Hey Everyone! Here is a copy of my paper on VWs if anyone is interested. I am using WordPress as a tool to convert to HTML.
Every once in a while a new type of organization comes along and changes the way that the world works. In the past these have included guilds, schools, and corporations. Today the new type of organization is not tangible, but rather lies within the depths of our computer screen. The organization type that I am talking about is virtual worlds. These worlds can be text based MUDs (Multi-User Domains) like LambdaMOO (Turkle 11) or 3D representations like Second Life and World of Warcraft. These virtual worlds can be accessed by anyone who has a decent speed internet connection, so in today’s technological climate the barriers to entry are very small. People use virtual worlds for a multitude of reasons. Some like the social aspect, while others use it for work; some people just want to play. No matter what the reasons for the growth of virtual worlds are, it is important that we learn from them as they continue to be more widespread in the future. As their presence grows, they will begin to affect people more and more. As Edward Castronova puts it, “there is a there there and it’s getting bigger” (38). As these worlds grow there will be positive outcomes and there will be pitfalls that we, as a society, will have to watch out for. Virtual worlds are a new type of organization that is growing rapidly and becoming more prevalent in our global society and there will be effects on individuals and culture as a result.
Before understanding the following affects, it is important to understand why so many people are beginning to use virtual worlds. Edward Castronova uses the term “attention migration” to explain this phenomenon. He says that while our bodies are not physically moving into virtual space, our minds are. Our attentions are being shifted from real life to virtual life (72-73). Why is this shift occurring? Virtual worlds considered to be more fun and enjoyable than the real world and provide us with new ways of thinking and doing things.
Virtual worlds are a great way to connect with other people. Being a part of a virtual world allows individuals to meet with and have conversations with new people. It makes it easier to find people with whom they share interests. Barrie Gunter, author of The Effects of Video Games on Children states that, “the use of [these] networks enable[s] [people] to interact with people of a like mind with whom they [are] able to share mutual interests” (67). One positive attribute that virtual worlds have is that they do not rely on geographical local. They allow us to bridge the gaps that real world distances create. Just last evening I was at a pub in virtual Dublin and met a man from India. Without the geographical divide the cultures that an individual can learn about are limitless.
The geographical bridge does not end with making new friends. Some people are using virtual worlds to connect with real life (RL) family and friends. In a documentary about Second Life Kim Anubis, a content creator (she makes items in Second Life) says that both of her parents are in Second Life; “I can visit with them virtually every day.” In today’s world we are less likely to live in close proximity with our families as society has changed so that we are no longer complete dependent on being together. Virtual worlds may help bring us closer to our friends and family who we have left in a different area to pursue RL gains.
In addition to meeting and learning about other people, virtual worlds can also help individuals to learn about themselves. Virtual worlds provide anonymity so that people can express unexplored parts of themselves (Turkle 185). Users can look inside themselves and find out who they want to be and actually create a being that fits those wants and needs. This can be incredibly revealing to the RL person behind the character. Others use virtual worlds as a way to explore their emotions on a deeper level. Turkle tells a story of a girl named Julee who used a
Dungeons and Dragons type of game to work through a tough emotional situation (while these games typically take place in RL situations, they are the precursor to virtual worlds that we see today). Julee’s mother abandoned her when she was nineteen years old because she found that her daughter had had an abortion the summer before she began college. In the game Julee was playing the role of a mother and had to make the decision of whether to kill her own daughter (who was found to have been a spy for a rival team) or to forfeit the game herself. Through a long process and conversation Julee decided that she would forfeit the game. Julee was able to reach new emotional resolutions from being a part of this world simulation (Turkle 187-188). Other people are using similar roles in virtual worlds to help to work through emotional problems. Another college student, Matthew, uses MUDs to be the ideal father. His character in the MUD is exactly like his father, but he used the MUD to play the person that he wished his father could be (his father was a lawyer, a drunk, and an adulterer) (191). Role playing in virtual worlds helps individuals to work through tough emotional situations that it is difficult for them to address in real life.
In virtual worlds people can be whoever they would like to be and do whatever they would like to do. It acts as a way for people to “get past real world disabilities” (Second Life: a Documentary). The disabilities that they speak of are both physical and psychological. One man, Stewart, grew up with a severe heart problem that prevented him from partaking in many normal RL activities (he took a ski trip his freshman year of college and was hospitalized for a week because of his heart problems during the activity). He uses the MUD world as a way to participate in activities that he never before though possible (Turkle 192-196).
Virtual worlds can also be helpful to people with social disabilities. It is possible that a painfully shy person could find it easier to communicate through the web. Gunter says that computers may provide the shy and withdrawn, “an alternative channel through which they can express themselves and establish social networks, while functioning with a medium with which they feel comfortable and confident” (67). I believe that this could have future applications for people with Asperger Syndrome, which is a social disorder that makes proper communication skills difficult. While my niece, who has been diagnosed with the syndrome, has trouble communicating with new people in RL, she is perfectly happy communicating with her friends in Neopets and Webkinz on the net. Applied on a larger scale, virtual worlds could help people with the syndrome to learn how to socialize better in an area where they feel comfortable.
Not everyone who participates in virtual worlds in there to get past real world disabilities, they just want to accomplish more than they can in RL. Many people who join virtual worlds feel as if they are a part of something bigger than themselves (and they are in fact as there are approximately 30 million people worldwide that are using virtual worlds) (Castronova 34). Virtual worlds allow people to get involved. Active protests have been held in many virtual worlds. Some examples include the tax revolt in Second Life and the public demonstrations in which World of Warcraft players demanded attention for their concerns about the warrior class (Taylor 125). The tax revolt in Second Life is of particular interest as the whole the virtual world got involved and created real change in the monetary policy of Second Life. People were standing (with their avatars) in heavily used areas with signs protesting the tax system that was in place. One of the content creators made revolutionary war style costumes for the protestors to wear (one color for anti-tax supporters and another for anti-tax dissenter). Overall the protest was a huge success and Linden Labs re-evaluated the way in which they charged people for using space. There is now a system where you pay just for renting the land, but not for how high your items are or how much space they take up (Ideal World). People in the world were able to have an effect on the way that the world was being run (something that is lacking in today’s RL, even with the emphasis on democracy).
Virtual world residents can also get involved by helping others. When I started in Second Life I was very confused about what to do in such a large world. I had no idea how to change my appearance or get currency. The Second Life website recommended a place called Help Island for “newborns” (new users). There were many people there looking to help new people out. I found someone that taught me how to dress myself and change my appearance. She gave me information about important resources and took me to an area where I could have a proper tutorial (as the one provided at the start is a little lacking). When I thanked her for all of the help she responded, “We find it pleasing to help.” There are people in virtual worlds that are making themselves feel as though they are doing good in the RL by helping people to learn about virtual life.
Virtual worlds can also be used to help real life people. One Second Life citizen and newspaper owner, Katt Kongo, held two virtual fund raisers to help to raise money to donate to victims of hurricane Katrina. Through her virtual world auctions she raised about $10,000 to help those who were ravaged by the hurricane. She believes that while being a part of these virtual worlds it is important to give back to your community, both in the virtual world and in RL. Another individual giving back to a RL community through simulation is Hiro Pendragon. Hiro has been working on a virtual world project to design a park for an area in New York City. The space is called Landing Lights Park. Here, members of the RL community can come and experiment with their own ideas for the park space. They can build their ideal park area, save it, and share it with the rest of the community. It allows the people to show what they want to do with the park rather than having it decided for them. This example shows that virtual worlds can help to support RL community involvement that town hall meetings and other such venues have failed to do in the societies of today (Second Life: a Documentary).
There are also organizations within the virtual world organizations. Many people have started businesses in Second Life and other virtual worlds. For some it is a dream that they never before imagined. Ansche Chung is the first person to become a real world millionaire from her business in Second Life. Ansche is a graphic designer who purchases land in-world and alters it to look like a fantasy land. She then sells parcels of land to other players in Second Life. Her talent has allowed her to make a large profit. Other businesses have also flourished. Pixel Dolls, a virtual clothing business run by Second Life citizen Nephilaine Protagonist has also been successful. While her husband Neil does have a real world job, Casey (the woman behind the avatar) stays at home and brings in a sustainable living through her virtual creations (Ideal World.
Real world businesses are also using virtual worlds to do business. Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Second Life, says that businesses use virtual worlds rather than telephone conferences simply because they are more fun and engaging (Philip Rosedale). Other organizations are using virtual worlds in a more practical way. Because virtual worlds simulate real life, businesses can use them for training. One group uses virtual worlds to train for disaster response. This is difficult to do in RL because it can sometimes be dangerous (and frankly one cannot create a disaster just to train someone on what to do). Disaster first responders are able to learn how to manage a disaster situation by running through disaster simulations in virtual worlds. Another company, Crompco Co. in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, has begun to use Second Life as a training tool. Crompco Co. inspects gas stations to make sure that they are up to the code for environmental compliance. FlipperPA Peregrine, whose RL self is the technology chief at Crompco, suggested that they start using the 3D environment in Second Life to train new employees about the underground part of a gas station, how it works and what they need to look for. Flipper believes that this simulated environment it much more helpful than the previous 2D white board drawings that the company used to train with, and that gives them a competitive advantage over other firms because their clients are impressed with the technology that the company is using (Second Life: a Documentary). The fact that businesses can use virtual worlds to help them to be successful shows that virtual worlds can be applied to RL situations.
According to Philip Rosedale virtual worlds are, “… the sum of all of our dreams…everything we’ve ever wanted” (Philip Rosedale). When he says this he refers to the idea that we can make virtual worlds into whatever we want. They are the ultimate outlet for creativity with life. A virtual world user can create and be whatever they want. Fabricating things in-world is not the only way that people can demonstrate their creativity. People can also upload their real art into the world and sell it. In the teen focused virtual world Gaia Online people often draw pictures of their avatar and place it in their profiles. Music has also become a big part of virtual worlds. In Second Life people can have concerts by streaming live music into the world. There are many bars and cafes that support this action. It gives people an opportunity to have their music heard around the world rather than in just one geographical location (Second Life: a Documentary).
While all of these positives are evident, there are some concerns about virtual worlds that have been brought to light. One concern is that people become too attached to their avatars and instead of spending time learning about themselves they are spending time hiding out in the virtual realms. Sherry Turkle states that, “We are moving toward a culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real” (23). She also admits that while the virtual worlds may help some people, they may also hurt other people by causing them to be trapped in the virtual realm and lose track of RL and RL problems (188).
There is a sign in a tutorial area of Second Life that reads, “Always remember [there] is a real person behind every Avatar. Be nice; don’t push people around for fun… Be polite, courteous and considerate to all residents. Harassment is a violation of the SL terms of service and can get you in trouble…” While these warnings do exist, Rosedale admits that attacks on player characters still happen. He says that there are incidents of what he calls “griefing” or giving other users such a hard time that it is no longer fun for them to be a part of the world. There are other more harsh forms of attacks. One type, known as virtual rape, can be harmful to those who are heavily connected to their avatars. One bad case happened in the MUD LambdaMOO, an avatar dressed as a clown entered and hacked into other players’ accounts forcing them to do sexually explicit acts that they did not want to (Turkle 251). While some believe that these are just words, to people who are truly connected to their avatars feel as though they have been personally harmed.
The biggest concern with virtual worlds is addiction, which is defined as “compulsive behavioral involvement with games accompanied by a lack of interest in other activities” (Gunter 51). While there have been some cases that could be described as addiction, for many users virtual worlds are not a constant part of their life because of addiction. According to Edward Castronova, people spend more time in virtual worlds than the real world because the virtual world experience is better compared to their RL experience (188). People often associate spending a great deal of time on something as an addiction, but this is not the case. According the Turkle, one must spend a lot of time in the world in order to keep up with action (183).
Edward Castronova presents another fear that those who participate in virtual worlds will lose sight of real world families. Parenting is an important part of real life, and without it our society will dwindle to nobody. Many virtual worlds do not contain children at all. Castronova is concerned that if we do not gain proper parenting skills or ignore out real children in order to be a part of the virtual worlds that we will perpetuate a cycle of misery that will be passed from one generation to the next (190). It is important that, even as more people begin to use virtual worlds, we remember where we came from and that we need happy, functional (or mostly functional) families in order to thrive as a global society.
When judging the use of virtual worlds for future applications it is important that we look at both the positive and negative effects. Virtual worlds are no longer just for play; we can do great things in them. They are an innovative way to collaborate and can be used for many business applications. They allow us to be creative and learn about ourselves while we learn about others. As people begin to “migrate their attention” , we need to look out for the negative effects of being a part of virtual worlds, being careful not to lose complete sight of our real life selves and making sure that others that are involved keep at least one foot in the real world as well.
Castronova, E. (2007). Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
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Gunter, B. (1998). The Effects of Video Games on Children: the Myth Unmasked. Seffiels, England: Sheffield Academic Press.
Philip Rosedale: Second Life: What Do We Learn If We Digitize Everything? (2006). [Motion Picture].
Taylor, T. (2005). Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Thomas, G. (Director). (2007). Ideal World: A Virtual Life Documentary [Motion Picture].
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.