Checking out the copyright date of 1992 to Neal Stephenson’s novel entitled Snow Crash was quite surprising. It seem to bring to life many of the discussions which occurred in our Games and Simulations class last Fall and are further being examined and carried over into our Sense making-Digital Narratives class this semester. Most interesting was the introduction of the term “metaverse” in this novel. This was not a term that I remember hearing last Fall. My understanding is that Stephensen constructed this term for the first time in this novel (coining the term). My understanding of the definition of metaverse after reading and previously visiting virtual environments is where avatars interact in a virtual environment in ways similar to our experiences and conditionings in the “real world”. Having created avatars in both classes and spent time now in a virtual environment as led me to understand the definition of virtual reality as past experiences and understandings from my physical world placed into a metaverse. Reading and thinking about the novel, led me to ask myself the following questions as to why or how does a reader identify or form attachment to the stories played out by avatars in a virtual environment while actually reading the story in a physical world? How or why are the experiences being told in a metaverse identifiable to the reader (who has maybe, never had a chance to create an avatar or experienced firsthand a virtual land)? And, how do we bring our virtual understandings back into the “real world” to help us make sense of our everyday experiences.
Leslie Harris (1994) in an article entitled ‘the Psychodynamic Effect of Virtual Reality’ examines the effects of virtual reality on our experiences that follow afterwards. He argues, as others have argued (in preceding arguments and cited in his paper) that our past experiences do influence our future perceptions of the world. Virtual reality events can have intense impacts on our “real world” consciousness. These events can become part of a perspective and create new emotional frames of references for how we see things. Virtual reality at its optimum can allow us to surpass our real world limitations and expand our emotional perceptions. On the other end of the spectrum or at its’ worst it can present “traumatic experiences” that scar our emotional perceptual lives (1994)
Harris argues of what he terms, “”reality-making” effect of our experiences. What we perceive as “realistic” are dependent upon our past experiences and our responses are influenced by these experiences. An example shared by Harris is the internalized sense a driving a car or what artificial intelligence theories call a “driving script”. We become more and more familiarized with the details that we don’t feel it necessary to pay as much attention to the process. Our minds began to think of other things as we drive even though we are changing lanes, speeding up, passing, etc. The individual experiences of driving expand and reinforced our previous script and that script comes into our present enactments and reactions when we drive in the world (1994). So, a person playing a computer game or driving a car in Second Life rewrites their “driving script” and it becomes more and more significant in the rewriting as their participation increases in that virtual world. Harris argues that soon we begin to take the virtual world as “normal” and in this example, the way the road looks on the screen or the way the mouse controls the car. We feel briefly disoriented when we are confronted with the “real world” and the degree of disorientation reveals the extent of the rewriting. The scripts that are written in the virtual world conflict with the scripts in the real world. We are for a moment not sure what our reality is and we must attend to new experiences to write over the changes created within us in the virtual space. Virtual spaces make us question then the psychological effects of virtual reality where three dimensional spaces and our participation are paired directly. According to Harris, experiences that change our perceptions and reactions to current reality do not have to be of “actual events”.
Fiction is one way in how we find background truths about how the world operates that change our perceptions of personal reality. To quote Harris, ‘In other words, our experiences that occur
while we read fiction can become inherent parts of our later experiences of the world’. The powerful influence of virtual worlds can be seen in our intense emotional reactions to certain literature. Similar to drama and literature, experiences of virtual worlds are actual and replicate in ways to make sense of reality and create true emotional reactions. They look like drama “fictional” actions presented in real time but with the additional element that we are participating in the drama.
Harris(1994) states’ that virtual reality supplies the computer equivalent of what linguists call a “possible world- a world “that resembles our actual state of affairs as much as the computer hardware and software will allow’. He furthers this idea by suggesting that like fiction in a virtual environment can unite changes from actual experiences which allow the existence of various mythical characters, but, that those experiencing the environment must mimic the actual in order to be “virtual” (Harris, 1994). So, we must perceive the virtual world similar to how we perceive the real world (including a three dimensional sense of perspective and depth with the same sensory inputs assaulting us from all directions or we will not have the most important element which is the appearance of realism in the virtual reality environment.
So, this leads now to new questions about Snow Crash. Many people walk away wondering and leaning towards the possibility of this scenario happening in real “virtual” life…but, is this perspective accurate? Or, is it based on Harris’ argument of the “reality-making” effect of our experiences? And, to answer one of my questions initially asked at the beginning of this blog, I am not so sure that we use our virtual experiences to make sense of our real world experiences. I think it is more that they shape our real world future experiences while our real world experiences help us shape our virtual ones.

This article was originally published by Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture.
Harris, L. D. (1994, February 28). Psychodynamic effects of virtual reality. Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture, 2(1).