[1 September 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Level 70. Xbox Achievements. Leaderboards. These are common terms in the gamer lexicon and for many they signify something far greater than their digital existence. They have value. Something that exists in no other place but the virtual world has significance and meaning in the real one. Ray Kurzweil, a noted…I’m not actually sure what his official description would be but let’s just say he made a very lucrative business out of predicting technologies just before they came into existence, Kurzweil once commented that it will actually get to a point in society where the virtual and real world merge. That people will stop considering them different and think of them as the same thing. He also predicts that the place where this overlap will begin to occur is in video games. What does that mean? What are the signs that our fantasies in video games are becoming real?
Sadly, the first real indicators of the two worlds merging are when a traumatic event in the virtual world affects the life of someone in reality. An article in the Boston Globe highlights the growing field of therapy for people who have lost their virtual lives. The doctor interviewed, Dr. Block, proposes that the therapy needed goes far beyond mere remedies for addiction. He suggests that much of the problem is that the person has trouble just finding someone who will take their loss seriously. The subject often won’t be able to find an outlet until they are able to talk with someone who understands the game itself and the magnitude of the loss within those boundaries. Take the EVE Online player in the article. That was a part of his identity. He spent years deriving self-worth and personal esteem from being one of the most powerful people in that game. Should he be ashamed of that? Should he not feel loss when his entire digital empire gets taken from him? We all get self-worth and esteem from goofy things. Hell, you’re reading one of mine. That’s just what people to do to make themselves feel better. Why should someone’s prized armor collection be of any less value just because it’s virtual rather than destroying their garden if both prizes took the same amount of time to accrue?
Another sign is that people are starting to believe their interactions with real people in the virtual world have value. They are having have real debates online, far beyond just chatting in the comments. Academics long ago realized MMORPG’s gave them insights into how people would behave in real world conditions, but now they’re holding conferences there as well. The most interesting thing in that article about running an academic conference in World of Warcraft is that the people conducted themselves as if they were at a real academic meeting. Certain people run the forum, insights are noted, and the entire exchange is recorded for analysis later. They were able to do something in the Virtual World that would’ve taken months of planning and huge expenses in the real one. And it doesn’t stop there, businesses have started training their employees and holding meetings in digital environments. Whether it’s having people show the appropriate reactions to an oil rig fire or holding private gatherings on secluded islands, companies have embraced virtual reality for the low costs and the value the experience still provides in application to the real world. As one manager notes, people still bond even though they’re meeting online.
But perhaps the greatest sign that the boundaries have begun to blur is the fact that the real world has begun to spill back into the virtual. A place that was once reserved for acting out our fantasies and creating sense of accomplishment has finally begun to reflect back. There are now video games about real world events. There’s the groundbreaking Super Columbine Massacre RPG that forces the player to experience an intense documentary-like game and uses actual writings from the two killers to recreate the event. Or the unflattering McDonald’s simulation that doesn’t just show you how to run a successful fast food joint, it forces you to realize that the only way these companies can make money is through corruption. Or Audiosurf, which takes the music in the real world and converts it into a virtual level for the player to navigate. The fact that we’re starting to take virtual reality seriously is exciting and somewhat frightening. The fact that virtual reality has begun to reflect back at reality is where the real shift begins to occur.
I had a really interesting chat with a friend of mine who researches on lab rats about virtual reality a while back. The guy literally kills rats by suffocating them, gauges their heart status, the efficacy of the chemical he’s injected them with, and does this for months on end. He’s testing a medication that would save people’s lives if they were having a heart attack and were able to take it in time. What’s ironic is that he gets offended by violence in video games. His complaint is that the violence is totally meaningless. You gun down hundreds of people, yet there’s no meaning to that death. No value given to all that destruction beyond a score or reward. When I pointed out that his occupation involved a pretty horrific amount of violence as well, he disagreed. To him, killing the rats had purpose and utility for a greater good, while in video games it all just seems kind of senseless. Issues of game violence aside, perhaps the best way to create meaning and purpose in video games is if the player provides them on their own. Perhaps by blurring the lines between the virtual and the real, we can go beyond just dragging our fantasies into reality. We can do more than just brag that our Level 70 Paladin runs their own guild. We can say that they did something important there as well.