By Lana Cook, Popmatters.com
A Better Version of Me
My Second Life avatar walks unsteadily across the screen. She moves in stops and starts as I clumsily direct the keys. I’m new at this game, unsure what I’m supposed to do with her and where should I go. I scan the suggested destinations in the Second Life universe and head over to “London”, where I once studied abroad in my real life. As my avatar navigates the somewhat familiar streets of this virtual London, I wonder about the reality of what I’ve entered. I am an outsider here, a novice explorer in this virtual realm. Though I sit alone at my computer, in the game I’m surrounded by others. Dispersed across the digital sprawl, these gamers are all invested in the shared reality of Second Life. What is this virtual world I am entering into all about? Am I simply playing a game, or am I entering a new reality?
I’m fascinated by the seduction of virtual worlds. Video games, especially massively multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs) like Second Life or World of Warcraft, allow us to enter into another self, place, and time. You choose or create an avatar version of yourself who lives and grows in the game as you build homes, travel on quests, and make friends. Millions of people across the globe are logging into and participate in these virtual experiences online. Though cultural forms of shared entertainment have long existed, the highly interactive and immersive quality of these games is unlike any book, movie, or song. These games allow us to enter a dynamic alternate reality that may soon transform our lives and even our societies.
Most of us connect to the virtual world of the Internet multiple times a day, spending hours playing games, reading blogs, chatting, commenting, and sharing. We often contrast these virtual spaces with the “real” world, the “world of earth, air, fire, water, and blood that we’ve inherited from our forebears” (Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World, 2007). While the ‘real’ world is seen as material and natural, virtual worlds are computer creations, digital projections of inputs and outputs. But these digital representations are becoming quite sophisticated, both imitating the look of the real world and extending far beyond it into fantastic realms of the imagination. Visually rich, complex and interactive, the virtual worlds of games provide experiences we cannot always attain in the real world.