Sunday, November 28, 2010

Real vs Virtual: The Coming Great Divide?

Humans divide along many lines—gender, politics, race, religion, football teams. Another division is, I think, becoming increasingly important, one defined by what things matter: Real vs Virtual.

From one side, what are important are real world accomplishments—planting a tree, bringing up children, doing a useful job, writing a book. Games, online or elsewhere, can be a pleasant form of entertainment, but accomplishments in them don’t count towards whether you feel that you are, in a metaphorical sense, paying for the space you occupy, the air you breath, whether you will be entitled to die with a sense of accomplishment, a life well lived.

Seen from the other side, real world activities—earning enough to pay for food, housing, an internet connection and a WoW subscription—are merely necessary inconveniences, absorbing time that might be better spent getting your characters to level 80, killing the Litch King, growing your guild.

I put the distinction as real vs virtual because that is a particularly striking version, but the issue is both broader and older than online gaming and first came to my attention in a very different context. I am a long time participant in the SCA, an organization that does historical recreation. Some of my fellow participants are able and energetic people who earn their living at one or another not particularly interesting or demanding job while putting their real abilities, energy, passion into their hobby. Other examples of the same pattern can be found in the worlds of bridge playing, science fiction fandom, “horse people,” and many others. Accomplishments exist in, for the most part only in, the context of the particular game, subculture, activity. Training a horse is a real world activity. But in a world where horses no longer function for transport or pulling plows, it is, in an important sense, no more real than learning to be very good at killing enemy players in World of Warcraft. The point is point encapsulated in the story of the man who explained that he played golf to stay fit. Fit for what? Golf.

I have made the distinction sharper than it really is. When my daughter translated a 15th century Italian cookbook, she was contributing to the SCA game. But she was also adding one more crumb of knowledge to historical scholarship and, in the process, fulfilling a requirement for her college, which had a one month winter term which students were supposed to spend doing approved projects. Even in the case of purely virtual activities, one player’s activity in WoW, building a guild or leading a raid, contributes to the entertainment of other players. Arguably that is a real accomplishment in the same sense that writing and publishing a novel is.

Nonetheless, I think the division is real, important, and based on a disagreement about values, about what matters. It is in that sense a religious division. And it is one that may become increasingly important as improvements in the relevant technologies make possible and attractive something close to a fully virtual life, the experience machine that Robert Nozick described in his Anarchy, State and Utopia. If some people are living most of their life online, getting most of their feeling of worth and accomplishment from virtual achievements, while others continue to base theirs on things done in realspace, how will the two sorts regard each other?


At 3:08 PM, November 28, 2010, Blogger Richard Y Chappell said...

Tangentially: there are a couple of important differences between shared virtual worlds and the Nozickian experience machine (e.g. only the former involves interacting with real people), as I discuss more here.

At 4:10 PM, November 28, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

I agree that interactions with people make a difference. If I had been writing a much longer essay I would have raised the distinction between "human social interactions are what matter" and "affecting the material world is what matters." My real/virtual distinction is less relevant on the first view than the second.

At 4:32 PM, November 28, 2010, Blogger NCLu said...

But in this theoretical future, what is more real/meaningful, a virtual world relationship with another human on the other end, or a physical space relationship with a sufficiently advanced AI robot?

At 8:43 PM, November 28, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is also the realm of virtual games that involve real world interactions between players (WoW certainly has it). I am thinking specifically of the IED and Convoy training using virtual simulations to train troops. In these, it appears, that the virtual activity produces an increase in the real world skill set that is greater than that available from using only real world training. - CT Alderson

At 5:12 AM, November 29, 2010, Anonymous Henry said...

I think it ultimately boils down to sex. Well, evolutionary success at least. Games presumably help in some way (they have to, right?) but the recent advances in virtual reality are evolutionarily novel and can thus be counter-productive to evolutionarily success (triggering the brain's reward centre by tricking it into thinking you had performed some evolutionarily useful task).

At 6:20 AM, November 29, 2010, Anonymous Paul said...

I not sure that at a fundamental level there is a difference in kind. In the sense that its "really virtual" and "real world experience" takes place in the mind. I would think that the division will continue to blur as technology improves.


At 8:47 PM, November 29, 2010, Blogger jimbino said...

You leave me fantasizing about playing with the virtual blow-up doll.

At 7:05 AM, December 01, 2010, Anonymous js290 said...

Relevant TED talk.

At 10:23 PM, December 04, 2010, Blogger John Fast said...

I'm a moderate: I believe the material world *and* human social interactions both matter. I suspect it is a utility function: U(m,h)=(m^α)(h^β). It's probably even Cobb-Douglas (i.e. β=1-α).


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