The Hidden Cost of Virtual Sociability
“What a bunch of pathetic losers. Don’t they have anything better to do on a Friday night?”
These harsh words caught me by surprise. They came from a colleague. An open-minded, thoughtful, and very intelligent colleague. A colleague who just three days earlier had heard about a high-profile mixed reality event in the virtual world of Second Life where dozens of avatars from around the globe gathered in an immersive, three-dimensional space for an evening of music, dancing, and conversation.
“I mean, really. It’s just sad,” he continued. “There’s nothing real about virtual experiences. These nerds are just wasting their time when they could be interacting with real people.”
Rolling my eyes, I told my colleague that he had missed the point entirely. On-line interactions are just as meaningful as face-to-face conversations, and the boundaries between virtual reality and the physical world are highly porous. Though virtual worlds are simulated by computers, the avatars that populate those worlds are controlled by actual human beings.
Students milled past us in the hallway, and we debated the issue for almost thirty minutes. Deeply frustrated by my colleague’s unwillingness to concede the social significance of virtual worlds, I trotted out the usual examples of ways that virtual communities improve the well-being of individuals and societies. From the quadriplegic computer user who emerges as the leader of her guild in Everquest II, to the gay Hong Kong teenager who finds solace in web-based chat rooms, the ability to form bonds with like-minded people around the globe is a liberating characteristic of digital networks.
Eventually, the clock tower chimes reminded us that we were late to class. As we dashed off in separate directions, I realized that our passionate dispute was hardly breaking new ground. From Socrates and Phaedrus to Marx, Lippmann and Leary, social philosophers have debated the implications of mediated reality for more than two millennia. The emerging medium of virtual worlds is simply the most recent chapter in a very old story.This realization should have provided some solace, but my frustration persisted. Like many researchers who study virtual worlds and on-line games, I am frequently perplexed by those who fail to grasp the socially complex textures of virtual worlds.
At a recent gathering of researchers and game developers, Professor Doug Thomas (USC Annenberg) recounted a memorable story about a high-school student engaged in a complex raid with his guild-mates in the game World of Warcraft. Two hours into the raid, after repeatedly seeking her son’s attention, the student’s mother unplugged his machine and disconnected the cable modem. Mystified by the emotional melt-down that followed, she telephoned Thomas and asked him why her son was so upset. “At that very moment,” explained Thomas, “your son was engaged in a complex, distributed activity that required the carefully timed cooperation of forty human beings around the world. They had carefully rehearsed the raid for days, and every single person in the guild was performing a crucial role. When you disconnected your son’s computer, you effectively ended the game for the other thirty-nine people in his guild who depended on him to cast healing spells. They had rehearsed the raid for days, and pulling the plug ruined it for everyone.”1
When Thomas shared this anecdote with other games researchers, a condescending chuckle rippled throughout the conference hall. Our philosophical assumptions fortified by the presence of so many like-minded scholars, we smugly pitied the uninformed woman who failed to grasp the social complexity of her son’s on-line relationships. Someday, when synthetic worlds are as ubiquitous as television, the unenlightened materialists will recognize the error of their ways.Or will they?The dirty little secret of virtual worlds is the fact that they are profoundly anti-social.Virtual worlds enable the formation of vibrant, distributed communities, but they accomplish this by subtracting human beings from their immediate surroundings. As virtual worlds become increasingly immersive, and as their interfaces become more complex, these anti-social effects will become even more intense.
When a computer user enters into a virtual world such as Second Life, she projects her consciousness into that synthetic space. From a phenomenological standpoint, she experiences “presence” in the virtual world. Since it is impossible to be fully present in two places at one time, her consciousness effectively leaves her immediate surroundings. As she becomes more deeply immersed in the on-line world, she evacuates the physical world around her.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this defection from the physical world, it is important to identify the hidden cost of virtual sociability. If we’re really there, we cannot be really here.
This personal epiphany dawned on me when I recently became a step-father to an imaginative first-grader. Immersed in Second Life as she played on the floor of our living room, I realized that I had to make a decision. I could interact with other people on-line, or I could play Barbies with my step-daughter, but I could not do both at once.The choice was easy, and I’ve never looked back.Though I’ve scaled back my on-line activities in order to be fully present in the lives of the people I love, my enthusiasm for virtual worlds has not diminished. If anything, I have a deeper understanding of the challenges that must be overcome if virtual worlds are to emerge as playground for mainstream consumers.In the near future, interface technologies could bring families and friends into virtual worlds together from the couch in their living rooms. By overcoming the inherently anti-social nature of virtual worlds, these collaborative technologies would unlock entirely new ways of learning, exploring, playing and creating with people in our immediate environment.For now, however, I’m sticking to Barbies.
3. Burma rally. .
4. Gaming cafe.
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- Thomas recounted this anecdote at State of Play V: Building the Global Metaverse in August, 2007. The quoted material in this passage is roughly paraphrased from his comments at the gathering. [↩]