Saturday, December 6, 2008

What is Reality, Part II: Virtual Reality as “Real Life”?

Most of us would probably agree that task-oriented role playing computer games, such as World of Warcraft and Everquest, aren’t real life. In these games, you play as a “character,” acquire objects and go on quests. Examples are World of Warcraft or Everquest”. (These games are of course a real life activity, but the “experiences” of your character aren’t real in the sense that what happens to them doesn’t happen to you: Your character may go on a quest, but you don’t really feel that you did too.)

The line gets a little bit fuzzier with games that are less task focused, and involve activities that resemble real life activities—computer role playing games like the Sims and Second Life. In these games, users create avatars—their representations in the game—who then proceed to do things that resemble real life (with the exception of flying without a plane a few others). Avatars walk around, watch a sunset, travel, meet and interact with other avatars/people, fall in love, have sex, get into fights. In these games, an avatars is, in some sense, the alter ego of the user. Users spend significant amounts of time (and money) perfecting the appearance and style of their avatar. If you’ve never played these types of games, see below for a sample.

People who spend a lot of time in these virtual worlds (is "playing these games" the right phrase?) see their avatars as extensions of themselves, and players report the sense that what happens to their avatars happens to them (Here's an example of firefighter training in Second Life; each person you see on the screen is controlled by an actual human at a keyboard, directing its actions.

Research at Stanford’s
Virtual Human Interaction Lab has found that among 30,000 virtual gamers who spend upwards of 20 hours/week in their virtual worlds, 40% of the males and 53% of the females report that their virtual friends are equal to or better than real-life friends. And, as discussed in my previous post, it’s not only our minds that respond to virtual worlds as if they’re real—our bodies do too. If you’re at the edge of a virtual cliff, your heart rate will increase just as it would at the edge of a real cliff.

In an effort to provide us all in the next step in entertainment, it’s only a matter of time until companies create a cost-effective technology that make virtual worlds more authentic and interactive.

Nintendo’s Wii is a step in that direction. For those of you not familiar with the Wii, check out this ad:

(If you’re not familiar with the Wii, when people move the white remote, they are controlling what happens on the screen: playing a traditional “computer game,” virtually conducting an orchestra, or virtually playing tennis or baseball.) If you ask people using the Wii whether their experience is “real”—you might hear more ays than nays. After all, if their bodies and minds feel that they’ve had the experience, does it matter whether the visual portion of the experience occurred on a screen or monitor?

Once the Wii-type devices become even more technologically enhanced in true immersive virtual reality, the question “what is reality” seems to me to have crossed a threshold into an existential realm (or a psychophysical realm), akin to the question “if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a sound?”