Update (22.03.2023): The Open Peer Review for this submission has been completed. Based on the Open Peer Review, the article has been approved for publication in the Journal for Media Linguistics and is available at: https://doi.org/10.21248/jfml.2021.30.
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This submission is a contribution to the special issue “Co-constructing presence between players and non-players in videogame sessions”.
Participation and co-presence in the virtual world of Second Life. Transitioning from a gathering to an encounter
by Laura Kohonen-Aho & Anna Vatanen
Social situations where people are present with someone in a shared space can be divided into ‘encounters’ and ‘gatherings’ (Goffman 1963). In encounters, participants share a joint orientation (e.g., by having a conversation), whereas in gatherings participants are co-present without a joint focus (e.g., strangers in an elevator). Mondada (2009) and De Stefani and Mondada (2018) have shown how in face-to-face situations a common interactional space is achieved multimodally, transforming silent co-present persons in a gathering to co-participants in an encounter by way of using ‘embodied pre-beginnings.’
In computer-mediated communication, gatherings do not easily exist, since communication technologies are primarily developed for connecting people to have focused encounters – i.e., to talk together – across distances. Virtual worlds (VWs), however, provide for the occurrence of both gatherings and encounters between participants. VWs are designed both for creating users a sense of being present (and together with others) in a joint space, and for joint interaction via the use of virtual characters (avatars).
Our paper explores how gatherings that occur in a VW turn into encounters. We present close sequential analysis of moments when, after a silent gathering, interaction among the team is gradually resumed, and focus especially on the embodied avatar conduct in this process. The data comprise 12 video-recorded three-person team interactions in the VW of Second Life. All teams follow a similar interaction structure including alternation between teamwork episodes (pre-planned encounters) and individual questionnaire filling episodes (pre-planned gatherings). All participants are faster than expected in completing their questionnaires, which results in unplanned ‘surplus time’ until the initiation of the next collaborative task. We examine the transitions from a gathering into an encounter across 40 episodes.
Our findings show that these transitions are accomplished via two different processes: 1) a gathering turns into an encounter by using verbal means only (i.e., someone ‘just’ starts to talk), and 2) a gathering turns into an encounter through an embodied pre-beginning phase (i.e., someone first moves her/his avatar before anyone talks). We observe that like in face-to-face situations, also in VWs the participants much more often use embodied resources rather than rely only on verbal means to achieve the transition. However, the embodied practices in a VW have unique characteristics when compared to face-to-face situations. For example, since mutual gaze is not easily available for the participants, avatar movement is often used for establishing joint attention.
We discuss the ways in which participants use embodied pre-beginnings in a VW to display what we call encounter-readiness, instead of displaying potential lack of presence by avatar stillness. Virtually embodied behavior during the ‘surplus time’ signals one’s readiness and availability to move to an encounter. It seems that if avatars are not moved, the team members have very few cues about whether the others are ready to move into an encounter or not, and therefore observing the co-participants’ avatar behavior is used to gain information on their availability for interaction.
De Stefani, Elwys/Mondada, Lorenza (2018). Encounters in Public Space: How Acquainted Versus Unacquainted Persons Establish Social and Spatial Arrangements. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 51(3), 248–270.
Goffman, Erving (1963). Behavior in public places. New York: The Free Press.
Mondada, Lorenza (2009). Emergent focused interactions in public places: A systematic analysis of the multimodal achievement of a common interactional space. Journal of Pragmatics, 41(10), 1977–1997.