Thursday, March 08, 2007

Do we need a Second Life?

For awhile now, I've been confused and fascinated by the online gaming industry, and the rather disturbingly named "Second Life", which seems to be the new big thing in having another life online.

Today, my interest was piqued yet again, by this article on the BBC website. Apparently, these MMOs -- Massively Multiplayer Online games -- will be expanding in the next few years, and we can expect them to become more and more complex and realistic and engrossing in the process.

I've darted around to different sites, including : Second Life's homepage, a more easy-to-read and yet surprisingly revealing USA Today article , and a rather interesting LA Times article that considers a "revolutionary" group within the online world.

I feel impressively ambivalent about online "life" games. the part of me that has been technologically involved since a relatively early age finds this fascinating, exciting -- down to the possibility of changing the very nature of what it means to live in the world. A lot of my friends do online gaming, and if I didn't have so much work, I might be involved as well. It wouldn't be the first, either -- I was a frequent commentator on a fan website at the age of 16, a time when my online interests were easier to deal with -- and a good bit more intellectually stimulating -- than my peers. I was lucky -- we know all too well in this world that a naive kid on the internet can get into a good bit of trouble, where all of my experiences were very innocent and intellectual in nature (mythology discussions and the like).

But a part of me worries. I guess I pause in a world where a million dollars are being spent on "virtual" things. And when online "revolutionaries" are narrating the story of their own heroic quest "to make the world better" I can't help but wonder -- isn't an online world always predicated on having the possibility of the technology and literacy it takes to engage those very games? It seems unlikely, then, that these "utopias" can ever actually be utopian for anyone except those who have disengaged from the possibility of improving the actual world that we live in. From helping real people. From fighting real wars and changing the responses of real people to globalizing corporations.

Are other people thinking about this? Does it scare anyone else? I know I'm being simplistic, I'm privileging the "real", and I'm discriminating against people who, for reasons that widely vary, want to have this opportunity to have a "Second Life."

But where does that end? When virtual worlds overtake television, and people construct whole lives built in cyberspace, what happens to the "human"? More importantly, what happens to those we leave behind, to those who can't afford this "Second Life." Don't we owe something to the world we live in? Shouldn't we focus on changing the life we have before we build a new one? Helping real people before we create "avatars" for ourselves?

What are the ethical obligations of those who can have a "second life" to those who are (technologically, ideologically, economically) excluded from it?

So after a conversation with a friend directly after this post, I was given a bit of an insight: is a virtual world any different, in the end, from being in academia? We say we're important, that we engage the real world -- but the key difference is our interlocutors are either other academics or (in my case at least) authors who lived and died when our language didn't even look like this. Users of Second Life, in the end, are still real people interacting, even if they are doing so "virtually".

I stress again that I don't really know how I feel about all this, from Second Life to grad student life (which rather lets go of a first life, in favor of one that is lived in the library) but then -- I guess I'm still trying to decide what I believe in, about academic work and about my own work in particular. I still believe that literature has something to say. I just wonder where, when and to what end we know how to hear it.


Dr. Virago said...

This isn't a coherent response so much as a set of associations, so take it as you will...

For some reason Second Life reminds me of the ladies and gentleman in The Decameron who were able to escape the plague because of their wealth, to live to tell stories, many of which were about the kind of people who wouldn't have been able to escape as they did.

Which is to say, if a contemporary MMO reminds me of Boccaccio (heh, that rhymes), then maybe literature does have something to say in its own virtual ways. And it's not just becuase I'm a medievalist, because I read The Decameron in college and was intrigued by it from the start.

So there are things both potentially positive and problematic with the imaginative worlds of literature and gaming.

That's all I've got at the moment. Brain is fried from proofreading and indexing.