The environment may be virtual, but the worlds are real.

This post is the 17th in a series for a graduate course called Theory and Audience Analysis. For the course, I will be posting weekly questions and follow-up analysis about the various readings we are assigned. This post is a more in-depth reaction to readings on virtual worlds.

In our class discussions this week there has been a lot of scoffing and open hostility towards virtual worlds, especially in regards to games like World of Warcraft or online community spaces like Second Life. I’ve haven’t ever been an active participant in a virtual world, and I would agree that addiction to anything whether it’s a game or virtual environment (or drugs) is a bad thing. However, I don’t think it is wise to judge virtual worlds and the people who participate in them too quickly.

Despite the negative aspects we have been reading about (the seedy underbelly, the blurred line between real/virtual, the issues of legality, government and economy) it could be argued that many of these issues are also a part of our reality and only make virtual realities more similar to the world we physically live in. Life isn’t without unpleasantness so why would virtual life? If people have inclinations to express themselves in ways that may seem socially taboo in “real” society, what is the harm in them expressing them in virtual environments. From the innocent to the more tawdry, people will always need to find ways to express who they really are or want to be. Virtual worlds just offer another outlet for people to do this.

I was intrigued by the scientific research in Frontline’s Digital Nation documentary that showed how the brain reacts to virtual worlds, at times being almost unable to distinguish between the two. How a business meeting in Second Life can foster a feeling of togetherness that can’t be accomplished in a conference call. How a young child can have memories of actually swimming with whales even though they only did it virtually. How participants can get a stomach ache by eating virtual jelly beans.

I would say that this research validates the positive aspects of virtual worlds. The idea that people can learn, develop relationships, and find fulfillment by participating in these worlds. The latest research has uncovered ways for people to control an avatar with their brain. The brain is able to interpret these worlds as real, and real people are choosing how to interact with in the worlds. The physical space may be virtual but the actions and intentions are real. The line between reality and virtual is only going to continue to blur, and it is possible that those who don’t know how to operate within a virtual world are going to be the ones out of the loop and unprepared to operate in a future world.


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