Fuzzying Up Reality

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The New York Times has an article today describing one particular hardcore gamer (free registration required).

In it, we have the tale of an underemployed computer person with pronounced a less-than-successfully fulfilling real life but a great virtual one.

You do get the impression that the journalist is pursuing the freak aspects of the story, and emphasizing the sociopathic angles, but the more I think about it, the less I see any difference between this and joining a softball league (or bowling league, or chess, or a million other things)?

OK, maybe two or three softball leagues. 🙂

One might say softball is “real” while a game isn’t, but how “natural” is softball, anyway? There are no Neanderthal, or Cro-Magnon, or Egyptian, or Chinese or Roman or Islamic softball bats and balls. Indeed, with fairly few exceptions, what we call sports today is crammed into the last 2% of the history of civilization.

Gaming diverts people from reality? What game doesn’t? It keeps you from becoming a success in a career? Careers are much pretty artificial social constructs, too, and from the perspective of seeking true personal satisfaction, making money to buy things often differs little from trying to finding some weapon or other bauble in a game.

Obviously, one rather compelling advantage the real world has over the virtual is that if you don’t make enough money for food, shelter, and broadband, the virtual world ends for you pretty quickly.

But once you get past that (and it’s not inconceivable that one could have a real “work element” in a game for which people get paid real money), if personal and social satisfaction are what is important to a person, it’s hard to say that a virtual success isn’t any less real than a real one.

It isn’t real. Let’s look at real for a moment.

Before modern technological society, the vast majority of people were never going to be important and powerful as the world measured it, and they knew it. It was beaten into them from birth, by whatever social structure they lived in.

What has occurred over the past few centuries is that people’s lives have improved immeasurably, but their expectations have jumped up even more.

No society can make everyone truly important and powerful. Importance and power are not absolute, but relative terms in the real world.

So what’s the answer? People try to find little niches where they can have their own moments of glory, but in the context of the real world, being on the championship team in the local softball league is just as “fake” as doing the equivalent in Unreal Tournament.

Whether it is a clan or a softball league or membership at an elite golf club, a social construct is a social construct. So long as enough people give it social value, it is socially “real” and “important” to those who do.

So far at least, these virtual worlds still resemble the real world social constructs. The only real difference is that they are far more meritocratic; no one can rely on inherited wealth or power to get an edge.

But just like the real world, not everyone can be important and powerful. The core social rules and constraints still apply.

What concerns me most about virtual worlds is not people inhabiting a different world, but the eventual prospect of them being able to create their own. Millions or billions of worlds where every man is a god, every man is the law.

It’s the logical endpoint of self-fulfillment, and the ramifications of that scare me.

If everyone gets to be a god, what will they be like when they come out of that little world? Do they come out of it? Will we find ourselves forcibly sticking people into such a world when they’re too socially inconvenient to deal with in the real world?

What happens to “us” when everyone is totally absorbed being “me?”

Such a world is a long ways away. But some of you reading this could see the beginnings of it when you’re old, and if not, your children likely will.


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