Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Addiction or a Proto-Cyberspace?

So I just discovered Shelley Batts' Retrospectacle a little while ago. It's a pretty good read. Recently, though, she's done a bit of work on supposed video game addiction, and a survey intended to measure the extent to which people are "addicted" to WoW.

I threw the scare quotes in there because I'm not quite convinced that most WoW players are any more addicted than Warhammer junkies, D&D players, Civil War recreationists, or anybody else who engages in a slightly geeky hobby. I also wasn't impressed by the questions in the poll, which required extraordinarily subjective judgements from a self-selected population of people who really don't like said hobby.

It got me to thinking, though. The main appeal of MMORPGs is that they serve as the closest thing to the sort of "cyberspace" or "metaverse" that you always saw in science fiction back during the cyberpunk years. Unlike the rest of the internet, which generally reads as the world's most gigantic interactive magazine, they feature avatars, virtual spaces, and all that lovely crap that Gibson and Sterling were on about. Generally the "verbal" interaction is limited to text, but even that's changing with the growing predominance of VOIP networks in high-level play. This (as well as the growing popularity of Second Life and its branded counterparts, like that MTV Laguna beach thing) suggests that it's one stage of the evolution of the internet into "cyberspace".

That is, if that interpretation is correct. The other way that people engage the Internet, especially recently, is as an augmentation of the real world, rather than as a seperate place altogether. There's no seperate "cyberspace" for Facebook or Myspace or MSN users; it augments the connectivity of their pre-existing life and their pre-existing identity. These people might play Warcraft or fart around in Second Life or whatnot, but it's not anywhere near as important a watershed for them, because the point is not a virtual space, but this increased connectivity.

The former interpretation of the Internet's role was far more common back in the early days of public participation in the Internet, and formed the foundation of that whole "wild west" thing that dominated it at the time. Since it was a different realm with different rules, people tended to adopt those rules and change their identity and personae to fit that realm. Freedom of speech was king, ideas were seen as more important than credentials, and "civility" was for n00bs, so people tended to adopt pseudonyms and jump into the freewheeling, flaming, endless discussion/argument that was (say) Usenet or IRC or whatnot. They also played "MUD"s, "MUCK"s and "MOO"s, all of which were virtual, textual realms where avatars interacted with other avatars. They are reinforcements of the virtuality of this other electronic world.

(Online games like EverQuest or World of Warcraft are just further advancements of these concepts. Everquest was really just a graphical version of a type of MUD called a DekuMUD, and World of Warcraft is a heavy refinement of the EQ concept.)

And, yes, this sort of attitude is still powerful today, but the "augmentationists" have come in like gangbusters. Often using their real names and being (almost embarrassingly) frank about every aspect of their lives, they use the medium to connect with one another and express themselves. They expect the online world to work like the offline one, except more so. They want to talk to each other, so they get VOIP and a bazillion networking sites. They want a soapbox, so they publish their diaries online as weblogs. (Ahem.) They want to watch and make TV, and look into each other's lives, so they get Youtube. They want to know who they're talking to, so they mercilessly attack anybody who dares to use a pseudonym.

(Whatzisname is an arch-augmentationist, for example; heavy self-promoters usually are. Their notoriety is useless in virtual spaces, and many loathe the very idea of anonymous critics, as they can't leverage differences in notoriety to crush "upstarts".)

And they want all this to augment their already-existing offline lives, so they want the Internet on a cell phone, so they don't have to sit at a computer.

Obviously, these are generalizations, but I think they speak to why MMORPGs tend to be so divisive and at the same time so compelling, without resorting to the "addiction" crutch. The latter group will play the games, but since it's a virtual world, not an augmentation--you're interacting with people you don't know in real life in an obviously virtual space--it really isn't going to be that compelling. Its unreality will be a major turn-off, and you won't understand or appreciate why someone would like these virtual worlds and these pseudonymous friends. You might think "well, it's fun running around being an elf", but there's no way in hell you'd have the tolerance for raiding. Or, for that matter, for raiders.

On the other hand, spending three or four hours a day reading, writing, and compulsively checking Facebook et al is no big deal, and neither is spending all day talking on the telephone or typing away on the ultimate augmentationist accessory: A BLACKBERRY. Yeah, Berry "addicts" might be outside and theoretically interacting with people, but have YOU tried getting one's attention? They're lucky if they don't ram into a wall.

My opinion? There needs to be some perspective here. If you're on Facebook all day, except when you're typing away on your Berry, you aren't really that much better than that smelly person who sits in his room and plays WoW all day. You're still on the damned Interwebs, typing away when you could be doing something productive. Both groups need to get a little insight and a little balance, but both have a point: the Internet is not quite a place, nor quite a medium, but somewhere in between. There is a place for real-name interaction like with Facebook, but it shouldn't be required: you abandon the ideal of pure, unencumbered ideas and egalitarian debate at your own peril. Berries are fun, but you should be able to turn them off.

And sometimes, just sometimes, people play games together because killing Internet Dragons is fun.

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