Essays

The Benefit of Virtual Living? Reality Doesn’t Last

Screenshot from World of Warcraft (image from boingboing.net)

If a meteor destroyed all of Queens, we’d probably be pretty freaked out. But might a virtual dragon destroying a virtual city ultimately upset more people? In an article entitled “Cataclysm Coming…” author Tom Chatfield explores what the update means to the denizens of World of Warcraft (WoW), the popular multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). To the inhabitants of an enormous virtual world, population 11.5 million, the coming update, called Cataclysm, will be a revolution. Sure, the game isn’t actually real, but aren’t there ways in which living virtually surpasses physical reality? To start off with, everything makes sense and nothing dies.

Screenshot from World of Warcraft (image from boingboing.net)

Chatfield writes that the Cataclysm update is unlike other patches (structural changes to the game) in that rather than adding another virtual world to explore, Cataclysm will integrate “its changes into the basic nature of the game,” downplaying the grinding process of leveling up to give characters greater abilities and emphasizing social interaction and virtual events. These changes, as insignificant as they seem to non-initiates, mean everything to WoW players. The experience of the game has become an enduring part of players’ lives, as real as the physical reality. Chatfield explains his and his wife’s own involvement:

On our main characters alone, we’ve spent almost four months of real time [in WoW]. This is a geography we know more intimately than almost any part of the real world outside of greater London.

Chatfield and his wife have played WoW for over six years. The real and the virtual seem to overlap perfectly within their lives, which are spent both online and not interchangeably. For Chatfield, there is little distinction between a virtual experience, this “intimate geography,” and a physical one. The rewards of living virtually are an investment in a new, unexplored world, one both outside of reality and right next to it, existing simultaneously, and the possibilities of the new experiences and emotional involvements therein. Chatfield writes that has avatars (WoW characters) “may themselves be ten years old by the time I get around to creating any real progeny,” virtual children not replacing but supplementing real ones.

Screenshot from World of Warcraft (image from boingboing.net)

“We play games,” Chatfield says, “because their miniature worlds are places where everything makes sense: where effort brings rewards, where neither we nor the place ever grows old.” This is virtual reality as utopia, virtual worlds so complete and so rewarding that they are whole within themselves. No MMORPG character yet grows old uncontrollably, and the world is fairer than our own. As WoW grows its own persistent history, its world will become ever more complex and ever more real in the sense of being complete. And nothing ever goes away. Sure, the game is pay-to-play, but even if you stop your subscription, “your avatars will remain, neither aging nor decaying, waiting for you to reactivate them whenever you decide you’re ready.”

Cataclysm will change World of Warcraft in that the virtual world will become even more self-contained, even more perfect as a fulfillment of a new social world. I think as we bring more and more of our lives online, and synch our online lives ever more to our real ones through virtual/physical portals like iphones, we will find that we all live in hybrid universes. We’ll spend time in perfect digital spheres with perfect rules and integrate those microcosms into our messy lives in reality. It’s Gary Shteyngart’s paranoia, but writers like Chatfield show us that the intersection of the virtual and the digital isn’t about losing touch with sensual experience or emotion, just readjusting them to new arenas of existence, with their own intimate geographies.

The part of WoW’s world destroyed by the dragon in Cataclysm is called “Booty Bay.” It may not mean anything to the majority of the real world, but to some, it’s an intrusion and a new addition into their own perfect universe.

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