From The Material To The Virtual
By Daniel Landry (Helheart), OnRPG Journalist
Back from school again. As I put aside my coat and backpack and head for the kitchen, I think over the stress of my day. Projects, tests, the usual stuff. I think about what I said to my friends, about the girl I want to ask out for coffee, I think about all the normal things a boy my age worries about, and then put it all aside. It’ll have to wait, for now. I put some leftover pizza in the microwave for a few seconds. While I wait for my afternoon snack to heat up, I let out a sigh of relief.
Home sweet home, as they say. My alcove away from the incessant flow of the world.
Once my food is done, I head upstairs to my room. I take out my textbooks, finish up a bit of math homework, review my notes, and look over the chapters I have to read for my English class on Friday. All is well. The day is done, no more stress,now I can have my fun.
I turn on my computer. Listening to the familiar roaring sound of it coming alive is soothing. Its not the newest model , I’ve had it for a few years. All my games run pretty well on it though, so I don’t complain. I log onto myMSN, and see if any of my friends are online, so we can start up one of our games.
Sweet, my buddy Dave, aka HavokSpear, is online, and so is my friend Alicia, DarkPriestess92. I talk with them, and get them to join my server. Off we go, once again into the world inside a world, with all my worries dissappearing like mist.
Escape artists. We are escape artists, the Houdinis of the real world. When we jump into the virtual, we travel from a material state to a virtual one. We become someone else, less afraid, less inhibited, safe. Often, when I question who I am, what I do, where I need to go, I am afraid. Worried about possible failures and not living up to society’s standards. I feel trapped in my routine, and I need to escape. Like alot of my fellow gamers.
Gamers are, in the best sense of the term, escape artists. In the virtual world, we can create an identity based on our own choices and progress. We can adopt traits that are appealing and reflective of our personalities. We can even customize our appearance! If we could do that in the material world, like X-Men’s Mystique, we would be set.
Piece of the social puzzle
In the virtual world, we can escape the definition of ourselves that we might find unpleasant or boring. We can plunge into the mechanics of a different world, one that works with different rules than the material one. In this world, we can be a very influential part of the environment that surrounds us. We are essential pieces of the common story, and the effects of our choices are quantifiable. If we play our cards right, and become a powerful character with lots of high stats, we can be a fearsome foe or an awesome ally. Who we are is entirely based on the choices we make. This is not the case in the material world.
MMO’s, FPS’s, RTS’s are all games that function thanks to a network of players who look for a challenge from their peers. Consequently, through many trials, we develop bonds and friendships and rivalries. Just the same, you can create enemies, and really, now, in the material world, who has true enemies? There are people that we dislike, some we find disgusting, but rarely anyone to truly call an enemy in the epic gaming sense of the term. These relationships, positive or negative, are developped through a network of gamers who collaborate to hone their skills to be the best, to play with their friends, or to just be able to compete. This collaboration is a positive way to channel your energy in a constructive manner.
Anyone who has a bit of social anxiety or any self-esteem issues in the real world can find a form of release in becoming a character within a world of other characters. Behind our pixelated masks, we contribute to the success of a group of other gamers who share a common goal. The physical distance from the other players, combined with controlled instances of communication, facilitates interaction.
This dynamic is in the spirit of escapism. The goal of network based games isn’t to be the most powerful character (though many strive to do so, and it’s a worthy goal). The purpose of video games is to give the gamer the illusion of escape from material reality while being in a constructed persona, an extension of one’s identity, in a controlled environmental setting. These conditions then allow each gamer, in a network based game setting, to fulfill tasks with other players, and so interact on a social level which differs from the normal conception of socialisation in the material world.
Emergence of a new social structure
One of the things that fascinates me, as an artist, is the notion of identity. Why do we feel the need to transfer our existence into a virtual reality ? Obviously, the fact that we find entertainement through these games, and are perpetually in search of new challenges to test our ability to reason, organize, and fight for survival in a world that’s totally objective, could be used as reason enough to engage in such an activity, but does not satisfy a thorough reflection on the matter.
There are three main reasons that compel us to plunge into the virtual world. Attractive for certain types of personalities, the reasons exist outside of the direct entertainement and challenge argument. The first part of my reflection on this subject,will only be about the first of these three, which is : the social aspect of gaming, reconstruction of identity and cathartic pleasure.
First of all, there’s the change of social perspective that happens with the ability people have to communicate via the internet. If all of history is taken into account, this ability emerged just two minutes ago. It’s a new phenomenon which has interesting repercussions on the structure of society, it forces us to redefine our perspective on how it is structured.
Said another way, this is the birth of the social aspect of being a video gamer, the birth of our ability to create a new identity for ourselves. Enormous communities can be generated around a single occupation, an MMO, or an anime, for example. The gamers/fanboys/fangirls whom actively take part bring these communities to life.
In the material world, we’re often put in situations where we have to interact with people that we dislike, don’t get along with, are uncomfortable around, or just can’t deal with. Often, this is true in the gaming world, but unlike the material world, you can choose your environment, who you team up with to tackle your next quest, which threads you reply to, and who to totally ignore. In the virtual world you have a choice. The freedom to shape your social circle is something that attracts us. A different manifestation of this phenomenon can be found in the example of Facebook and other ‘social media’.
Individual identities in virtual communities
Here’s where it gets tricky. Facebook is a rapidly expanding, scale-free network that allows people to keep up with the interactions of their friends on the website. You make a profile, upload the pictures you choose, and interact in a simulated social setting. You choose who gets to see your life, and can keep up on the life of others. If we substitute the term life with game progress, the same can be said about many network based games. The principal difference between Facebook and a video game is that Facebook identities are constructed as an virtual extension of material events and interactions between people who socialise in the material world. The shape you take on Facebook needs to ressemble your material self because its existence depends on the fact that it can be recognized as being you.
In the virtual world, the extension of one’s identity is entirely dependent on the game in which it exists, it exists according to the rules that shape it. The rules that construct World of Warcraft are different from those in Maple Story, in fact they are completely different levels of network gaming, but the social aspect remains the same. Your identity requires an extension which is dependant on the environment you choose to participate in, but the material being outside of the virtual environment receives the same gratification from social interaction.
Gaming communities also form scale-free networks that organize themselves around a common goal. Their sizes differ, but their methods of organization and communication have concordant structures. WoW has a much larger community than Maple Story, but they function in similar ways. Having group discussions (forums) and forming parties to finish a quest (common goal) is instinctive social behaviour. In the early days of mankind, communities were formed for survival, to be able to hunt together and share the fruits of agriculture, to share legends and stories to explain the unknown, and not to be alone in the chaos of the world.
Different relationships for different worlds
Today, our virtual communities assemble around similar goals. To hunt for items to build your character and amass stats, share the fruits of your labors with guild members or friends who are in need, participate in the sharing of a story which assembles us together. Most importantly however is the need to find friendship and communion in a world of mystery, where there are countless things to discover. Each game, each environment one seeks to conquer becomes a new area of possibility.
In a sense, the thousands of MMO’s, FPS’s, RTS’s, etc, all create a network of possibilities for gamers who search for challenges to take on along with our friends. To test one another in battles which often end in epic ways is a very gratifying way to exerce your skills, almost like the arena combattants of ancient Rome.
The difference is, its not our life, but our pride which is at stake. Sometimes, like in the material world, instances of socialisation can become verbally aggressive, and disrespect is a common issue. However, in this world inside a world, we are all in it together, and to recognize that fact is to take one step further into fully enjoying all the dimensions of the gaming community.This brings me on to my closing point. If any of my readers have noticed by surfing through different forums and discussions, flaming and trash talk is fairly commonplace amongst gamers. Considering previous elements named above, this brings us to a new step in our reflection.
It is easier to insult somebody you cannot see, because the rules which govern our actions don’t have very binding factors, since they are committed in a virtual world. The ease with which someone can create an extension of themselves, join a party to go on a quest, or trash talk someone for no concrete reason is explained by the fact that there are many social elements which are missing. The virtual world is an exponentially expanding structure, containing human minds in constant interaction, governed by slack social ties. The lack of consequences gives us a good look into how people really can be.
The virtual world cannot replace the material one. They are intrinsically linked, and the virtual world, even if it gives the illusion of functioning under different rules that the material one, does not. Our virtual identities are incomplete, because it is impossible to express a full range of emotions through words. Social interaction also consists of body language, tone of voice, ambiant energy and social context. The interaction between the two worlds are governed by the same rules, those which construct reality. In my next article on The Material and the Virtual I will explore the relationship between the two worlds, and elaborate on the second aspect which attracts gamers to network based games, the reconstruction of identity.