YOU ARE YOUR AVATAR IS YOU: PHENOMENOLOGICAL LITERATURE
REVIEW OF VIRTUAL EMBODIMENT IN VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS
School of Information Systems
Perth, Western Australia
This paper is presented at the annual Curtin University, Curtin Business School Higher Degree in Research Colloquium (CBS HDR
Colloquium 2015) in Perth, Australia, 31.8.-1.9.2015.
This paper reviews literature in virtual environments, virtual reality and game studies that discuss ‘virtual
embodiment’. What embodiment signifies is not often made explicit. A phenomenological analysis was employed
to examine themes of virtual embodiment and describe its essence. Technology allows us to use our bodies to
access virtual environments. At the same time, software connects us with another body, an avatar. We use virtual
embodiment to interact in various virtual environments, present ourselves, and have real experiences that affect
our identity, view of the world and real-world skills. Indications of these findings are explored for research and
3D virtual environments (VEs), such as immersive virtual environments (IVEs), simulations and interactive
games have been prototyped and implemented in various sectors of life. They have been used to teach operation
of vehicles from aviation (de Winter, Dodou, and Mulder 2012) to driving a car (Hirsch and Bellavance 2013),
in various safety-related trainings in mining (Filigenzi, Orr, and Ruff 2000), construction (Sacks, Perlman, and
Barak 2013), military (Emond, Fournier, and Lapointe 2010; Freeman et al. 2001), and road tunnels (Kinateder
et al. 2013), as well as in healthcare to learn to perform surgical procedures (Lewis et al. 2011) and proper
decision-making procedures in mass disaster situations (Andreatta et al. 2010).
Entertainment Software Association demographic data suggest that 155 million Americans are playing
video games, four out of five own a device for playing, and only 26 percent are under 18 years (Entertainment
Software Association 2015). In Australia, 65% of the population have been suggested to play interactive games,
93% have a device for playing them, and the average age is 32 (Brand, Lorentz, and Mathew 2014). Video game
sales have been reported to surpass movies and music several years ago (Chatfield 2009). Currently video games
as a larger design phenomenon are getting increasing interests in non-entertainment contexts. Leading arguments
for a wider adaptation are that people are increasingly familiar with interactive games and technologies, and that
for example simulations “can give employees real experiences, even if the simulations take place in virtual
worlds” (Edery and Mollick 2008, 122). Some postulate video games might transform the rules of business
(Edery and Mollick 2008), and every aspect of reality itself (McGonigal 2011). Others predict now is the time
for their larger adaptation also in education (Johnson et al. 2014). On a conceptual level, this has lead in search
to find and describe the unique aspects of video games and how they could be applied more efficiently for non-
entertainment aims, such as information systems, customer engagement, and education and training. This
seemingly elusive goal has resulted in reviewing the usefulness of games through concepts such as ‘serious
games’ (Connolly et al. 2012), ‘game-based learning’ (de Freitas 2006) and ‘gamification’ (Deterding et al.
2011), to name a few.
Various presuppositions underline determining the usefulness of virtual environments. It is often assumed
that precisely modeled physicality of an environment holds the key to unlock their potential. This assertion has
lead in efforts to develop better graphical lifelikeness, or physical fidelity, although its importance has been
previously criticized (Caird 1996; Tichon and Burgess-Limerick 2011). Also in many studies, design choices for
modes of interaction are not always well justified, and their potential impact on user experience has not been
Body has been described as the means by which humans perceive the external world (Merleau-Ponty
2010), and as “a “turning point where the causal relations are transformed into conditional relations between the
external world and the Bodily-psychic subject” (Husserl and Welton 1999, 185). The body that we use to inhabit
is an important access and reference point for us to perceive the world and make meaning through interactions
with objects and other people. The role of body in human understanding has also been noted in human-computer
interaction (Svanæs 2013). As can be observed in the design of interactive games that embody users to navigate
and interact with a 3D space, our natural way of being and perceiving in the world translates also to the virtual.
To better understand the underpinnings of meaningful user experience in 3D virtual environments, this
paper will investigate how virtual embodiment has been described in research literature. The focus is especially
in 3D virtual environments such as video games, virtual worlds and virtual reality that allow various modes of
interaction. A clearer understanding in this area is needed because of the disconnection between what virtual
environments can afford and how users experience them in different contexts, and how these could be, but are
not applied in the interaction design of 3D virtual environments for non-entertainment contexts such as
education and business.
Selection of the literature
The scope of the literature review was to locate articles that would describe virtual embodiment from various
perspectives and contribute in creating a rich description of the phenomenon. The literature was gathered first
with purposeful sources and authors in the field, and then broadened with additional searches to locate literature
that might add other perspectives to the description of the phenomenon. It was aimed not as an exhaustive
project, but as a representative sample of the topic (Randolph 2009). To stay true to the employed
phenomenological approach, the aim was not to review a high total of sources, but to include enough sources
that would construct a rich description of virtual embodiment from various angles. The search included
databases such as ProQuest, ScienceDirect, Emerald, SpringerLink, Taylor & Francis Online, JSTOR, Google
Scholar, and others. Articles were searched with keyword combinations such as embodiment, virtual
environments, virtual worlds, virtual reality, simulation, video games, serious games, human-computer
The following research questions were used to guide choosing and analysing the literature:
• What is meant by virtual embodiment in the literature?
• What is the experience of virtual embodiment described to be like?
• How is the experience described to take place?
• How is virtual embodiment connected to ‘presence’ and other concepts that explain user experience in
3D virtual environments such as games and virtual worlds?
After initial selection, literature was read through with the research questions in mind. At this stage a few
sources were removed. The removed sources were primarily second hand theoretical accounts or otherwise had
an incoherent conceptual structure and message. The approved sources were imported and coded in NVivo
qualitative data analysis software. Books were not imported, but quotes from them were established as new
document sources in NVivo for coding. Creswell’s (2013, 207) Template for Coding a Phenomenological Study
was employed to establish an initial coding structure. Coded literature included theoretical and empirical
publications such as journal articles, conference papers, books and book chapters. (n = 35). Table 1 presents the
discipline categories of the sources based on their field of publication. In practice, many publications could have
been considered multidisciplinary based on their contents.
Disciplines of the literature
Game, culture and media studies
Human-computer interaction, computer science, information systems
Psychology and cognitive sciences
The data were analysed by using Creswell’s (2013) simplified version of Moustakas’ (1994) modification of the
Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen method of phenomenological data analysis. The summary of the analysis process is as
1. Bracketing or setting aside researcher’s own assumptions (epoché)
2. Locating significant statements from the data (horizonalisation)
3. Finding meaning units or constituent themes from the significant statements
4. Textural description (describes what was experienced)
5. Imaginative Variation (intuiting the data)
6. Structural description (describes how the experience took place and what affected it)
7. The Essence of the Phenomenon (Textural-Structural Synthesis)
The phenomenological process of literature analysis is explained more in-depth in the following.
The literature review began with bracketing. Bracketing, reduction or epoché are terms that have been used to
describe a systematic process of transcending one’s own beliefs about the world (Tufford and Newman 2010).
Moustakas (1994) described it as standing back from the way we would usually see everyday life and
phenomena in it. In the bracketing process, the researcher acknowledges his or her previous experience, attitude
and beliefs, but tries to set them aside for the duration of the study to see the object of study anew (Creswell
2013). Bracketing has also been suggested to contribute to a more rigorous study and better validity (Tufford and
Newman 2010). The bracketing process, for example journal entries, is sometimes included in the study. Here, a
summary of the process is provided.
First, the author described his own experiences and thoughts related to virtual embodiment in order to set
aside assumptions and beliefs of what virtual embodiment was about. As many authors have argued, it is
something that cannot be fully achieved (Moustakas 1994). Still, it proved to be useful to continuously reflect on
how existing conceptual constructs tried to affect the analysis and descriptions of embodiment. The bracketing
process was written down and continuously referred to during the coding and analysis process. A reflective diary
(Wall et al. 2004) was written throughout the literature analysis in order to balance between “striving for
reductive focus and reflexive self-awareness; between bracketing pre-understandings and exploiting them as a
source of insight” (Finlay 2008, 1). For example, the author wrote down questions challenging the very word
used in the literature, ‘embodiment’, what was actually meant by it, and how it was supposed to relate to other
user experience concepts. Bracketing was found to be an important phase as the author has over 13 years of
experience in interaction and user experience design, and thus established views about the field.
The next step in the data analysis was to form a list of significant statements (horizonalisation of the data) that
described the experience of virtual embodiment in the research literature. These statements were listed under one
node in NVivo called ‘Significant Statements’, and treated as having equal value in describing virtual
embodiment. This stage of analysis resulted in establishing initial 385 significant statement codes. As a technical
detail, the format of some of the PDF articles made it difficult to maintain coherent sentences in the codes. This
was not a major issue, and majority of the PDFs documents worked well.
Next, the initial statements were examined one by one in order to reduce unnecessary text from around
them and to give them meaning (Randolph 2009). For this, Moustakas’ (1994) suggestions for reduction and
elimination from Van Kaam’s method of analysis of phenomenological data proved to be helpful:
Does it contain a moment of the experience that is a necessary and sufficient constituent for
understanding it? Is it possible to abstract and label it? If so, it is a horizon of the experience. Expressions
not meeting the above requirements are eliminated. Overlapping, repetitive, and vague expressions are
also eliminated or presented in more exact descriptive terms. The horizons that remain are the invariant
constituents of the experience. (Moustakas 1994, 121)
Meaning units or constituent themes
A new node called ‘Meaning Units’ was employed in NVivo for the next stage of the analysis. Meaning units,
also called as constituent themes, were identified from the significant statements. More specific nodes were
established under the major ‘Meaning Units’ node as new themes started to appear. At this stage, node-specific
memos were used in NVivo to maintain a reflecting stance towards the emerging themes. Listing clusters of
significant statements under new thematic nodes proved to be useful to scaffold thinking and understanding
relationships and significant aspects of different themes.
Some of the codes that were identified in the previous stage of the analysis were moved under ‘Textural
Description’. These were aimed to describe what the experience of virtual embodiment was like. This also
worked as a scaffold when beginning to write the textural description draft into another separate document. At
this stage, the emerging textural description was referred back to significant statements and meaning units nodes.
For defining the structural description, “inquirer reflects on the setting and context in which the phenomenon
was experienced” (Creswell 2013, 194), and how the experience of the phenomenon came to be (Moustakas
1994). In Moustakas’ (1994, 99) approach, this is developed through the reflective Imaginative Variation:
Imaginative Variation enables the researcher to derive structural themes from the textural descriptions
that have been obtained through Phenomenological Reduction. We imagine possible structures of time,
space, materiality, causality, and relationship to self and to others.
In this stage codes were moved under ‘Structural Description’. During this stage, codes were reflected back to
the textural description in order to reduce them to solely describe how the experience of virtual embodiment took
The essence of virtual embodiment
The essence of a phenomenon is also referred to as textural-structural description or composite description
(Creswell 2013). It describes the experience of virtual embodiment, and how it takes place. For this final stage of
analysis, coding in NVivo, personal bracketing and written textural and structural descriptions were brought
together for synthesis.
The results of the analysis are presented in the following. Similar to first person accounts, the
constituent themes are presented with examples of significant statements. The essence description will conclude
the results section. An active agent called the user is used to describe someone interacting in a virtual
environment that may be e.g. a video game, virtual world or an immersive virtual reality environment.
Review of the literature revealed 6 interrelated constituent themes of virtual embodiment (in no particular order
• Virtual embodiment enables self-presentation
• Virtual embodiment allows interaction in a virtual environment
• Virtual embodiment composes social interaction
• Virtual embodiment is a mediator of an identity/identities
• Virtual embodiment affords an immediate experience
• Virtual embodiment challenges the divide between the virtual and the actual
Table 2 presents themes and total of sources per each constituent theme.
Constituent themes and sources directly referring to them
Virtual embodiment enables self-presentation
Virtual embodiment allows interaction in a virtual environment
Virtual embodiment composes social interaction
Virtual embodiment is a mediator of identity/identities
Virtual embodiment affords an immediate experience
Virtual embodiment challenges the divide between the virtual and actual
Themes are described more broadly in the following. The section will also give excerpts from studies that
illustrate the themes.
1. Virtual embodiment in the form of an avatar enables self-presentation
The theme of self-presentation ties together several aspects of virtual embodiment. It allows proper embedding
of the user in a specific context and contributes to the creation of the social context. Virtual embodiment in the
form of an avatar presents the user to others to convey activity, affiliation, mood and personality.
User embodiment concerns the provision of users with appropriate body images so as to represent them to others (and
also to themselves) in collaborative situations. (Benford et al. 1995, 242)
…the social meaning of the avatar, is situationally or environmentally dependent. For example, a “cowboy” avatar
will have different social meaning in historic “wild west” environment, a “New York Bar” environment, or inside a
pickup truck in contemporary southern rural environment. (Biocca 1997, 23)
As a subject-body, however, the avatar is the site of social practices, such as impression management. (Schultze
People tend to create avatars that resemble their actual selves and this enhances their psychological immersion in
virtual worlds. (Schultze 2010, 445)
…affiliations are also expressed via embodiment. Avatars can become a way to opt into, or out of, a group. They can
significantly signal affiliation through their color choices, bodies, accessories, and heads. (Taylor 2002, 46)
2. Virtual embodiment allows interaction in a virtual environment
Several sources identified that virtual embodiment is the interface that allows interaction in and with various
kinds of virtual environments that often contextually differ from each other. Different virtual environments
provide different interaction possibilities based on design choices: a virtual embodiment can do certain things,
and the environment allows for certain actions. Technically, all sources implied the connection of interaction and
virtual embodiment in one way or another. Still, only sources that directly described interaction through a virtual
embodiment with a virtual environment were included under this theme. Examples of this theme include:
Users make use of the affordances in the environments from which they perceive the structure of the virtual world in
ways similar to manner they construct the physical world. (Biocca 1997, 11)
In a game, the virtual character’s powers and limitations mesh with the way in which the game’s virtual world is
designed in quite specific ways so that the virtual character’s goals can be accomplished better in some ways than
others. (Gee 2008, 259)
A more immersive or convincing sense of embodiment within digital worlds may thus depend on experiencing a
convincing, meaningful world within which the player has an elevated sense of choice and responsibility. (Farrow
and Iacovides 2014, 231)
Proxy embodiment … allowing us to inhabit synthetic space through a prosthetic vehicle, a different kind of body.
During play we are piloting, via minimal movements of our eyes and fingers, a different body in a different world.
(Klevjer 2012, 36)
… in order to inhabit the play space the player must organise his or her body appropriately; must take on a playing-
body that is inferred by the game. (Martin 2012, 2)
In virtual worlds, much like in the real world, the body is used to control the environment and bodily actions are
modeled and simulated using an avatar to elicit reactions to virtual stimuli. Further, the body is part of the context,
regardless of whether we reference the real or virtual world. (Mennecke et al. 2011, 424)
The aspect of social interaction was clearly present in the first two themes, but as a distinctive form of
interaction with its own sub-themes and indications, it is next discussed under a separate theme.
3. Virtual embodiment composes social interaction
Virtual embodiment allows users to present themselves to others, and to engage in many forms of social
interaction from performing together in virtual environments to having meaningful communication. Through
communication and other kinds of shared interactions, people form specific communities and contexts.
The minimum level of social presence occurs when users feel that a form, behavior, or sensory experience indicates
the presence of another intelligence. (Biocca 1997, 22)
Many residents did not like to log off of one alt’s [alternative avatar] account and then immediately re-enter Second
Life as another avatar; it could be disconcerting to move between embodiments, as well as personalities and social
networks. (Boelstorff 2008, 149)
…co-presence of extended bodies, constructed out of language in the online world, is a potential basis of community
just as much as physical presence. (Feenberg 2003, 5)
Social virtual worlds provide a free “potential space” where real individuals—qua avatars—can and do attempt to
create an alternative reality. (Gottschalk 2010, 521)
… a communicative act in a virtual environment builds on the embodied sense of self and is realized through
coparticipation in a particular context that is deﬁned, in part, by the symbolic meaning associated with the space that
is shared and tools that are used. (Mennecke et al. 2011, 414)
In multiuser worlds, the power of embodied presence is also quite often directly tied to a practice of presence as a
social activity. (Taylor 2002, 42)
4. Virtual embodiment is a mediator of identity/identities
Virtual embodiment, directly or through social interaction, can affect user’s sense of self or identity. At the same
time, virtual embodiment is a way to act multiple identities. Also under some conditions, often related to specific
virtual reality technologies and experimental situations, virtual embodiment can change the sense of body or
body part ownership.
…women can be affected negatively by the avatars they wear. Women may be at risk for experiencing self-
objectiﬁcation and developing greater rape myth acceptance, and these attitudes may inﬂuence their behaviors both
on- and ofﬂine. (Fox, Bailenson, and Tricase 2013, 936)
As a result, the constantly evolving avatar inﬂuences the “real” self, who now also orients toward virtual, yet all-too-
real others. (Gottschalk 2010, 522)
Within virtual worlds, the implicit incorporation of the avatar body into the user’s sense of identity means that the
user enters into spatial and embodied relations with both the virtual environment and the community which exists
within it. (Honey and Morgan 2013, 66)
The results show that first person perspective of a virtual body that substitutes for the own body in virtual reality,
together with synchronous multisensory stimulation can temporarily produce changes in body representation towards
the larger belly size. (Normand et al. 2011, 1)
…novice teachers’ embodied experience is about being in the world of a teacher and experiencing the cultural and
discursive dimensions of being a teacher, rather than merely learning about the ideas of being a teacher. (Puvirajah
and Calandra 2015, 25)
5. Virtual embodiment is an immediate experience
Many accounts reveal that under some conditions such as when technology becomes familiar or otherwise so
easy to use that it is practically invisible to us, or (social) interaction is compelling, experience through a virtual
embodiment can be very immediate. Users do not think about acting as their body or self in the actual world, but
are directly involved in and influenced by the virtual interaction.
The players appeared to quickly enter in the role suggested by the game, here, a musician, and started to perform task
related motions that were not required by the game itself. Gaming was no longer only a question of challenge; it was
the experience itself that rewarded the players. (Bianchi-Berthouze, Kim, and Patel 2007, 111)
… players form an embodied relationship with the avatar in the game world through their habitual mastery of the
control device in the actual world. . . . I think as the avatar, from the point of view of the avatar. (Crick 2010, 267)
…when an experienced computer user plays the game World-of-Warcraft, the perceiving body extends into the game.
When the player tries out a new sword that she has acquired for her game character, she perceives its behavior
through the mouse and the part of the software that allows her to control her character. (Svanæs 2013, 17)
“When I get an appropriately placed [online] hug, I really feel the rush of endorphins”. (Taylor 2002, 49)
6. Virtual embodiment challenges the divide between the virtual and the actual
Closely related to the previous theme of an immediate experience, interacting online or through interactive
media has sometimes been portrayed as something illusory, or not real. However, several accounts show that
virtual embodiment challenges these notions. Users feel emotions such as loneliness, falling in love or new kind
of freedom of self-expression that might not be possible for them in the actual world. Still, some suggest there
are limits to what kinds of experiences virtual embodiment can enable: our experience of our actual body and
what happens to it is different to the virtual embodiment.
Their online lives could make their actual-world self more “real,” in that it could become closer to what they
understood to be their true selfhood, unencumbered by social constraints or the particularities of physical
embodiment. (Boelstorff 2008, 121)
Not only is an imitation just like the real, players using new polymodal, gesturally responsive controller technologies
can, increasingly, act just like singers, guitar-players, pilots, athletes, composers, artists, and so forth, and in ways
that invite players—through play—into worlds of authentic practice and competence. (de Castell, Jenson, and
Thumlert 2014, 340–341)
We do not relate to bodies in virtual worlds (or in cinema for that matter) in the same way that we relate to our own
corporeality. For one thing, we tend not to care too much about dying and we do not experience pain through our
avatar: these phenomena are experienced as representation, not as embodied, subjective experience. (Farrow and
Iacovides 2014, 229)
Movement and navigation in game space reflects their counterpart in reality. Game players inhabit game space in a
subjective manner and bring to the game world their corporeal history. (McGregor 2007, 2)
Through an IVR (immersive virtual reality) a person can see through the eyes and hear through the ears of a virtual
body that can be seen to substitute for their own body, and our data show that people have some subjective and
physiological responses as if it were their own body. (Slater et al. 2010, 7)
The essence of virtual embodiment
Experiences of virtual embodiment vary. On the design level they are affected by technological and interactional
choices, and at the user level, user backgrounds. Still, common horizons can be identified. To tie aspects of
virtual embodiment together is to try to understand many languages of different research disciplines that have
examined it, and, at times, to determine if they even describe the same phenomenon. Based on the significant
statements, the identified themes, and textural and structural descriptions, the essence of virtual embodiment
could be described as follows:
Virtual embodiment reveals the bodily nature of human-computer interaction. It emphasises the general
embodied nature of human interaction, and the need for it. Virtual embodiment allows a two-way relationship of
interaction with a virtual environment, its artefacts and people; it allows users to present themselves to others,
express themselves and experiment with their identity, but it can also affect users’ sense of self, worldview and
skills. Different modes of interaction affect users’ mental and physical states differently. Playing Guitar Hero
drums can affect bodily skills, such as the sense of rhythm and using muscles for certain movements. At the
same time, if the virtual embodiment dies or disappears, it might result in feelings such as irritation or a sense of
loss, but does not directly affect the user’s actual body. Virtual embodiments allow users to experience that they
are actually present in social situations with other people. This induces genuine emotions. On some levels,
specifically designed virtual embodiment can enable the user to experience the world as another person.
Seamless control devices or familiarity with them can enable direct experiences. Instead of thinking of pressing a
button on a game controller to move a character on the screen, users are thinking of dodging an antagonist in the
virtual environment. Also, being embodied with virtual reality technology that synchronously presents users’
bodily movements back to them can give a sense that the virtual body is their actual body.
Phenomenology aims to reveal aspects of a phenomenon. These are tied in time and space, thus always being in
motion. That is why it is crucial to notice that the present analysis does not suggest the identified themes will
always be present or ‘true’ in multitude of user experiences of virtual embodiments. While technology, society
and people’s familiarity with various kinds of media changes, so does the identity of virtual embodiment. As for
example Moustakas (1994) suggested, “We can never exhaust completely our experience of things no matter
how many times we reconsider thm or view them. A new horizon arises each time that one recedes.” (95).
At the same time, this review reveals that some of the most fundamental human properties are present
also in the virtual. Various kinds of interaction, formation of communities and how we generally come to
perceive the world have been earlier observed in fields such as sociology, anthropology and phenomenology. For
example, when it comes to the theme of presenting our selves to others, our everyday social world has been
described similar to a stage where we employ various roles and performances by dressing for them and acting
through certain kinds of contextually-appropriate ways (Goffman 1959). Phenomenology has recognised our
bodily way of understanding the world: we are not just minds who experience something out there, but we are in
the middle of making meaning of the world through intentional interactions where our body as a lived
experience to ourselves and an object to others plays a large role (Merleau-Ponty 2010). Technology in variety
of forms has been discussed as an extension of our self (McLuhan 1964). It has also been described as extending
our perception (Merleau-Ponty 2010). When we drive a car (van Lennep 1987), use heavy machinery such as
cranes, or play tennis (Riva et al. 2015), or when a blind person uses a stick to interact and move in an
environment (Merleau-Ponty 2010), the technology allows us to act our intentions directly and we do not think
about the mediating technology. Such understandings have been extending also in the area of human-computer
interaction and information systems, and they have an important role to play in designing technology that
supports human activities. For example Dourish (2001) made an important attempt to broaden the concept of
embodiment into embodied interaction, which he defined as “the creation, manipulation, and sharing of meaning
through engaged interaction with artifacts” (126). Instead of direct design principles, such views of experience
can build a vision to understand what underlying human principles should at least be in place when designing
human-computer interaction. They also impact how virtual experiences are judged as real or not real, and call for
more rigorous use of language.
Literature seems to primarily consist of commentary papers and empirical studies that are often carried
out through experiments. This can also be considered as a limitation of this literature review. Such publications
are naturally valuable and contribute to an overall understanding of user experience in virtual environments.
Still, as the use of virtual environments and information systems always takes place in a specific context,
contextual user accounts would benefit the field, especially if the aim is to determine how entertainment
technology could work in other contexts. As such, the findings are in accordance with e.g. Farrow and Iacovides
(2014), who pointed out that rigorous user experience descriptions of virtual embodiment are needed, and that
phenomenology as a research worldview and an approach is suitable for this.
This paper has employed a phenomenological approach to review literature in the concept of virtual
embodiment. As suggested by Randolph (2009), phenomenological approach is well suitable for structuring a
literature review, and especially in making explicit one’s assumptions and suspending them for the duration of
the analysis. This can contribute to maintaining a rigorous review process. By reviewing commentary and
empirical sources from multiple fields, this paper has revealed six interrelated themes that constitute the
phenomenon of virtual embodiment. Virtual embodiment is seen as self-presentation, enabler of interaction in
virtual environments, enabler of social interaction, mediator of identity/identities, and as an immediate
experience that challenges the divide between the virtual and the actual, and what should be considered ‘real’.
The analysis shows that fundamental aspects of human perception, action and forming social relationships in the
world are similarly present in the virtual. This challenges how we perceive and define the ‘self’. The results also
indicate that different technological and contextual combinations affect user experience. Because of that,
theoretical accounts and experimental research should be complemented with context-specific descriptions of
user experience. This allows for a more robust understanding of how virtual embodiment and 3D virtual
environments could be employed in various contexts, and what aspects might be transferrable from leisure use of
interactive media to contexts such as business and education.
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