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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.