participants compartmentalized the experience, distinguishing between their virtual cow/farm and their attitudes towards real cows and farms. The paper has some great quotes explaining that participants clearly segregated the experience in their minds.

This, of course, strikes at the heart of any arguments that virtual worlds are unique/special/different because they are “immersive.” In Vacheland, despite the richness of the simulation, there was no blurring of reality and fantasy. Instead, Vacheland occupied a distinct place in the participant’s life. If this conclusion holds true in other simulated environments, then we will have to carefully scrutinize any arguments that virtual worlds warrant unique legal treatment because of their immersive quality.

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