Seeing is believing

My thoughts about living in virtual space and playing immersive online games are often influenced by thoughts of mirror neurons.

You can read about mirror neurons here: if you are not yet familiar with the concept. Basically, researchers have recently discovered that in monkey brains (and very likely, in other organisms such as human beings) there are nerve cells that fire when an action is seen. In other words, when a monkey sees another monkey pick up a fruit, some of the same nerve cells become active in the monkey’s brain that would be active if it, itself, was picking up a fruit. Researchers call these nerve cells “mirror neurons” because they seem to “mirror” what the creature is seeing another creature do.

Some of the implications of this discovery are obvious. Many of us have heard the old cliche “monkey see, monkey do” and we speak of people “aping” other people’s behaviour. Mirror neurons might be part of the explanation why humans and other creatures can so easily learn to do something by watching someone else do it. We see someone else open a door, perform a dance, use an escalator, and it’s as if we are already practicing the same thing as we watch — our brains are imagining ourselves doing the same thing, trying out sequences of orders to muscles they have never actually done before. It’s a fact that watching someone who is good at something gives you a leg up on doing it well yourself, which explains the appeal of instructional videos. Seeing is not just believing — it is practicing!

Back to virtual worlds. I suggest that seeing even a rendering of someone doing something activates the mirror neurons. In City of Heroes, the first MMORPG I spent a lot of time in, one of my problems was that as a healer I would feel strong guilt when I saw someone’s avatar “die”. (Actually, NCSoft avoids speaking of dying or killing, and instead calls it defeating or being defeated.) As the healer, I am supposed to keep the other team members alive so they can scrag the bad guys. But seeing their avatars fall to the ground,apparently dead, hit me hard and caused guilt. And now I know why: to my brain, those cartoon-like avatar bodies were close enough to the real thing to elicit real reactions. One some level, it was as if I was seeing real people dying.

This can be even more wrenching in games like World of Warcraft, where the avatar screams or cries out in pain as it drops to the ground. Intellectually, you know it is just a game, and just imaginary. But parts of your brain might not know that. To deeper parts of your brain, everything is just data, and data that looks like people is treated as if it is real people.

CoH, WoW, and other online games take this even further by adding “emotes”, which are things you can make your avatar do my pressing buttons or typing in commands. You can make it wave to someone, blow them a kiss, laugh, scowl, make rude gestures, and so on. Emotes add to the social aspect of the virtual world experience, enabling you to do more than walk around and kill stuff. In Second Life, there are even animations created by various developers and crafters that let your avatar hug another one — or even go though the motions of having a sexual encounter. Coh and WoW do not have these, because kids play those games. But many online worlds made for adult play now include sexual emotes and animations.

There are those who question the reality of mirror neurons and the assertion that they are one of the root causes of human empathy. But regardless of the actual mechanism, it is a fact that what we see influences us. Watching sports or movies we cheer for our favorites or the hero and hiss at the villains. So, given the case that even vicarious participation engages our imaginations and our brains, what effects is all of this having on us, particularly as it pertains to living in virtual space?

Some see even cartoon violence as bad for us. Whenever I remember the things Bugs Bunny used to do the Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, I laugh. But some people are not laughing. There is now a rating system even for video games, based upon content such as violent or suggestive content. You may recall the parental fuss over Grand Theft Auto and other video games that some say encourage antisocial behaviour. A couple of years ago I would have laughed about that. Now, knowing about mirror neurons, I have to pause and wonder. When NCSoft introduced City of Villains as an obvious spinoff of CoH, I resisted making villain avatars at first, because I like to think of myself as a basically good guy. Then I finally convinced myself that it was just a game, that words are just labels, and I explored that side of the paradigm. But I still wonder some times about the effect this is having on “impressionable young minds” — being ordered to rob banks and kidnap people, and “defeating” avatars dressed as cops in order to do it.

What we see and hear affects us. At first this was only real situations we were seeing and reacting to. Then it became acted scenarios in plays. Then cartoons and movies.  And now, realistically rendered computer animations that we control — and are controlled by. Have you ever gotten angry at a videogame enemy that just “killed” your avatar? Have you ever felt sorry for an avatar that you saw wounded or killed by a monster or enemy? Then you know what I am talking about. Virtual experiences, at some level, are experiences — even if they are imaginary and shown on a movie screen or a computer monitor.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining, or, not only complaining. There are positive sides to this as well. I cannot tell you how many times a stranger has healed my avatar when it was about to get killed, saving my butt when I least expected it. In World of Warcraft, you might be surprised at how often strangers run past you in their imaginary bodies and throw an enhancement or “buff” onto your character, making you stronger, better protected, and so on….just to be nice. No one makes them do it, but it has become part of the online culture. Other characters have also, out of the blue, handed my avatars in-game money without my even asking, just because they could and because it’s nice to be nice. Starting-out avatars in these games are broke, and the game currency such as WoW gold or CoH influence make the play a little more enjoyable because you can then “buy” enhancements for your avatar like armor or weapons…or even just imaginary food to recover your imaginary health.

Virtual worlds and online gaming give us the chance not only to do each other in, but also to do nice things for each other. It’s a whole new arena of interaction, where this amazing networked quasi-reality lets us be nice to people we have never met…people we may never meet in real life.

At the risk of sounding like a “care bear”, I recommend that you use some of your online time to be nice to other players. I believe in random acts of kindness. If someone has helped you, pay it forward. Help someone else. Surprise a stranger with a rescue, a gift, a kind word. Animals kill and be killed. We can be more than that. We can be more than mere predators. It could lead to a new friendship or a new relationship. Or not. But whether the other human appreciates it or not, you will know that you made the effort. It will be a good feeling. And you never know how much of a difference it might make. –MRK

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201 Responses to “Seeing is believing”

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