Saturday, October 07, 2006

Inside Plato's Cave

From The Guardian:
One of them is the journalist Kate Bevan. She says she is "completely addicted" to this hyperreal simulation. "One of the great things about the whole online thing is you can be whatever you want to be," she says. And indeed this is the lure of the 3D online digital world - the notion that you can be whoever you want to be. Your first life may be disappointing, but your second life need not be. You can change gender, be more talkative, or less, or you can have sex (I'm not yet certain how) of the kind you wouldn't dare experience in real life. In Second Life, you can visit Mars (or, rather, an edifyingly detailed simulation of the red planet). You can treat Second Life as a game, similar to earlier computer simulation games such as the Sims series, or you can treat it as a business - although, in fact, some residents are annoyed at the site's growing commercialism. But for many, it seems, Second Life is better than the real world.

"It is by engaging its users in the act of creation that Second Life provides opportunities that are not necessarily available in real life," says Donald Jones, of Georgetown University, Washington, author of I, Avatar: Constructions of Self and Place in Second Life and the Technological Imagination. In Second Life, he argues, users construct personae that are either normative or fantastical.

I have attempted to research, in the past, the desire (often called an 'addiction') to play online games. There isn't much to say about it, to be honest - the more you read about it, the less you know, as there is no real reason to play such games apart from human stupidity.
But I am constantly annoyed by the focus on 'you can re-make yourself'. Can you?
Let's think about what sort of fantasies run wild. Will a racist play out the life of a black person to test their own prejudices? Can you imagine a homophobe roleplaying homosexual relationships with an unwitting partner, just to see if their ideas about such relationships are founded in truth? It seems to me far more likely that people play such games to let their beliefs run wild, free to provoke others and have more leeway to annoy. If a man plays as a woman, folklore says that it is to get halfway through a virtual sexual act and then say, "I have a penis, and now you are a dirty gay".

There is huge freedom in these games, which people think they are exploiting. They can remake themselves in a new image. They can hang around with millions of other people. They can make money and buy designer clothes, and make a house, and invite people. They can cruise gay areas, they can make friends, they can harrass people they dislike. So many physical restrictions are lifted, such as teleportation and body transmogrification. There is less sense of legal boundaries. In many ways, moral codes are lax, as actions will not have consequences in the same way - possibility is so much more mutable in a virtual space.
The biggest freedom, though, is interpretation. Everyone can lie so freely that trust is hard to come by, and is itself suspect. Is your longstanding virtual partner really what they say they are? And this is what is missed. In the vapid talk of vast, social areas where people can be who they want to be, and everything is brilliant, the social implications themselves are being ignored. Not only are you who you want to be, you can assume freely everything about everyone else - suspicions and guardedness are in fact necessary for survival in an everchanging world.
In my view, it is this aspect of the world that is most importance. Let's stop asserting the primacy of self-determination of your avatar's image, and your own personality. Let's look at the vast flipside, which is the way each person will see others as flimsy representations of (mostly) unverifiable realities; both physical and psychological. This is where I think I have found the true reason people play these games, and the true reason why I dislike them.

In Second Life, the gap between actions and consequences are large. The gaps between actions and reasons for doing them are large. And the ability to find out true reasons is severely hampered, so everyone can have the laziest assumptions and beliefs about others and never have to question them.
All actors have immense freedom to choose how they seem, but they, as far as I have ever observed, stick to a set of values that directly comes from their real life and their actual prejudices. Racists are racist, homophobes are homophobes, political conservatives are politically conservative. If they act otherwise, it will be only to mock groups which they define themselves against. And everyone has the choice to act in a way to exacerbate these aspects of themselves - and as the corollary to see others in this way, as interpretation of others is so free and easy.
This is what has gained the reputation of internet arguments as useless. There is no evident truth. And there is no reason to reach a consensus, there are loose groups and conglomerates of people who display similar opinions who are quite free to hate each other, and to intepret other groups however they want. There is no reality in which consensus is needed, as everyone is entirely free to set up their own reality and stay there.

Second Life is better than real life because, to the people there, they can be who they want (although they seem absolutely determined in this, they play 'true to type'). And in a resolutely unreal world they can see others how they want, and belittle them how they want, and ignore them as they want. Second Life is a space where you can choose to learn nothing, just assert your values in an obnoxious way, create in-groups and out-groups, and get away from all the difficulties of the real world.
Decisions? They don't need to be made. Other people? They can't really get in the way. The chance of having to encounter other viewpoints, and make changes to yourself? Only if you really want to go that far.

Virtual spaces are great because all the problems of reality can be resolved by abolishing reality. There is no truth to observe, no need for common understandings based on this truth, and no reason not to base all your judgements on a priori assumptions. You can truly be yourself on Second Life, and stay that way forever. Because who needs to realise that they were wrong? Who needs anything to get in the way of their assumptions and beliefs? The world, it seems, would be preferable to people if their actions just did not matter, and anything was allowed, and other people paled in significance to themselves and what they thought.


Blogger Atum said...

At the point where people prefer digital reality to authentic reality (however we categorise them) we can see something occurring that your post brings to the fore: The disinterested 'thisness' of the avatars reflecting the psychology of the users. I think this is becuase the online world is a model of our beliefs about the real world, in which premiums are placed on being individual and special whilst eliminating responsibility (and I know you agree). What I want to use this comment for, though, is to introduce an idea of Nietzsche's - that we would rather will nothing than not will. This is to say that when we are backed into a corner the we do everything we can to negate what we find threatening, and to this process there is no limit. With this notion we can understand the online worlds as part of a cultural movement in which what threatens us - our ability to realise conservative objectives (money and status) - can be emptied of their difficult aspects and our ability to attain to them re-enabled. We get the good stuff without the bad stuff; the sense of achievement without having to really achieve. Achievement and responisibility (and etc) are taken away, and the gamer is in direct denial of them in seeing his gaming reality as more complete (and, as you describe in this post and in others, the gaming reality is strikingly, cringingly incomplete). If this way of coming at the issue is right, there is no reason why people don't get something of real value from gaming and are rather adapting to the world rationally (given their crappy beliefs) than being maladaptive. Curiously, denial is significant also in describing not only the world of online gaming but also another of your most hated activities - amnesiac self-help. What are your thoughts?

4:49 PM  

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