Thoughts on life after the PhD
I first wrote about the weird world of virtual existences back in 2003, when NHK ran a story about the increasing popularity of “virtual communities” among Japanese housewives, college students, and lonely singles. That was before Second Life, before World of Warcraft, before even Facebook and Twitter became household words (sheesh, was it really only six years ago?). Here’s what I had to say back then:
In a city like Tokyo, where the masses yearn to escape the daily coffee-commute-work-commute-sleep routine, online gaming has caught on in a big way. One of the more popular kinds of ‘virtual worlds’ involves the buying and selling of virtual real estate and merchandise. Buying a home is a dream that’s out of reach for most Tokyoites–the downpayment alone could be over a million dollars, and that’s for a house that would probably be classified as an apartment anywhere else–but in the virtual world anyone can become a homeowner. After you buy your virtual house (with virtual money obtained from selling virtual goods–anyone else getting dizzy?) you can make additions to it, decorate it, even plant a garden–all from the comfort of your own PC. One housewife interviewed by NHK news admitted to spending up to ELEVEN HOURS A DAY decorating and buying things for her virtual house.
Virtual real estate has become so popular, in fact, that art has started to imitate life–Tokyo is one of the first online communities to be suffering from a VIRTUAL REAL ESTATE SHORTAGE. How something that doesn’t exist in the first place can be hard to come by is beyond me (six years later I realize that it might be an issue of web space), but according to online gamers there just isn’t any more space for them to build their virtual mansions. Thus the birth of VIRTUAL REAL ESTATE BROKERS, people who charge REAL money for virtual land. Prices vary, but the aforementioned housewife says she paid close to 100,000 yen (about US$900) for her virtual land and the house that sits on it. Virtual real estate brokers are raking it in–one admitted to making several hundred thousand yen a month in sales.
As if paying real money for nonexistent land weren’t enough, last week a man was arrested in Tokyo for selling someone else’s virtual house. Seems he hacked into another player’s ID and pretended to be her for several days, finally convincing another player to purchase her virtual house for 50,000 yen (about US$400). When questioned the thief said he needed the money to pay off debts (maybe incurred from spending endless hours in Internet cafes). It may be the first time in Tokyo’s history that a person has been prosecuted for stealing a virtual house.
I used to lump Second Life / World of Warcraft enthusiasts into a category that included furries, Dungeons and Dragons players, and hard-core cosplay fans–harmless, but kind of icky. Having learned a little more about online communities and online games, I realize that players and venues come in many different shapes and sizes and it’s not fair to stereotype them. There is, I think, a crucial difference between 1) logging on to an online game / community a few times a week and 2) spending so much time in virtual worlds that you lose touch with reality and your health begins to suffer. I’ve spent time in online communities and played online games, and it was fun, but I don’t understand the concept of a live lived online. Sure, I’m online several hours a day, but my online activities are pretty mundane–doing school-related research, reading newspapers, exchanging emails, and, all right, watching pointless YouTube videos and looking at pictures of cats. The idea of living in a virtual city, creating a virtual identity, having a virtual relationship, even friending people on Facebook that I’ve never met and am unlikely to meet in the future just isn’t for me.
My way of thinking seems to be going the way of the dinosaur, though. More and more people are choosing to live out otherwise unreachable dreams online. The latest hotbed of virtual activity is China, where an online game called “Audition,” similar to American Idol but for dancers, is all the rage. NPR reports that thousands of young people log on every day to make their virtual characters dance and flaunt themselves in fashionable clothes. If they want the latest clothes and accessories, they have to buy them with real money. And they get extra points when they hook up with a member of the opposite sex, or when someone tells them that they’re good looking.
Pardon me, but how sad is this? You’d think people would venture into an online world to escape the kinds of pressures and exclusion that they feel in the real world, but no–art really does imitate life. The big difference, of course, is that in the online world everyone CAN be gorgeous and fashionable–they just have to pay for it. The geek can be a jock, the chubby girl can be a supermodel. Never mind that none of it’s real.
Or maybe it is. I’ve argued frequently that virtual relationships aren’t the same as those that take place face to face, and I’ll stand by that–but the line between reality and virtuality is starting to get a lot thinner. If your online best friend is providing you with everything you want from a real best friend–praise, support, laughs, understanding, a listening ear–who’s to say that a friend you see face-to-face is really better?
All I know is that the growing dependence on virtual worlds and virtual relationships scares me. It’s part of an overall trend that I find alarming–the absorption of knowledge and meaning through sound bites and quick montages rather than thoughtful reasoning, the creation of ideals of beauty and coolness that can never be matched in the corporeal world, and the desire to retreat into fantasy rather than fight for change in reality.
I’m not calling for a boycott of any kind. I’m not even saying that venues like World of Warcraft and Second Life shouldn’t exist. We all need our little escapes, even dorky ones. I blog, after all–aren’t I attempting to create exactly the sort of virtual “community” that I’m criticizing? Maybe. But it’s different somehow–maybe because I feel that 80% of my daily existence still happens away from the computer. What I fear is the glorification of the virtual at the expense of the corporeal. When the wall is finally breached and we have, as Baudrillard famously described, copies without originals, I think I might start contemplating a move to Bhutan.
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