Living in Virtual Space

People are spending more and more time in virtual worlds.

It began with the experimental Multi User Domains (MUDs) and then progressed to immersive virtual online envoronments and games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.

We all know this. But what is the eventual effect of such a change of residence? Because when a child or an adult is spending (and I’m not pointing fingers here — I do it myself) large chunks of time interacting with objects and avatars in a computer-mediated reality, we might as well say that they live there.

So what are the effects of “actually” living in virtual space? How does this change our perceptions, our expectations, and our relationships? I’ll be exploring this and other questions here.

Let’s start with some definitions of terms, for those of you (if any!) who have not explored this new flavor of experience.

“Virtual World” — a world that exists solely as the result of computer-generated calculations and interactions, which simulates “real” world experience to some degree, including the presence and potential interactions of avatars with computer-generated objects and other avatars. I’m excluding from this definition the worlds of fiction literature, television, and films, because they are largely passive experiences.

“Avatar” — an entity in a virtual world that is the abstract representation of a user/participant. An avatar can be a simple geometric model with limited customizability, such as the characters in early online games such as Dungeon Siege, or a highly customizable entity that can be made to resemble the actual appearance of the user operating it, such as the avatars in Second Life and other realms.

Okay, enough definitions for now. Let’s talk about living in virtual space. First, some background for you. My first virtual residence as Doom. Yes, the first version; I am not young. Even with the huge pixels and jerky enemy motions, I was tranfixed by the feeling of roominess — the perception that I was “actually” moving in large spaces, due to the constantly-updated perspective rendering of my virtual surroundings. This effect persisted when I moved on to Quake and , only with better and smoother graphics.

During this early phase of my virtual residence, I was unconcerned with interactions. The only communication I had with fellow players was coordinating with fellow team members and taunting opposing team members.

As I moved on to MMORPGs such as City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, however, I realized that such worlds can be communities — online societies composed of groups of users who log in to play with (and against) each other. I began forming relationships with people I never “actually” met.

All this has made me wonder what kind of future these new realms are ushering in for humankind. I am tired of hearing that the Internet supposedly isolates people…because we don’t go out and play catch with our neighbor Sparky in the back yard or the local park. That might be more true nowadays (the not-going-out part), but what about the fact that I can play with someone from the UK, collaborate with someone from India, and converse (using a translator program) with someone in Japan — who doesn’t speak a word of English? Am I really all that isolated? Somehow I doubt it.

On the contrary, I propose that, instead of isolating us, the Internet and its online virtual realms are ushering in a transformation as fundamental as those brought by the automobile and the television, only much bigger. Before cars, many people spent their entire lives near where they were born. Before radio and television, we could only read about events on the other side of the planet after they occurred. Now we have greater mobility and visibility. Online virtual realms will only increase our capabilities.

Which brings us back squarely to the question I began with: how does this extension of experience change our perceptions, our expectations, and our relationships? Let’s talk about it.

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27 Responses to “Living in Virtual Space”

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