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Virtual Worlds on the Radio

June 8, 2007

I’m listening to Radio 4‘s book of the week at the moment, Tim Guest’s ‘Second Lives‘.

I’ve read a fair few books on MMORPGs/Virtual Worlds some of which have been very good, like T.L. Taylor’s ‘Between Worlds‘ and Edward Castranova’s ‘Synthetic Worlds‘ (of course), and some of which have been less so. The best books on the subject tend to be the more academic texts because of the depth of research that goes into them. For example T.L. Taylor’s book details her findings from her ethnographic study of Everquest which goes well beyond the usual virtual world cliches and expectations.

Tim Guest’s book seems to be more journalistic in nature which means that some of it comes across as a little sensationalist, (the blurb describes VWs as the ‘latest internet craze’ and uses the term ‘addiction’ rather liberally for my liking) especially the passages on the relationship between cyber-crime and real and virtual warfare.

I also have to admit that generally I can’t stand the tone of voice the readers use on Radio 4 especially the hammy American accents. That aside, from the first of four 15 minute excerpts I listened to it seemed to be coming across as a fairly balanced view of the benefits and negatives of virtual worlds. Then I heard the second excerpt (Tuesday) in which Tim compares virtual worlds with the idealistic worlds envisioned by various social movements through the ages. Then I listened to Wednesday’s excerpt son cyber-crime which was easily the best anti-MMORPG advert I’ve ever heard coming across as something out of a bad American crime drama. I imagine the average Radio 4 reader will have been thoroughly put off even trying one out as it completely fails to mention that the kind of cyber-crime discussed is very, very rare. At this point I realised I was going to hear the same old ‘tabloid headline’ crap we’ve all all come to expect from the media, just in a little more detail.

The thing I feel these excerpts really fail to do is inform the listener about the general day-to-day activities and social aspects of virtual worlds, focusing on the extreme cases (run away kids making a living by stealing virtual goods, husbands hijacking their wives accounts and faking their suicide to influence a real-life court case and so on).This means that Tim makes all kind of statements about virtual worlds that are just plain wrong. he describes VWs as ‘addictive enchantment’ that people are ‘reluctant to come home to their flesh’ and that ‘responsibility is neutralised’ and ‘self is set free’. He then goes on to tie this in to the use of other mediating technologies and the ‘problems of modernity’, that people ‘yearn to leave the real world behind’ that we’re ‘in doubt about our feelings’ that we’re ‘blocking out the world…with books…. medication… anti-depressants’.

Firstly, there has never been an age in which people have been doubtless about their feelings, does Tim really believe that pre-industrial peasants spent their days debating their inner emotions in some pastural idyll? Most virtual world users aren’t looking to escape the world anymore than somebody who reads a book is. Yes, it’s probably true that more people have more leisure time than previous ages, but it is naive to suggest that this represents some sort of crisis of humanity and to implicate virtual worlds in this is verging on the absurd.

Secondly, from what I’ve experienced people who play in virtual worlds are very aware of their RL identities, particularly as most people are involved in communities, like guilds or political or activist groups (a phenomenon the excerpts don’t touch on at all), where behavioural norms are expected and cultivated. Yes virtual worlds are about escapism but they are not so distanced from reality that the real-world becomes meaningless or unimportant.

Maybe these issues are discussed in more detail in the rest of the book, and there’s only one way to found out. I’ll let you know what I think when I’m finished.

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