I was playing World of Warcraft – the famous Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) – last night, and became a member of a party of five players in order to complete a challenging dungeon. Normally, journeying together with four other people in a virtual world can be heaps of fun. The warriors hit monsters, the healers heal the warriors, and everybody is having fun together.
Well, not this time.
Halfway through the dungeon, one of the players began spouting some national slurs – “Russia rule you soon”, for one, and “Filthy Ukranian” among others. The response was pretty immediate – after a minute or two of shock, the offending player was kicked out of the party. We found another player in less than a minute and completed the dungeon at our leisure. The remarks, though, left an impression on me and made me think all through the evening about an interesting question: why don’t we see more breaches and break-ins from the physical world into the virtual one?
Perhaps the term “virtual worlds” needs to be better defined. After all, Facebook too is a virtual world, and we see people bringing their problems and biases from the physical world into Facebook all the time. World of Warcraft, though, much like other MMORPGs, is a different virtual world. It’s a simulation, in fact, of a fantasy world filled with dragons, dungeons and real monsters who would like nothing more than to chew on your virtual bones.
This detachment from reality is probably the most important difference between MMORPGs and Facebook: on Facebook, you’re supposed to ‘play’ yourself and emphasize your views on the physical world. MMORPGs, however, are viewed more as vacation-time from reality. You go to MMORPGs to escape the conflicts of the physical world, not to accentuate them. This common understanding among players helps ensure that few incursions between the two worlds occur.
It is also my belief (and I don’t know any research to support it, since the field of MMORPGs has largely been ignore by political and social scientists) that MMORPGs bring into the equation something that we humans sorely lack in the modern ages: an evil enemy. Namely, I’m speaking of the computer that is controlling the world and the monsters in it. Those monsters will kill you if you don’t get strong enough. They are the ultimate evil – they can’t be reasoned with, and you can’t deliberate with them. It’s a kill or be killed environment, in which you have to become stronger constantly just to survive.
Compare this black and white environment to the one we experience in the physical world. In past times, tribal and national leaders tried to paint their enemies with a good vs. evil color palette. Namely: we’re the good guys, and they’re the bad guys. This kind of stereotyping doesn’t really work so well anymore, now that you can read everywhere about the woes and dilemmas of the other side, and realize that they’re humans just like you are. But realizing and accepting this fact requires conscious effort – it’s so much easier to hate, demonize and vilify the other side!
What wonder, then, that players are so happy leaving behind the grey national animosities of the physical world, and fight the good fight in the virtual worlds?
Meaning for the Future
These thoughts are pretty preliminary and shallow, and I post them here only because they are important for our future. In a decade or two from now we will enter a world in which the virtual and the physical aspects become mixed together constantly. As I wrote in an earlier post, wearable augmented reality devices are going to transform every street and every walking lane into a dungeon or a grassland field filled with monsters and treasure.
The virtual world is different from the physical one in many aspects, but one of the most important is that virtual wealth is infinite and priceless. One can find enormous treasures in the virtual world, beat his virtual computer-controlled opponents time after time, and in the future also enjoy virtual love (or at least sex) with virtual entities.
But what is the meaning of life in a virtual world? And since we’re about to experience a mixed-reality world soon, we must also consider: how do we keep on providing meaning and motivation to everyone in it?
It is possible that, based on the lessons of World and Warcraft and other MMORPGs, the programmers of the mixed-reality world will put an emphasis on the creation of true evil: of evil ghosts and dragons, and a perpetual fight for (virtual) survival against those. Maybe then, when we’re confronted by a greater enemy, we’ll be able to overlook our religious, national and racial biases and come together to fight the good fight in a game that will span nations and continents.
Does the future of mixed-reality holds dragons in store for us all, then? One can only hope.