Virtual World Philosophy: Escape From Reality

Online gaming is not my only interest. In the real world I have been lately interested in the phenomenon of “Peak Oil” and the eventual deleterious affects it will have on society in the near future. I don’t talk about it much on this site/blog, because the focus here is on online entertainment in general and 3D virtual worlds in particular. If you want a good breakdown on peak oil, there is this site.

My interest in this essay though is speculation about what will happen to online virtual world gaming in the event of a global economic depression which a peak oil generated energy crisis is very likely to cause. I am making an assumption that an energy crisis will have little effect on server farm maintenance or internet infrastructure, since the energy crisis’s biggest effect will be on transportation and real world mobility, and virtual world infrastructure is largely stationary.

Lets start at the beginning with the popular speculative fiction novel that started the whole metaverse craze to begin with: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In this book, the United States has essentially collapsed and taken over by corporations. Most of the population is dirt poor and living in squalor, the main character (conveniently named Hiro Protagonist) lives in a storage locker. Parallel to this horrible real world is a virtual world paradise called The Metaverse, where Hiro has a modest mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of hackers near the busiest section of the grid.

Snow Crash is fiction of course, but it leads to an interesting question: How well can virtual getaways help us deal with real world stress? People have been using television, video games, etc. to relieve stress for years. Online gaming and virtual worlds are new to the equation, but those players involved find online gaming more immersive, and as a consequence more stress relieving than more passive entertainment.

We already know the consequences of too much TV or too much video games, so its important to keep all of this in proper balance. Online gaming worlds are still mostly just diversion entertainment and can be overused at the expense of ones real life.

But lets get back to the future real life bad times. A real world energy crisis will have a negative effect on everyone. Conservation will be the key: Smaller, more energy efficient housing, less long distance travel, living closer to work and shopping centers, mass transit, etc. The real world “lifestyle” will be on the decline for all, and if that does not cause a lot of real world stress, it will at the very least cause a lot of real world disappointment.

Can virtual success in online gaming relieve the real world disappointment enough to keep us sane? I’m not the only one who thinks about this sometimes. Here is a few choice quotes from the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview

The virtual worlds scenario imagines broad future participation in virtual space commons. Many new forms of association will emerge that are presently cost-prohibitive in physical space, and VWs may outcompete physical space for many traditional social, economic, and political functions. In the 20 year scenario, they may become primary tools (with video and text secondary) for learning many aspects of history, for acquiring new skills, for job assessment, and for many of our most cost-effective and productive forms of collaboration.

In the stronger version of this scenario, VWs capture most, if not all, current forms of digital interaction, from entertainment to work to education to shopping to dating, even email and operating systems, though the 3D aspects may remain minimally used in the latter contexts. Youth raised in such conditions might live increasingly Spartan lives in the physical world, and rich, exotic lives in virtual space—lives they perceive as more empowering, creative and “real” than their physical existence, in the ways that count most.

New identities, new social experiences.

Aided by VW interoperability, an individual may easily access a far broader set of experiences in digital settings than she or he could in the physical world, as well as a vastly larger social network. …

In a more limited version of the scenario, VWs become popular for a few social and professional interactions, and as an interface in certain social contexts, but end up filling a circumscribed role similar to that of present-day televisions, home game consoles, or personal computers. Much of what people do today in the physical world continues with little input from virtual worlds. This limited scenario came primarily from non-technologists, who thought cultural conservatism and economic barriers would be major roadblocks to the stronger vision.

Experience ha taught me that the “stronger” version is far more likely, especially when you expand the virtual world definition to include MMORPGs. Social virtual worlds are not for everybody, as witnessed by the 10% retention rate in Second Life, but “rich exotic lives in virtual space” applies just as much to a level 80 druid in WoW as it does to a mansion owner in Second Life.

One of my first blog entries on this board was about the advent of the “Virtual Third Place“. A small but growing crowd is substituting online destinations for social gatherings instead of traditional neighborhood pubs, clubs, and coffee houses. Business executives are going on WoW raids together rather than golfing together.

Not only are people seeing it as more enjoyable, they are recognizing it is also more economical, especially as gas prices rise.

As travel costs go up, virtual meetings, even whole virtual work places are going to be more and more common. All of this predicted in Snow Crash way before it became a reality.

Welcome to the new reality, with many parts virtual.

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