Especially since the Look Up video made the rounds earlier this year, I’ve been aware of denigrating remarks about gamers and people who do other things virtually. Ironically, a lot of these have shown up on Facebook. A few have taken the form of, “Why would I do X online, when I can go out and really do it?!” I think that misses the mark in a few ways. Sometimes the online version is the only one available or possible. The online version can augment physical experiences for people who enjoy both. Some things that seem similar on the surface might be different but compelling variations. Occasionally online experiences can offer improvements on things from the physical world.
It’s much more fun to ride a horse in the offline world than in Second Life. The two experiences aren’t comparable. But if I wanted to ride a horse today, what could I do? I don’t own one nor do any of my local friends. So, I search the web for stables that offer public riding and aren’t too far away. There is one, and only one, that isn’t too far away. Do they have a website? Yes! It turns out they only offer lessons, not open riding. Well, phooey. I sign into SL, search for “horseback riding”, teleport to the first link that comes up, climb into a saddle, rez my own horse and control HUD, and in less than a minute from sign-on, I’m trotting along the trails on a Palomino.
Of course I’m not getting the full sensation of riding a horse, but there can still be exhilaration and fun in it. For some people, that might be the closest they ever get to horseback riding, for reasons ranging from location or finances to ability or size. For those who have the option to ride in the offline world, riding in SL can still be a fun way to spend time alone or with friends, to imagine and dream, or to remember times they’ve ridden in the past. Riding enthusiasts can share their passion by creating virtual horses, stables, and environments in which to enjoy them.
I will never parachute off the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I’ll never spacewalk outside a station, run along a deep sea floor, race a motorcycle, or dance a perfect tango. I’ve done them all in Second Life. Just because there is a physical analog doesn’t mean that everyone can do it or wants to do it. Using an avatar to be immersed in a virtual world and allow imagination to fill in the gaps is more exciting than watching someone else do it on TV.
I enjoy live theater sometimes. A couple weeks ago I went to a show at a gorgeous theater in Detroit. The performances were excellent and we had fun, but the rows of seats were very close together. It distracted from our enjoyment to have no room for our knees though none of us is particularly tall, and we ended the evening by shuffling out of the building in a thick crowd and then sitting in traffic in the parking garage. Compare that with our experience seeing Paradise Lost in Second Life in spring. I was able to attend with friends regardless of our locations in the real world. I could stretch out my legs and sit as comfortably as I liked. We had fun wearing the provided avatars and being part of the performance, which took place all around us in lush sets. I was able to discretely snap photographs to share with a friend who couldn’t join us. There were a few small technical glitches as can be expected in something that complex and resource-intensive, but the overall experience was excellent. When we were done, we simply teleported back to our homes. Another factor: tickets for our nosebleed balcony seats for the live musical were over $80. A ticket to Paradise Lost costs $4.05 at today’s exchange rates. (If you haven’t seen it, Paradise Lost is playing a second season and tickets are on sale now.) In both SL and RL, those were opportunities to see the work of creative and dedicated people who spent months preparing for a live performance, and to share the experience with friends and in the community of many others. Attending one doesn’t devalue the other: we live in a time of abundance when both are available.
I have an unending but never achieved goal of integrating meditation into my daily routine. Sometimes I remember to practice at home, but I’m not making much progress on this goal. Being shy and not Buddhist, I don’t want to attend meditation groups in the physical world, but years ago I discovered some sanghas in Second Life that offer group meditation. When my schedule allowed me to attend silent meditation there, it was truly peaceful and effective. Having my avatar sit in a quiet group with birdsong in the background quieted my body and mind. It can seem counter-intuitive that an avatar experience is a good way to connect to such an internal practice, but it is. Others have found that virtual worlds are safe spaces to treat PTSD and some mental illnesses. There are places to meditate and to treat those conditions in the offline world, but in some cases, the virtual can be a better option and not merely a substitute.
So yes, sometimes virtual world residents do things that could be done in the offline world as well. It’s not always an either/or situation, but when it is, we have valid reasons ranging from “it’s fun” to explanations that are complicated and poignant. It’s simplistic to judge merely because there is an offline analog.