Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Doctor is Out

Dr. Scantling misses the point. Which is that there is a point. That is, this is not a game, except in the same way that politics is a game.

She asks a series of questions, I'm going to be a bit wenchy about answering them, but that's because they questions are firmly grounded in proton think. That is, without punishments and penalties and the quicksand of the hard real world, meaning, morality and emotion must be disintegrating.

No, quite the opposite. First, even in the digital world, not "everything is under your control." The most important thing, the emotions of others, is not. The world of Second Life is not a contained fantasy filled with a few people and a million automata acting out parts in a screen play, but instead a shared reality, with a vast inter-subjective tide that not even the monarchs of this new country can control.

So I reject what could be called analog normative bias. Instead the question is whether at the end of the day people can function. Some can't but some could not have in any event. Some would have found alcohol or pornographic movies. What's wrong with admitting that a marriage has become an economic and social contract, and that emotions are to be fulfilled in other ways. Cyber sex is safer than analog infidelity.

My reply hinges on what I think is the most important bias in what she wrote, that there is something superior about achieving satisfaction in the physical over the virtual. The history of art and literature and theater is the reverse, that many people have dreamt of better worlds before, when faced with a mastery over the physical world which was too disappointingly limited to come close to their goals. With out these dreams by daylight, there would not be all of the things that we now take for granted as creature comforts and political freedoms. As it is with us, so it is with the people in the future, who will owe more to the people who could not live with the present, and so went off to make the future.

Here is the core of what is wrong:

Keeping your real and virtual selves from blurring can be a challenge. MMORPGs require a degree of practiced dissociation -- floating above one's avatar like some disembodied puppet-master. But players who stay partially attached may invest their avatars with a level of consciousness or "humanness" that leads to interpersonal confusion. Let's face it. You've created your avatar, so its part of you -- your hopes, dreams, needs or desires. If your avatar's romantic advances are rejected, will the real "you" feel disappointed?

No. When you are in world, you are your avatar, except when there is compelling need to bring the player's needs to the front. Instead, it is a certain detachment for the analog world that is important, looking out beyond the wardrobe and remembering hazily that there is another place, and another identity that shares this time and space.

Yes the disappointments are real, but that is because this isn't a fantasy or a game, but a metaverse, a reality where what we do here, changes who we are out there. We are denied many of the metaversal aspects of this technology, but in the realm of self, it is there with full force: our actions as digital avatars, change our understanding of the desires that move the analog avatar.

So I will argue at each point that what the Dr. is missing, is based on the analog bias of what she asks, the implicit prejudice that digital reality is a mere recreation and subordinate reality. Instead, I would propose that both our analog avatar, and out digital avatar, are subordinated to forces of reality and society and desire which are larger than any of us. Where the digital realm creates a space and a set of tools that will work these greater forces, then that is the place we should be.

The virtual world opens fascinating opportunities for researchers in human behavior to study the self and social interactions. Without clearly delineated social consequences, how will people treat one another in their imaginary environment? Will we dispense with politeness, generosity and other social norms? Some of this research is already under way. Researcher Nick Yee's findings show that men and women socialize about the same amount in role-playing-games, but women focus on developing supportive "friendships," while men are more interested in more concrete issues.

What happens is that some people come in and do this, griefers, newbies and so on. And they find out that in a world where your commitment to the world going forward, and not the weight of the world going backwards, is your trustworthiness, that social norms, generous behavior, altruism, kindness, concern, manners and interpersonal affection are more, not less, important.

I'm also puzzled by "concrete issues." I think that supportiveness is a concrete issue. I think that the ability to face the mirror, and face the day, is a very concrete issue. Filled with all the small things we have to do, how do we do them? Often because other people care.

If you want to know what the consequences are for being a jerk, try the experiment. Log on as a playdo male. Proposition a string of women. Find out how long it takes to enjoy the view from 7000M…

But I'm equally curious about short- and long-term effects of MMORPGs on real-life relationships. I worry about couples who immerse themselves in isolating activities to fill their emotional voids with virtual "fixes." The same couples, who tell me that they're too busy to share intimacy, manage to sequester themselves for hours at a time to read e-mail, chat online or play MMORPGs. Obviously, something is very wrong with this picture.

Yes, post-war nuclear marriage is broken, the lives that people lead are broken, the economy is broken, the hopes are broken, the incentives are broken. People know that the rich live differently than the rest of us, and until they can change it, there is no use fighting the hard reality that for must of us, playing our analog avatars, is, at best, treading water on the way over the waterfall.

So, are online role-playing games harmless?

Nothing in this world is. But are the harmful to the wrong things?


  1. Better and better, Lillie. As usual, you have a knack for separating truth from illusion.

  2. SL is real. Saturday a girl broke my heart and made me cry RL (I found out she's married RL). Yes, it is as real as RL.

    I want you to elaborate more on why marriage is so much more broken now than pre-WW2, and why the economy is breaking it. Why are there so many married people seeking relationships in SL? Do you mean that the rampant income inequality means one spouse has to work 50 hours a week just to tread water, and leaves his wife untouched? or is there a more common phenomenon I am missing?

  3. I remember the first time I got dumpd on sl.

    Yes, the sex may not feel like rl. But getting dumped feels exactly like rl.

    I'm not really the person to document all th hard facts about how the economy isn't working for people... there are people who are doing that much better.

  4. Lillie, this is brilliant and focused. You're a gift to our community. Thank you for speaking for so many of us -