Monday, January 7, 2008

Real vs. Virtual Communities

Upon my return to school this past fall, I found Second Life installed on the computers in the language lab. When I asked about the appearance of Second Life on school computers, I was told that a French course required the students to set up a Second Life account so that they would be able to converse with other native French speakers. There are clear benefits to be able to speak to others, but a number of people are not using Second Life as a tool or game, rather taking on a new life in this virtual world. The question I asked myself then was what is the appeal of these types of games for those people who have taken on virtual lives?

It is amazing that these virtual realms have so strongly imitated some of the facets of real life that people have picked up a new life in a new virtual realm. Because of the depth of many of these games, emulating the sense of community, population (where hundreds of thousands of players are signed on at any given time), and economy/social status, people are drawn to these virtual realms. Many people are so dedicated to the role they play in these virtual worlds putting real money into their virtual characters.

Virtual worlds have crossed a barrier where they closely simulate real life. Full economies are created in many of these virtual worlds. In May 2007, it was announced that one player paid $60,000 USD for the rights to run a bank in the Entropia Universe, a world similar to Second Life. On their website it is advertised that “The Entropia Universe is more than a game. The Entropia Universe is for real. Real people, real activities and a Real Cash Economy in a massive online universe.” The ability to closely emulate real life is the attraction of alternate life games such as Second Life. The economies of these games strongly support the idea of “I” Laura Pappano brings up in her book, “The Connection Gap”. The only real task in Second Life appears to be building a house and dressing up your character. In the real world, people’s mentalities have changed where the self is more important than the community and the shift in what people regard as important is reflected in the virtual realm. In browsing the Second Life website, there are fashion styles in the game, and surely fashion serves as a status symbol in the virtual realm as it does in the real world. The real money system appeals to our self-oriented perspective, but we can also find that people are building communities in these virtual worlds.

The attraction of online games is two-fold. There is the monetary component which appeals to the “I” mentality, and the social component. While Pappano would be skeptical to define as a real community, communities do exist in these online realms. I believe that communities are formed because of a goal in which a group is needed to achieve such a goal. In today’s societies, we lack a common goal, at least at the neighborhood level, and the sense of community is lost. However, games do have a common goal, and bonds do form over this virtual medium. It is the game which brings the people together. The collection of people is not enough to classify the group as a community. Pappano points out that the real world is similar - a group of people may come together for a business conference, but this is far from a community. However, when people are brought together in such a way, we can begin to extend our network and sense of community. We can see this in the real world and in the virtual world as well. Surprisingly, I was met with a strong sense of community in the online games I have participated in. Usually within these huge masses of online players, there are many smaller, tight-knit groups. In combination of voice chat, players can quickly become friends. I found that the topics of conversation can range from the game to daily life. The more causal conversations led to a greater sense of community. It was common to see the same 10 people on a daily basis. Pappano reveres these seemingly insignificant interactions, describing her speaking with her local grocery. To Pappano, these types of interactions are what are missing in today’s society. I feel that people are still looking for these connections, but they are actually looking for deeper connections. For this very reason, people are attracted to these types of games because of the social aspect, which becomes apparent when every game touts the number of “Residents” or subscribers to the game. Although there are aspects of gaining social status within these games, it is the emulation of real life and the community aspect that ultimately drives the success of Second Life type games.

Pappano most likely would call any virtual connection a degradation of real human connections. However, I do believe that the connections we make in these virtual worlds can be rich and involving. I would imagine that those who “play the game” believe that their interactions are as genuine as any real life interaction. Spending several hours everyday with another person, even if it is online, surely builds a connection between the two. In fact, the interactions these players have with each other are likely to be more significant than the interactions we have at the gas station or supermarket. Pappano’s definition of interaction is rather traditional – a face to face encounter with another person. Technology has opened up the definition of interaction to go beyond the face to face meeting.

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