The Internet — Life, or Just a Game?

Leading a Double Life
Imagine that there is a door in your apartment or house.

Each day you step through that door and visit a distant and strange world for a few hours.
In that world you have a different name and face and body.
You live, work, earn money, face challenges, create, succeed, and grow – every single day.

And then, you return to your everyday, ordinary life.

The contrast between the two worlds is dramatic.
You can’t give up either one, and you can’t see how to bring them together.

If one person leads this double life, the two worlds may remain forever separate
But what if 100’s of millions of people lead this double life?

Soon, they will demand that their everyday world becomes more like their magical one.

In Part 1 of this series, we spoke of virtual worlds on the Internet as the new frontier.
We suggested that the 100’s of millions of people living hours of their days in these worlds would have a profound effect on our everyday world.

Second Life, or Escape from Reality?
Why do so many people find the virtual worlds so enticing, so enjoyable, and so meaningful?

Is it just the adrenaline rush of a world with fast action, danger, wish fulfillment, and the opportunity to express dark sides of us that are unacceptable in everyday life?

While we can’t completely discount this aspect of video games in general, and virtual worlds, in particular, this is only the surface of it.

It’s much the same as the way pornography was a driving force in the adoption of video, dial-up bulletin boards, newsgroups, and even the Internet.

The opportunity to express and pursue certain behaviors dominates some new technologies, at least for a while. But we would be foolish to conclude that those behaviors are the measure of those technologies.

The Meaning of Fun and Games
Exodus to the Virtual Worlds, by Edward Castronova, discusses life in the virtual worlds in great detail. Castronova identifies a number of profound benefits that visitors find in these virtual worlds:

  • Equal beginnings. Each player starts with nothing, and succeeds through her own efforts.
  • Players proceed at their own pace, but when they finally succeed, they gain new skills and resources, and they join a community of players at that level.
  • Exceptional players find recognition within the community of their peers who truly understand and appreciate their efforts.
  • The worlds provide challenges which are appropriate to the skill level of the player
  • There are clear measures of success and failure.
  • The benefits of success are available without long delays.
  • Failures do not permanently stop you. There is always the opportunity to start again.
  • There is clarity in the virtual worlds between good and evil, and the world calls upon individuals to make choices.
  • Activities are performed alone, and in groups, and typically benefit you and others.
  • The most successful virtual worlds have clear rules, which are as simple as possible.

The virtual worlds, like our lives, are games — environments with rules, where the outcome is not certain.

But unlike many people’s experience of their everyday lives, these games are designed to be satisfying, meaningful, and fun.

One of Castronova’s most profound observations is that people quickly lose interest in games/worlds that provide no challenge, or challenges that are too easy or too hard for the current skill level of the player.

I would add a few points:

  • We crave the opportunity to remake ourselves, to break out of our current boundaries and find a way to explore the possibility that we know is waiting for us.
  • While we want to break out of our old patterns and rules, we don’t want a world without order.
  • We want fair, consistent rules that shape a predictable world, but leave us plenty of freedom to change.
  • We want a world with stable civilization, and frontiers. We can then choose how much of our time to spend in the more civilized areas, and how much of our time to spend in the more wild areas. The frontiers provide unique challenges and opportunities to grow.

The Death and Rebirth of Civilization
Civilizations that lose their frontiers become old and frightened of change, and ultimately collapse and die.
Sometimes civilizations with frontiers still decay. This often happens when the frontiers are too far away from everyday life, and have little influence on the old world.

The virtual worlds are always close by. They have an ever-growing population that will bring their lessons of possibility and meaning back to the old world.

As the Internet began and developed, we saw a glimpse of frontiers in the distance.
The virtual worlds will continue this process, as they restore ever-growing, ever changing frontiers to us.

**Resources for further exploration:
Exodus to the Virtual Worlds
I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life
The State of Play: Law, Games, and Virtual Worlds (Ex Machina: Law, Technology, and Society)

Terra Nova Blog on Virtual Worlds
Virtual Worlds News
Standford University Virtual Worlds Group
MIT Webcast on Virtual Worlds

2 comments to The Internet — Life, or Just a Game?

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>