Are Virtual Worlds The Harbingers of The End of Society?

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When people discuss the future of online communities and virtual environments it’s the question that nags at the back of everyone’s mind.  Even among virtual world evangelists it’s a topic of concern, apprehension and uncertainty.  A concept and concern so powerful that mega hits like the Matrix have been based on it.

The question begs – are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end of society? Will, as most people fear the eventual march of technology result in environments so immersive, so powerful, and so socially disconnected that our species loses its ability and desire to interact, reproduce and perpetuate itself?  Will virtual worlds and their progeny result in the eventual death of civilization? Experience tells me that most people believe it will.

I disagree.

In fact, not only do I disagree, but I’m not worried in the least. The forward march of technology is an interesting dilemma.  Especially since, with each new invention things previously unimaginable become a reality opening the gateway to future inventions and technology so far beyond the scope of our current understanding that they are, by today’s standards, unfathomable. The side effect of this forward moving evolution is change.  Sometimes a change so fundamental, it re-shapes our very lives. Fire. The wheel. The written word.  Change can make the topic a very difficult one to explore, after all – change is scary or at the very least something that requires a transition period before it becomes comfortable. So, where is the fine line between what we’re afraid of because it’s new or different, and what we’re afraid of because it’s detrimental?

I believe the answer lies in our core nature as a species.  We are, fundamentally, social creatures.  We reach out, build communities, and seek out companionship.  We are not a-sexual and as such by our very biological makeup are hardwired to seek companionship.  Community is at the core of who we are, and our success as a species.  It powers our communities, which have enabled us to overcome great obstacles, eventually becoming the dominant form of life on earth.  It’s for that very reason that the thought of technology breaking down those social bonds is so alarming.  It’s also for that very reason that I’m not concerned. Humans – as a species – will always seek out other humans. In fact, the lengths we will go to are spectacular.  A point I am continually reminded of when I look at gamers behavior.

A few years ago when I was spending a lot of my time playing Everquest and other online games,,, I was constantly amazed at the lengths guild/group members would go to in order to meet each other in person.  It’s not uncommon for gaming guilds to hold meet-ups and while the lions share are more regionally oriented many are international in scope with members from all over the country (and world) flying in for small & medium sized face-to-face gatherings. There’s an important lesson here – even in one of the web’s most immersive environments people still reach out to each other.  Another example of the power of community presence is LAN parties where groups of 3 or more gather in one location and all play/chat/etc. for hours and in some cases days. At these events it’s not uncommon to have X people in a room silently focused on their screens for surprisingly long blocks of time without verbal interactions.  Despite their apparent lack of social interaction, they are using Skype-like technology to communicate with each other and others throughout the world, chatting constantly, and interacting in a rich world with their avatars.  So, why gather at all?  The comradship of being together.  The power and appeal of being in the presence of other humans and enjoying the face-to-face socialization that happens during downtime.  Again, these behaviors make it clear that as a species we thrive on, and hunger for, social interaction.  We are social creatures.

Confident in our social nature, I’m not concerned about the growing influence of technology because fundamentally we will always reach out to connect physically.  The dynamics may change, but the physical presence of someone, especially a romantic partner, is an experience that technology can’t duplicate.  In cases where it comes close it may temporarily satiate our needs, but ultimately even in these instances real world social interaction will always win out.  That’s why – to me – the fears about virtual world technology are a non-issue.

So, what happens if technology does move to the point where it can imitate and replace social interactions and the benefits of face-to-face interactions? That is the imagined matrix paradigm, a virtual reality so complete, real, and believable that you can’t tell the difference between it and the real world.  If, or rather when, technology evolves to the point where it is able to flawlessly imitate the real world, where does that leave us? Staunchly embedded and fiercely loyal to the world we know. It’s a scary thought, but realistically would that world be any less real, albeit different, than what we now classify as the “real world”?  Would it truly be a bad thing if it satiated all of our needs and fulfilled us every bit as completely as the “real world”? I don’t believe it would be bad.  In fact, at that point I believe it becomes every bit as real, valid and perhaps even essential as what we take for granted today.

So, are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end? If you believe that humans are fundamentally social animals and that we need that social interaction to survive, then your answer should be a confident no.  If, on the other hand, you do not believe that we are fundamentally social – what are you concerned about to begin with?

As always I value your feedback, thoughts and discussion.  Please take advantage of the comment feature below and share your thoughts!

Virtual Worlds: Exploring Common Objections

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I’m a firm believer that virtual worlds are a major part of the future.  I am confident they will play a culture-shifting role in our society and re-define the way we interact, carry out business, and perform various key actions.  Though it’s much more difficult to see, they’re probably already impacting you.  In fact, you most likely enjoy technology or are at least familiar with technology that was initially introduced, and which proved itself, in the gaming arena. Software like Skype and Flash may not have been made exclusively by the gaming community, but the technology they are based on and their widespread success depended on it.

Thankfully, the national dialogue on gaming and virtual worlds is starting to shift. The media, probably clued into the size of the demographic, has paired back their perpetual assault on the gaming community, games, and gamers in general.  That said,  the general populace and the media still operate based on several fundamental fallacies.  These misconceptions have resulted in resistance to the development and support of virtual environments.

The issue was brought to my attention most recently on the PR Junkie blog on Ragan.com. The site is a social networking resource for communicators and public relations professionals.  The article was titled “Virtual Worlds Will Never Catch On” by Michael Sebastian. While I don’t mean to single Michael out, his post and some of the justifications outlined in it/the philosophy behind it, is an excellent illustration of the mainstream arguments and biases against virtual worlds.  Some of you may be familiar with my honors thesis work. For those of you who are not, my research focused on the social impact of virtual worlds while exploring their demographics and benefits.  Written a bit over a year ago, the environment has already changed drastically.  Despite the recent controversy associated with Grand Theft Auto and several other titles, and in part due to the success of SecondLife, the media and mainstream research has finally begun to look at some of the benefits of games. I feel it’s necessary to dedicate a post to looking at a few of the main misconceptions and addressing them.

Sex and Pornacopia

Sex.  It’s always a big issue. It’s a big part of our lives and unsurprisingly a major complaint that comes up again and again when discussing virtual worlds.  There are two main parts to these arguments.  The first stems from objections to the prevalence of sexual imagery and pornographic content. The other is tied to concerns raised over the nature of non-real world relationships and romantic interactions.

From Fox New’s embarrassing coverage of Mass Effect which eventually led to an apology and retraction, to the MSM’s coverage of GTA IV, virtual environments are constantly under attack for sexual content or violence.  Sebastian summed up the the mainstream sentiment when he labeled SecondLife a, “hive for sex and drugs” while echoing a Forbes.com article which noted,

It turns out that avatars seem more interested in having sex and hatching pranks than spending time warming up to real-world brands. “There is nothing to do in Second Life except, pardon my bluntness, try to get laid,” blogged David Churbuck, Web-marketing vice president for computer maker Lenovo.

The issue of Virtual Worlds and sex hasn’t just been limited to the virtual realms.  E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) has recently been facing it’s own bad press over their famous and now former booth babes.  All of this is relevant because the argument is made, and the implication is, that virtual worlds are fringe communities populated by fringe individuals.  Perverts, sexaholics, and the stereotypical, overweight, socially limited nerd. They conclude that as a result, the technology is somehow not viable and that the formation of more “mainstream” communities isn’t realistic.

Interestingly, these arguments in opposition to virtual worlds are many of the same ones that the internet initially faced and is still responding to. VHS is another wonderful example of the positive, if uncomfortable role adult content plays in developing new technology.  Open up your e-mail’s spam box and it’s a safe bet it’s got at least one offer for male enhancement or Viagra. Surf the web long enough and you’re bound to stumble onto some sort of inappropriate content. As the web has caught on, these annoyances have become commonplace and acceptable.  Similarly, the multitude of porn sites dedicated to any number of countless obscenities that in many ways are the web’s dirty secret don’t undermine the validity, authenticity, or usability of professional and social sites. Keep in mind that up until just few years ago whitehouse.com was an adult website. Believe me, I know, I made the mistake of accessing it in the middle of a computer lab in high school while doing homework.  As the web has matured, so too has the filtering and the community makeup. Whitehouse.com is no longer an adult site, Google has safe search options, and email is used for all sorts of correspondence.

The Pedophile Myth

A favorite subcategory of the sex discourse is that of child molesters.  Virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and social networking sites like MySpace seem to be perpetually under media-based attack, projected as hotbeds for sexual abuse and assault. Often these articles are loaded with condemnation with little/no understanding of how the environment/software actually works or what’s taking place.

In his article, Sebastian notes: “Sex and drugs … fake penises … pedophilia … are there any rational-thinking people out there who really—and I mean really—believe this will take-off?” All of which ties into an erronious basic assumption or belief which is too typically implied and occasionally stated outright. People assume that when individuals log onto the internet and find virtual worlds, a switch is flipped, they give into temptation, and become corrupted and turn into pedophiles.  This line of reasoning frustrates me to no end.

These individuals aren’t some ultra rare types of socially defunct recluses that reach out across the internet to prey on children.  These individuals are capable of entertaining the same thoughts in a virtual environment as they do as they sit in a work cubicle next to you, in mass on Sunday, as a Police officer, or any other mainstream activity. The delusion that somehow there are two spheres of morality, one for the web and one for the real world is false.  People don’t change when they log onto the internet. Their behaviors do. The shocking lesson we should be taking note of is how many people are only moral if they fear getting caught.  We should be taking note of how many of the people we assumed were good, moral, decent citizens who, when provided some degree of anonymity, offer us sad and disturbing insights into their corpse personality.

Defining Real Relationships

A second major argument in opposition to virtual worlds is the claim that virtual relationships lack real interaction and cannot accurately be counted as real social exchanges.  In a follow up discussion to his post, Sebastian shared the following which I believe does an excellent job summarizing many of the concerns I commonly hear raised:

For me it doesn’t come down to technology or even, necessarily, the people using it, but insead this continued withdraw from face-to-face communication and contact. I appreciate that people find spouses and lovers online, but it’s a slippery slope I think. Where will the virtual relationship stop?

What I’m suggesting is will couples have sex in Second Life? Will family dinners become Second Life experiences because we’re all so busy.

It’s a tough issue, one about which it is difficult to gain perspective .  I feel very lucky. I’m both a digital native and someone who’s interests and experiences have allowed me to analyze the process, it’s impacts, benefits, and the relationships that have come out of my virtual world experiences.  I’ve made real world friends through virtual worlds, spent time in both worlds as first a shy, quiet, geeky teen, and then seen the flip side as a confident, socially competent, social node.

Interestingly, I’ve learned more about people’s social behavior, motivations, and personalities through virtual worlds than I ever have through my communication and sociological curriculum at ASU. To those who believe that it’s not possible to reach out and make meaningful, powerful connections through virtual environments let me ask you this: How many suicidal friends and acquaintances have you been able to help through difficult times? As a guild leader and casual friend there were at least two instances with two separate individuals who I’d never met face to face who I was able to help.  These individuals were able to reach out to me and others within the community in a way they were not able or comfortable to seek help in their real world interactions. They were able to get help, support, and advice.  While I can’t attest to where they phycally live, I can attest to the fact that a year later, both are still alive, have transitioned to healthy states, and become better people.  If a relationship and communication occurring in/through virtual worlds is strong enough to save a life, it has established itself as a powerful and effective medium for interactive communication.

Sebastian asks where do we stop?  My answer is that we need to re-frame the question.  What defines a real relationship?  Physical intimacy is a wonderful and necessary component in romantic relationships. The regularity and duration of that interaction varies widely. Physical connection and presence offers certain instinctual and primal bonding benefits that other forms of communication lack.  The presence, the things we say with our bodies, but which never get formulated into words, and just the general feeling of companionship are all very real.  So, Sebastian’s concerns are legitimate, but I think his question holds its own answer. We are at our core social and communal creatures. That is why the degradation or undermining of those behaviors scares him and others so much. We need companionship and interaction, both physical and social to be healthy and happy. For that reason we’ll always reach out to each other and strive to supplement our remote interactions with physical ones.  Most gamers do this. They meet  and get to know each other through virtual worlds.  They organize physical get togethers and, as a tribute to the strength of the bond made in the virtual world, many gamers travel thousands of miles, sometimes even internationally, to attend conferences, meetings and get togethers.

In a more specific sense, let’s look at relational dynamics. I don’t have the research on hand, but a few years ago a study found that 1 in 8 adults in serious relationships had met online. Initially, I found this information somewhat shocking.  Yet, when I paused and actually thought things through, it makes perfect sense and should give anyone concerned with the loss of face-to-face interaction insight and hope.  Without going in-depth, the internet has been a wonderful tool for single people everywhere. Sites like match.com or craigslist personals have allowed individuals too often confined to seeking love in bars, through groups of friends, or in their workplace to reach out and tap into a near endless world of opportunities.  The acceptability of online dating sites has skyrocketed in the past few years, and their usage numbers are fantastic. Despite all of the opportunities these sites offer, they’re still fairly awkward and do not allow significant interaction. That’s where virtual worlds come into play.

Virtual worlds allow individuals to immerse themselves in a creative, engaging environment with thousands of other individuals all working, interacting and playing together. While dating sites offer compatibility profiles and facilitate a quick chat, individuals who meet their romantic partners through virtual worlds have a huge advantage.  They have the opportunity to spend hours a week together engaged in a co-operative activity while casually and socially chatting about the game, life, and each other.  All the while, games like Everquest and World of Warcraft , which are adventure-based, place these individuals in co-operative, high stress environments and allow them to monitor how they interact with each other and others, giving insights into the views, personality type, and wiring of potential friends. With the advent and widespread adoption of VoIP software like TeamSpeak, a more powerful predecessor to Skype and other virtual VoIP software, real voice-2-voice conversations become both regular and common place.

Does interaction through the internet change a person’s behavior, or are the insights gained a window into core behavior and personality type? Obviously, it’s the latter. The opportunity to observe – access behavior – when external controls are not threatening to “catch you,”  is an accurate way to learn about someone’s core values. Behavior based upon fear of being caught or fear of consequences is not healthy or moral.

I mentioned previously that I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum.  As someone who now enjoys a very active social life, I can say, both from experience and analysis, that one of the things I find truly exciting about virtual worlds and social networks is their power to enable healthy social behavior.  Time is a valuable commodity, especially when you add in a few projects, a 9-5 day job, and the need to sleep.  It makes it very difficult to maintain even a small group of close friends.  Add in one or two additional cliques of good friends and squeezing in regular face-time with more than 20 or 30 casual friends on a monthly basis, and it becomes difficult if not impossible. Until the spread of e-mail it was impossible.  Now add in que, facebook, twitter, friend feed, etc. and utilize the logical evolution of communication – an immersive, interactive, virtual world.

With nearly 600 friends on facebook, I’m able to keep in contact with hundreds of people a month.  These are individuals I’ve met in the last decade during my travels, social activities and academics. All of whom are people I’d happily stop and spend time with.  Social networking tools allows me to maintain my relationships, keep up on current affairs, and to chat/exchange thoughts on a regular basis regardless of their location.  So, while Sebastian and others are fearful that we are losing our ability to interact socially, I would say the exact opposite is happening.  It just LOOKS like our face-to-face interactions have gone down, while in reality they have stayed the same or increased, while our pool of active contacts has skyrocketed exponentially. The exchanges I have with friends over facebook and other social media outlets are often every bit as meaningful, valuable, and rewarding as those shared with best friends on Saturday afternoons. The key is that people interacting and exchanging thoughts and energy is the important part. These tools, and the increased interaction through virtual worlds, allow me to enjoy a significantly richer social experience and network than those who have yet to partake in/embrace digital exchanges.

This post has gotten far too long. I invite you to post your questions and feedback in a comment.  I’d love to explore the concept further with you and answer questions or offer points of clarfication where necessary.