Real vs Virtual: The Coming Great Divide?
From one side, what are important are real world accomplishments—planting a tree, bringing up children, doing a useful job, writing a book. Games, online or elsewhere, can be a pleasant form of entertainment, but accomplishments in them don’t count towards whether you feel that you are, in a metaphorical sense, paying for the space you occupy, the air you breath, whether you will be entitled to die with a sense of accomplishment, a life well lived.
Seen from the other side, real world activities—earning enough to pay for food, housing, an internet connection and a WoW subscription—are merely necessary inconveniences, absorbing time that might be better spent getting your characters to level 80, killing the Litch King, growing your guild.
I put the distinction as real vs virtual because that is a particularly striking version, but the issue is both broader and older than online gaming and first came to my attention in a very different context. I am a long time participant in the SCA, an organization that does historical recreation. Some of my fellow participants are able and energetic people who earn their living at one or another not particularly interesting or demanding job while putting their real abilities, energy, passion into their hobby. Other examples of the same pattern can be found in the worlds of bridge playing, science fiction fandom, “horse people,” and many others. Accomplishments exist in, for the most part only in, the context of the particular game, subculture, activity. Training a horse is a real world activity. But in a world where horses no longer function for transport or pulling plows, it is, in an important sense, no more real than learning to be very good at killing enemy players in World of Warcraft. The point is point encapsulated in the story of the man who explained that he played golf to stay fit. Fit for what? Golf.
I have made the distinction sharper than it really is. When my daughter translated a 15th century Italian cookbook, she was contributing to the SCA game. But she was also adding one more crumb of knowledge to historical scholarship and, in the process, fulfilling a requirement for her college, which had a one month winter term which students were supposed to spend doing approved projects. Even in the case of purely virtual activities, one player’s activity in WoW, building a guild or leading a raid, contributes to the entertainment of other players. Arguably that is a real accomplishment in the same sense that writing and publishing a novel is.
Nonetheless, I think the division is real, important, and based on a disagreement about values, about what matters. It is in that sense a religious division. And it is one that may become increasingly important as improvements in the relevant technologies make possible and attractive something close to a fully virtual life, the experience machine that Robert Nozick described in his Anarchy, State and Utopia. If some people are living most of their life online, getting most of their feeling of worth and accomplishment from virtual achievements, while others continue to base theirs on things done in realspace, how will the two sorts regard each other?