Is Virtual the New Reality?

My Second Life avatar walks unsteadily across the screen. She moves in stops and starts as I clumsily direct the keys. I’m new at this game, unsure what I’m supposed to do with her and where should I go. I scan the suggested destinations in the Second Life universe and head over to “London”, where I once studied abroad in my real life. As my avatar navigates the somewhat familiar streets of this virtual London, I wonder about the reality of what I’ve entered. I am an outsider here, a novice explorer in this virtual realm. Though I sit alone at my computer, in the game I’m surrounded by others. Dispersed across the digital sprawl, these gamers are all invested in the shared reality of Second Life. What is this virtual world I am entering into all about? Am I simply playing a game, or am I entering a new reality?

I’m fascinated by the seduction of virtual worlds. Video games, especially massively multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs) like Second Life or World of Warcraft, allow us to enter into another self, place, and time. You choose or create an avatar version of yourself who lives and grows in the game as you build homes, travel on quests, and make friends. Millions of people across the globe are logging into and participate in these virtual experiences online. Though cultural forms of shared entertainment have long existed, the highly interactive and immersive quality of these games is unlike any book, movie, or song. These games allow us to enter a dynamic alternate reality that may soon transform our lives and even our societies.

Most of us connect to the virtual world of the Internet multiple times a day, spending hours playing games, reading blogs, chatting, commenting, and sharing. We often contrast these virtual spaces with the “real” world, the “world of earth, air, fire, water, and blood that we’ve inherited from our forebears” (Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World, 2007). While the ‘real’ world is seen as material and natural, virtual worlds are computer creations, digital projections of inputs and outputs. But these digital representations are becoming quite sophisticated, both imitating the look of the real world and extending far beyond it into fantastic realms of the imagination. Visually rich, complex and interactive, the virtual worlds of games provide experiences we cannot always attain in the real world.

During play, gamers engage in challenges and quests, overcoming obstacles and creating solutions through their avatars, or virtual selves. Gamers collaborate with others across the digital environment, connecting and interacting with other avatars. Though humans are playing in virtual environments, the experience of playing these games is certainly real–gamers experience a range of very real emotions and thoughts while playing. We feel, we learn, we shape and are shaped by these virtual lives.

According to game designer Jane McGonigal, “games optimize human experience” (McGonigal, Reality is Broken, 2011). In Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, McGonigal shows how playing games increases our creativity and motivation, makes us feel more engaged and connected with others and our work. The instantaneous feedback of games gives us encouragement often missing in many of our real-life workplaces and schools. As McGonigal sees it, millions of us are flocking to games because games seem a better alternative to reality.

As I explore Second Life, I find my curiosity growing. As my avatar flies around the fantastic world of Faery Crossing, I wonder how many people here would rather choose Second Life over their real life. Who wouldn’t prefer the fun and controlled environment of a game over our often haphazard lives in reality? In reality, my body is limited, my appearance more or less fixed, my position in society dictated by my background and education. In virtual worlds, I am able to recreate myself to my desire. I can play as a more confident, better looking, and braver version of myself. I can work dream jobs here that I may not be qualified for in real life, make friends with strangers who I would not have approached before, purchase luxury items that were once out of my reach. There is something addictively satisfying about these possibilities. Playing in the virtual world, we regain a sense of control over our lives. These possibilities make the virtual world very seductive, even genuinely addictive, to some gamers. If Second Life offers you a dream world, why would you ever leave?

I’m in Second Life’s version of Dublin now, exploring the city’s narrow cobbled streets, but I’m growing tired. I’m frustrated by the shaky processing speed of my laptop and somewhat disappointed by the 3D simulations that represent, but do not match, the vivid ‘real’ world. I know I’m playing a game and feel firmly in hold of reality. But I wonder as these games continue to develop, will we always be able to distinguish between the virtual and the real? As the 3D graphics and interfaces of these games become increasingly life-like, I believe even more people will turn to the virtual worlds of games. As they do, and these worlds become more socially and visually complex, I can imagine some gamers would never want to leave, would choose the virtual realm over their real world. This could have major effects on our notion of reality.

Reality is one of the trickiest human concepts. What is seen as real depends on who’s looking and how they perceive themselves and the world around them. If reality is our sense of how things actually are, where does the virtual world fit in? For gamers inhabiting World of Warcraft, Second Life and other MMORPG games, the places and people in these worlds exist to them. Though these worlds are digital creations inhabited by digital avatars, their adventures and interactions are real. Gamers are spending real human time living in these virtual worlds. And as with any human behavior, it is important to recognize and understand the motivations and effects of this behavior.

There is a great deal of debate about the effects of video games which I cannot even begin to enter into here. Games affect people in both beneficial and harmful ways. What I’m most interested in is the effect these virtual worlds may have on our sense of reality. With all this time spent in the virtual, is there a cost to our notion of reality? A Stanford University study by Bryon Reeves and Clifford Nash suggests that there may be. Looking at human interaction with computers, Reeves and Nash found that “for all practical psychological purposes, media images are initially perceived as real. The reason is simple: the brain evolved in an environment that did not have media in it” (Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World, 2007). If we perceive an avatar on screen, our brain initially registers the person as real. It takes additional time and processing for our brain to realize that this is just a digital representation of a human, not a flesh and blood one. They’ve also found that our brain can be motivated to slow down or even turn off this processing. In short, we can convince ourselves that these digital representations are actually real.

This has important implications to how games may affect our sense of reality. Take a gamer who is addicted to playing World of Warcraft, playing over 50 hours a week with breaks only to eat and sleep. As they play, the game raises their dopamine levels and gamers can become addicted to the positive feelings that the virtual reality brings. As with substance abuse, gaming addiction can influence our behavior and thoughts to dramatic extremes. Could their addiction convince their brain that the game is actually reality in order to keep them in the game? Someday, could gamers choose the virtual world as their primary reality?

I recognize this may sound a bit like science fiction. Stretching it to the dystopian extreme, I imagine a world like The Matrix: rows of humans planted in front of computer screens, living their entire lives virtually and never knowing about the material world of flesh, wood, water and stone. We’re not there yet, but we do need to pay close attention to how these virtual worlds are affecting us. We seem to be entering a new phase of human life, one where humans and technology are merging closer than ever before. As we increasingly adopt avatars and virtual environments into our lives, we may need to redefine concepts like humanity and reality to fit our hybrid virtual lives. Is a new sense of reality on the horizon? My avatar believes there may be.

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