The Hidden Cost of Virtual Sociability

second life logo

Second Life Logo

“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.

Virtual worlds can be very liberating for people with disabilities. These photos of Jason Rowe and his avatar, Rurouni Kenshin, who rides Imperial speeder bikes in Star Wars Galaxies were created by Robbie Cooper as part of the Alter Ego exhbition.

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.

Activists gathered in the virtual world of Second Life in October 2007 to express their solidarity with the people of Burma

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 baby’s caretaker is deeply immersed in the game Ragnarok in a gaming cafe in Thailand.

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.

Image Credits:

1. Second Life Logo

2. Jason Rowe. .

3. Burma rally. .

4. Gaming cafe.

5. Home Page: Second Life logo design: Peter Alilunas.

Please feel free to comment.

  1. 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. []


  • I agree that we need to get past the knee-jerk reaction that virtual worlds are not as “real” as our everyday lives. What makes our real world experiences valuable are the social relationships we form with other people. There’s no doubt that online communities act as venues for people to form relationships just as rewarding as those formed in the real world.

    However, I think that the defensiveness of those who spend a lot of time in virtual worlds (everything from chatrooms to World of Warcraft to MySpace) effaces some differences between virtual and real worlds, and amongst various types of virtual worlds. All virtual world socializing is different than real world socializing in that malleable reputations lower the stakes of interactions and are likely to result in more liberated identities (the out-of-the-virtual closet HK teen) but also more transitory relationships and greater opportunity for traumatizing fraudulent relationships (the tragic case of Megan Meier and ‘Josh Evans’).

    I think we need to further define what it means to be anti-social. If we take that term literally, it certainly doesn’t apply to virtual environments, which have plenty of social interaction. I wouldn’t even be comfortable asserting that such environments make people more aggressive by virtue of their anonymity. But maybe the socializing going on in virtual worlds is consistently different than real-world socializing, and those who get a little too accustomed to that different type of socializing may have a tough time re-entering the real social world with its different rules.

    In any case, this is an area that media scholars and psychologists need to study.

  • Another key aspect is the ability of virtual communities to transcend their digital world into offline interaction. I started reading political blogs in 2005, and by 2006 had become involved in out-of-state campaigns for candidates I learned about through online political communities. In this sense online communities are again hardly anti-social, since they can literally allow new people to meet face-to-face.

    Again, however, I hesitate to use this transition from online to offline as a form of legitimization, because it falls into the same hierarchical binary that the author describes above.

  • The “if we’re really there, we’re cannot really be here” conclusion of this essay strikes me as particularly interesting. In my limited experiences with Second Life I met quite a few people (particularly those involved with in-world commerce) that genuinely treated “there” as an equally valid place “to be” during most of their waking hours. They might have reversed the conclusion in this essay: If we’re here, we can’t really be there. While it was impossible for me to really “know” these people in the conventional sense (their virtual persona was whatever they convinced me it was) it was absolutely possible to know them in a new way. I’m not sure, in other words, if I agree that virtual worlds are “anti-social.” Are we defining “social” by proximity to other corporeal human bodies? Like Elliot, I definitely think that there are different (and, as yet, mostly underanalyzed) “rules” for virtual behavior — and that we need to continue to look at them. I’m very glad to see this essay on Flow, and hope it inspires more conversation in this area.

  • Peter,

    As the author of this article, I agree that many residents of virtual worlds correctly feel that the sociality they experience on-line is just as worthwhile as social interaction with people in their immediate environments.

    You, Katherine and Elliot make important points about the significance of on-line social interaction.

    My point is not that *there* is inferior to *here*. Rather, I’m suggesting that we have to make a choice between the two locations at any given moment. We can’t claim to be spending quality time with loved ones in our physical environment if our head is completely immersed in a virtual space. On the flip-side, it can be very frustrating to be interacting in a virtual world with someone who is simultaneously making lunch, downloading music, and talking to friends in their physical environment. In both instances, the quality of social interaction in one (or both) of the two realms suffers from seriously diminished participation.

    My point about the hidden cost of virtual sociability is an attempt to correct my own knee-jerk defensiveness about the social depth of on-line interaction. Virtual worlds can be simultaneously social *and* anti-social.

    Thanks for your comments on this essay!

  • Aaron, you know, probably better than anybody else :-), that “totally Vavoom” has been MIA in SL for a long while now. And it was precisely for the reason you cite, I wanted to be here for my loved ones (yes, the fur babies too :-), especially on weekends.

    That said, I was pleasantly surprised when Don expressed interest in learning more about it, exploring it, and possibly using it to connect with me while he was traveling. And that can make the difference too, when your loved ones are willing to jump in and explore a whole new universe of meeting, greeting, connecting :-). Ultimately, it’s all about balance. Hope you enjoyed the Barbies by the way ;-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *