Posts Tagged ‘VR’

Virtual Ethics 101

Friday, June 5th, 2009

OK, so maybe you are walking on the wild side. Maybe very wild. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.

Now, lets consider how one might go about constructing an ethics that could apply to such a mercurial and evanescent phenonenon as the life in virtual space. Party pooper! you scoff. We can do whatever we want!

Ok, maybe it is true that in many ways you can do whatever you want. And if you do not care whether you have any virtual friends, I am sure you will. Because in many virtual worlds, escaping any possible consequences is as easy as merely creating a new account, a new identity, a new avatar. Wasn’t me! That was some other guy/lady/monster.

I will address myself, however, to the (hopefully) majority of you who do care whether you are liked or not. Although I have had my “don’t give a fork” days, I usually classify myself as belonging to this non-sociopathic group — the society of civilized beings. Since I do not exist in a vacuum (oh all right, my background is in Physics, yes I know that technically we do all exist in a vacuum…I meant metaphorically) socially, I am affected in various ways by my interactions with other entities, whether they exist in real or virtual space. As they are by their interactions with me. That being the case, it would seem that one might suggest guidelines for behaviour (not thought, of course…we must be free to think whatever we wish in the privacy of our own heads) with respect to other entities.

It would be the height of facile simplicity to moan that we should all follow the Golden Rule: treat others as we wish to be treated. But let’s face it: not all others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. For example: suppose I meet someone who is role-playing being a slave. Presumably, this person would prefer, in the context of the role play (not necessarily in real life) that i treat him/her as if he/she were a slave. Now I, personally, do not want to be treated like a slave. So if I follow the Golden Rule, forgive the pun, slavishly, and treat this person in the way that I personally wish to be treated, i.e. as a free person, then I might claim I am acting properly.  But am I?

Here is a case in which in attempting to follow a common ethical principle I am, in actuality, acting contrary to someone else’s wishes. I am not treating the other person in the way they want to be treated….just in the way that I want to be treated. In such a situation, while I claim to be acting morally, the other person could retort that I am merely acting selfishly. (Incidentally, if you think that this is a purely hypothetical situation, then I suggest that you visit a virtual world such as one of the Gor sims in Second Life, where such situations are “real” and frequent.)

I am led, therefore, to propose that a more generalized version of the Golden Rule is required:

“When appropriate, treat others as they wish to be treated, as you would prefer that you be treated as you wish to be treated.”

What this boils down to is repecting the right of others to pretend. If someone is “wearing” the avatar-shape of a dog and going about on all fours, they probably do not want to be treated as if they are a wizard or a Elf. If someone is wearing wizard robes and waving a magic staff, they probably would not appreciate a lecture on the unreality of magic in modern society. If someone is wearing a collar and kneeling as a slave, they probably do not want you to insist that they act like a free person. It is a matter of respecting their right to play the role they have chosen. If you disapprove of dogs, wizards, or slavery, that is your right, and you do not have to be a dog, a wizard, or a slave. But when we are talking about pretending, about virtual as opposed to real worlds, it seems only fair to allow others to pretend whatever they want, if you want the same right to pretend to be what you want to be.

Now, notice that I inserted the phrase “when appropriate” at the beginning of this meta-Golden Rule. That was for obvious reasons. If a person is masochistic, and wants others to be cruel to them (or to pretend to be cruel to them), I do not feel that this obligates me to act in a way that is uncomfortable for me. I am not a masochist. To be forced or expected to beat everyone who cries “beat me!” would be painful to me psychologically, and thus I feel it is unfair and invalid to expect me to adhere to such expectations. If you want to pretend to be a god, then do so…but don’t expect me to worship you….unless that is the local rule, a rule that I have explicitly agreed to by joining a simulation in which such a thing is required.

Honor the pretensions of others when you join them in their realms of pretense. If you do not wish to do so, then find your own venues and follow your own inclinations there. If you disapprove of even pretend slavery, don’t bother to go where it is virtually practiced — those who value such let’s-pretend scenarios do not appreciate moralizing as if they were actually oppressing people in real life. They find it either amusing or obnoxious. It interferes with their suspension of disbelief and their role playing. Similarly, people who like to pretend to be vampires or demons or various kinds of villains rarely appreciate do-gooders lecturing them on ethics….unless it is a discourse that is appropriate and natural for the roleplay situation you are in.

And please, do not dismiss this as all just a version of “play nice, kids”. While you could consider roleplaying in virtual worlds to be “merely” playing, some might insist that it is simply acting correctly in alternate realities, validly exploring other modalities of being.

As the saying goes, “be…all that you can be”.  And allow others the same freedom. –MRK

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Here Today…

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Over forty years ago Star Trek greeted its viewers with the words “Space: the Final Frontier”. But is it?

Okay, geographically speaking, sure. Unless we find a way to get outside the Universe into some parallel reality, space contains all of the planets we will ever find, and, thus, can be said to be the Final Frontier.

But let’s not limit ourselves to mere geography. Cyberspace, the universe of data, contains or will eventually contain, all known information about all known or discovered panets, as well as all of the stories, theories, dreams, and conjectures of all planets that could be, might be, or may someday be. Cyberspace is the final frontier, IMHO.

Back to living in cyberspace. In my last post I asked how such an existence is affecting the perceptions, expectations, and relationships of the humans inhabiting it.

A lot can (and has, and will be) written on this subject. Let’s take one parameter as a starting point: the lifetime of a romantic relationship. How long will it last?

Okay, all you cynics can tune out now. For the rest of you who believe in, and value, a relationship between two caring individuals, this is a significant question. Those who are content to drift in and out of random assignations may not care, but the rest of us (I hope) do want something that lasts, that has more meaning than incidental pleasure.

I’ve had relationships in both real life and virtual life, and some that took place in both. One thing that I have noticed is, it seems that the majority of relationships that take place solely or mostly in virtual realilty are rather brief. Meet, greet, make with the sweet, then back on the street. Why is this?

Here is a perfect example of how virtual living is affecting the expectations of its inhabitants. I think it is a fast-forwarding of the grass-is-always-greener principle caused by the exploding multiplicity of alternatives.

Wow, vocab overdose! All right. What I mean is simply this: the fewer alternatives you have, the more stable your decisions are. You stay in a job until you find a better one. You stay in a relationship until or unless the feeling dies, OR you (c’mon, we’ve all done it, fess up) start to think that maybe there is a better alternative.

Long ago, when we lived in small isolated communities, people paired up in monogamous couples and alternatives dried up; the pairings were more or less stable. But nowadays, with our increased mobility and visibility, we can go places and see more…alternatives. And as our culture has become increasingly mobile, we seem to have become increasingly fickle. Divorce is common, when it used to be more rare. Living together, that easier-exit-strategy pairing methodology, has become prevalent. Commitment seems so come with an expiration date, like packaged food.

It is a no-brainer to extrapolate this principle to the Internet and relationships in cyberspace. The internet now contains, at any given second, more surfers than the population of the largest cities on earth. Online games and communities containing millions of users put people in contact with exponentially more “alternatives” than ever before. It would be astonishing if all this doesn’t have an impact on how those humans view commitment to a relationship.

Please hear me: I am not arguing for the correctness or desirability of emotional promiscuity. I like relationships that last. All I am saying is, the inevitable effect of existing in a cornucopia of potential mates is that many people will want to explore as many possibles as they can, and so it is a forgone conclusion that most relationships will be even briefer in cyberspace than they are in “real” life.

Some of this is, undoubtedly, due to the tendency of many onliners to take relationships in virtual reality less seriously, as if it were all just role-play. But I think that those of us who really want a long term relationship, one which grows and evolves, will have to find ways to be even more significant to that significant other. I’m working on it. Good luck. –MRK

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Living in Virtual Space

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

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.
–MRK

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