The Virtual Line

Tobold has an interesting post up today on what he considers the defining characteristic of games: “a game is a risk-free environment in which you can try out various actions for fun or for learning without fear of the consequences, because the consequences aren’t real.”

The second paragraph is this:

As you can see there is a growing trend of “games” turning into “ungames”. There are many reasons for that, one of which is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once you climb up that pyramid high enough, you are leaving the real world needs behind. If somebody’s needs are for status and achievement, he can fulfill that need in a virtual environment, and these virtual environments are usually designed to offer a lot of that status and virtual achievements for less effort than it would take to achieve something in the real world. There are now a sufficient number of people who are sufficiently well-off that they can spend real money on virtual status symbols or game achievements. That is bound to be used by those who are still lower on the pyramid and are just trying to make a buck. The danger is that people become confused about where the border between real and virtual is, which leads to stories like the Chinese guy who murdered a friend who borrowed and then sold his virtual sword.

Hagu knocks it out of the park with the very first comment:

I think “”played” to earn real money” is a bit restrictive.

In real life, if I had a $5 bill, a glass I paid $20 for but with no resale value, and a manuscript I spent 1000 hours creating, then I would be increasingly unhappy with the item being destroyed.

I would regret far more the lost of an item I spent hundreds of hours acquiring than a D3 sword I can sell for $5

The question I want to ask, though, is this: where is the border between real and virtual?

I am not asking that to be cute or contrary. I am literally asking what difference does it make? When have the consequences of a game not been real? Is the emotion you feel by reading fiction different to you than the emotion from an encounter in the real world? Is the frustration you feel at work different to you than the frustration you feel playing a videogame? Anger? Sadness? Disappointment? Embarrassment? Social pressure? Joy? Victory?

One cannot derive nourishment from a virtual apple. A virtual fire will not stave off hypothermia. Beyond that though? How exactly “real” is, say, Security under Maslow’s hierarchy? As any parent, victim of a crime, or survivalist can tell you, security is, at most, a state of mind. A paranoid schizophrenic won’t feel safe in a padded cell; conversely, there are people who voluntarily live in Detroit and St. Louis, the two US cities with the highest violent crime rates as of 2010. If you can feel safe without actually being safe, I think that begins to call into question “consequence-less gaming.”

When I play videogames, I do not think of the stresses of the day, the drama, the frustration with my job, or really anything from the real world. About the only difference between my gaming state and actually having no stresses, drama, or a frustrating job is that, perhaps, the feeling would persist beyond the end of the gaming session. Then again, biologically, we are designed to take things for granted; happiness has diminishing returns. Nevermind that (arguably) the persistence and permanence of anything is just wishful thinking on our parts.

Obviously, the subjective solipsism rabbit hole can get pretty deep.

I am not advocating that virtual relationships are as equally valuable as real ones, all other things being equal. If someone has the choice between a friend IRL and a game friend, I hope you would choose the one whose couch you could actually crash on. I just think it should be recognized that gaming is not really all that far removed from real life as Tobold (or Syncaine for that matter) might suggest. And that the things you experience in your head are as real to you as anything else; phantom limb pain is still pain.

The Chinese guy who murdered his friend over a game item gets our attention because the item wasn’t as “real” as, say, a family heirloom with no monetary value but priceless sentimental value. I’m suggesting that perhaps that is a distinction without all that much difference. Is the attachment to one more real than the other? Is murder more “understandable” over one than the other? The virtual sword isn’t real, but the emotions are.

“It’s just a game.” Sure. That folded American flag is just cloth and dye too. It’s what it means to you that matters. And meaning only exists in your head.

Posted on April 6, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. – It’s just a bunch of pixels!
    – And you’re just a bunch of atoms.


  2. “Is the emotion you feel by reading fiction different to you than the emotion from an encounter in the real world?”

    Yeah. Particularly true for edge situations – death, love, etc. The fictional equivalent carries a dulled emotional charge which, in significant and valuable ways, allows us to examine the nature of the phenomenon better than if we were experiencing it.

    For all the suspension of disbelief, seeing a staged death on film allows me far more detachment than seeing one in real life. Then again, I’m not such a hard man as the average Something Awful contributor, I’m sure.

    Being focused in PvP (or being obsessively undercut on the auction house by a bitter competitor, or what have you) does not bother me as much as being hounded for what I am in real life would. The consequences of all in-game hostility amount to a waste of my time, not injury or emotional wounds, and I can always turn it off. To play is to pretend. Seems fairly obvious, honestly. I am quite surprised at how open-ended and existential this debate has become.


    • Congratulations, by all accounts you are a healthy, well-grounded individual.

      Meanwhile, there are people who lose their shit at the sight of clowns. Why? It holds zero evolutionary value. Still others will read romance novels and experience more romance than they ever could in real life (perhaps missing only the pheromone part of the physiological response). A solider with PTSD dives behind a trashcan when a car backfires. Someone with a fear of heights gets vertigo jumping off a cliff in Mario 64.

      Point being, if you feel anger, sadness, pain, whatever, those emotions are real regardless of the source. Tobold is wrong when he says games have no consequences; they can, and they often do.


      • Point taken on my comments being a little solipsistic in their own right.

        Emotions induced by games are real, but I’m afraid I have to insist that they’re not as intense as where the self is involved and not the alter ego, no matter how good the immersion and self-identification. I cannot claim that no one, anywhere, has ever been powerfully affected by a game, or that games cannot chisel away at whatever psychological fractures we might have, but I do believe I can claim the general case.

        If I sound brusque about this, it’s because a lot of observers have lost sight of the virtual line lately, and give too much benefit of the doubt to those who blatantly cross it.


  3. When it comes to friends the game friend is not much different then the pen pal of years back. In some ways it even offers more joint activity. But in both cases the friend is a real person on the other end vs. a NPC in a game.

    As for the crime people have killed one another for such mundane thnings as calling someone a name, or talking to a girlfriend. RL or virtual life is not as important as the state of mind of the person willing to commit the act of murder.


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