How do you explain where you are going to someone when you enter a virtual world? Is it a secret adventure, another world or just a game? Or is it a curiosity into the new. For those Gamers and Second Lifers, it’s a question we really never ask. In world – our world – the world we enter, is a way of life. To question it is the same as questioning the concrete world that we inhabit. Why do we exist? What is our purpose here? What is this existence for.
Sitting in front of a computer screen, we click buttons and move the mouse and then emerge as a character in an inexplicable world that sends the adrenalin flowing. It’s a new world, one devoid of many of real life constricts. It’s a creative, challenging, secret world. It’s a world that we can either shed all inhibitions or play out a life we wish we had. It’s an addictive form of escapism.
I’ve criticised the way that the controllers of such environments have manipulated such environments for commercial reasons. Second Life is run on real money with a real economy and creates real problems. Like any addiction, Second Life or many MMORPGs, the inhabitants find it hard to leave behind their concrete world and create a mirror image of it in world. But the potential of these environments is vast on many scales – the potential to breakdown barriers, to allow everyone to cohabit in harmony (albeit often at war with each other). We hide behind masks. We drag our alter egos into virtuality. We sit in front of screens en masse across every continent. Going there is just another inexplicable concept that we accept.
In Bridges and Tangent’s blog today about the hostility witnessed in internet forums , “Alan Jacobs has a different answer to why so much hostility is projected through this media. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity”.
In cyberspace, we are like guinea pigs, testing out a new system before it goes live. Only it already went live and the testing was not complete. Acclaimed as empowering, the users are free to explore and behave in whatever way they want. The speed of our communication continues to accelerate – in the last five minutes, I know from tweets that someone was too busy to drink coffee (and then the poster sends out five tweets in a row); what someone else just ate for breakfast (I love marmite); that someone’s relationship is breaking down (probably before the other partner does); and that the Frieze Art Show this weekend is more than about buying and selling it is about Grayson Perry in hot pink tights! By the end of today, we will have read and clicked on several million tweets and links. The world has reached a level of information – it overwhelmes and bewilders us and at the same time excites, intrigues and seduces us.
Across the internet we can be or do what we want be. Or can we? The story of Tyler Clementi shocked the world into the true implications of this. We can be who we want to be, but we cannot drag other’s in. Our actions, words, attacks, hostilities and rages projected outwards can cause all levels of harm to those who we interact with. The biggest problem we have encountered so far is that cyberspace does not exist – it is abstract and indefinable. When we cannot physically interact with something we face the biggest challenge to accepting that it is real.
The screen has been acclaimed as a 20th century revolution. But as we move further into the 21st century, the effects of the screen are becoming more and more apparent. Spending too much time in front of a screen can cause a number of side effects including headaches, eye strain, tension, hyperactivity and even depression to name only a few. It can affect sleep, relationships and self-esteem. There have been several reports of children committing suicide after playing for too long where reality and virtuality have blurred into one.
In the New Scientist today, Nic Fleming reports on the negative aspects of too much screen time for kids. .
Are we nurturing a generation who will have the worst psychological problems in adulthood that Western Society has ever seen?
About eight years ago, an American teenager in the same chat forum as I, complained that everyone was bored in life and suggested that what America needed was a war to liven things up. I remember the onslaught of replies that suggested America was invincible and such attacks would never happen. There was a feeling of shock running through me when he posted. Eight years later, the twin towers were brought down. That teenager would have been in his twenties by that time – perhaps newly out of university and just starting a career – perhaps in Wall Street. I always wonder if he remembered his post and if that was the war he envisaged.
Computer games are important in many lives. They create challenges and interaction with others and allow many with disabilities to communicate in a way that they could not in their real life. The environment is rich in visual stimulation and the designs are superb. Teenagers, who are predominantly the users of these games, constantly seek this form of activity. I would much rather see them gaming than creating havoc on the streets. But you need a computer to game and for some games you need a powerful internet connection. That’s not something that everyone can afford.
The media use the term ‘addiction’ more frequently than ever these days when discussing computer gaming. Stories of users committing suicide or relationship failures blamed on this addiction are rich pickings for journalists. But to what extent can we blame gamers for being obsessed with a world that takes them out of their real one?
Are you an addict? Take the test!
Entering the world of gaming was a mysterious adventure into what Spacexcape thought, at the time, was a new world. Forever the explorer, she found herself in land of breathtaking graphics and visual stimulation with constant challenges and achievements. It was not difficult to see why gaming is addictive and why users would rather spend hours in front of a computer than with friends, playing sports or even just watching TV. But the consequences of that are already becoming evident. Research is showing us that gaming is contributing to obesity, depression and violence. Yet it is one of the largest growing activities western society has produced.
Spacexcape’s experiences in World of Warcraft were very different to those in Second Life. In SL, she quickly found like minded people to collaborate with in both the real and the virtual world. In WoW she works in isolation wondering how or if that world could ever be what she needed it to be. 3D animation is a complex and time consuming practice, not to mention expensive and finding a way to progress with the project has been slow. But the gaming experience is very much a part of that progression.
Communications Pod in the Spacexcape Project (Second Life)
There are over 10 million people subscribed to WoW. Gamers appear to fall into two categories – casual that play occasionally for fun and hard core who are totally immersed in the ‘life’. Spacexcape has met both. The hard core are ‘experts’ in their profession and life has to work around the game, rather than the game fitting into their life. This is the excessive, compulsive and addictive nature of the game. But at what price? Is gaming changing the way that people behave?
I recently posted a link to a short video that I had made of my mage gnome reading Sartre’s 1945 speech on existentialism, on the WoW forum – part of a piece I am working on at the moment but was intended as a piece of fun. I emerged with only some small pieces of flesh hanging from my skeleton! Gamers are a hard audience to address. Gamers like to be in control. One poster – Santea (in a guild called ‘My little Pwny’ on the Twilight Hammer server) posted a long, long diatribe about the lack of merit in my work and that it was not worthy of discussion … and yet had spent probably 20 minutes doing exactly that! There were other similar posts. One poster wrote “If you want to be an artist give up your dreams because you are terrible.” and another “If it IS serious however, god I do pity upon you.”
I found these remarks to be very insightful and exposing the type of attitude that is prevalent in game. Ask any gamer and they will tell you that the open channels in virtual worlds are swamped with users who seek attention through insult. As a player myself, I have become accustomed to being belittled by the hard core gamers – or those who strive to be. World of Warcraft breeds anger – and it is projected into forums, chat rooms and the world through violence, abuse, and prejudices.
Gaming is a dangerous and yet delicious exercise.