Turning Terra-NovanJune 25, 2007
That this conference takes place is great, but for most people virtual goods, and paying real cash for them is probably the weirdest thing ever. I’ve chatted with two people in the last week from large global companies, one of whom was in telecommunications, both of whom really struggled to get their heads round the idea, and by that I mean they just couldn’t understand why people do it. Obviously I’m working on a way to explain it, but the first thing I wanted to do was work out why people have such a problem with it, to be fair, I once thought the same way too.
He’s my answer so far, I apologise if it’s all a bit ‘academic’ and Terra Nova-esque (hence the title) but there is a core point which I think is fairly straightforward. That is that people struggle with the idea of ascribing agency to something that doesn’t have it. So when a non-gamer says to a gamer, for example, something like ‘how can you spend so long playing that game it’s not real you know’ what they mean is those bunches of pixels you’re claiming are trying to kill you aren’t, they’re just programmed to do things that look like they’re killing you. Gaming, virtual worlds etc are seen as a step or two up from imaginary friends or playing with toys.
Now maybe this is nothing new, but I think those from the theory side of gaming and virtual worlds need to remember that ‘work’ and ‘play’ might make nice binary opposites in a text book, but in reality ‘not working’ doesn’t equal ‘playing’. The anthropologist Victor Turner in ‘From Ritual to Theatre: the human seriousness of play’ makes a distinction between ‘work’, ‘play’ and ‘leisure‘. I’m sure pedantic readers will point out that ‘work’ and ‘play’ are nouns while ‘leisure’ is an adjective, but I think it accurately captures the nature of leisure-time as leisure activities are often very passive, and the most popular activities tend to involve watching other people ‘work’.
True, there are more active leisure activities like gardening, sports, trekking etc. but when we look at the medium of fictional worlds, most adult leisure time is spent viewing the work of others – reading books, watching film or TV shows, going to the theatre and so on. When it comes to gaming and virtual worlds people have much more active involvement with the fictional world. I believe it is this activity which brings it into the fold of ‘play’ properly. The person at the keyboard has to actively suspend belief – the T-rex is actually trying to eat me and I have to behave as though such an activity is really happening; eg. rather than seeing it as pre-programmed AI, the T-rex’s motive is hunger.
Everybody in life probably ascribes agency to things that don’t have it (see Alfred Gell’s ‘Art and Agency’ for a really good exploration of this) but they’re rarely made public (pets are the exception here!), it’s a particularly modern ideology that sees this behaviour as irrational and superstitious. For example, hardcore fans of TV or film series are often seen as slightly odd because they attribute real emotional states to emotional states portrayed by actors.
In MMOs of course it isn’t all about AIs, people interact with other people through avatars. Yet this still requires a degree of suspension of belief, particularly from an outsiders perspective. To the outsider viewing an MMO, people aren’t talking to each other they’re talking to warriors, wizards, furries etc, in their mind it’s on a par with talking to your friends through their toys rather than directly at them.
So paying real money for items for an avatar looks to outsiders like buying clothes for Barbie! “Why does your avatar need shoes, it’s not like they’re going to get sore feet if they don’t” – the assumption being that is why you purchased shoes for them.
The relationship a person has with their avatar is quite Marxian, it’s all about time and labour – the more time you spend with and doing things to your avatar the more it feels like a part or an extension of you and the more you want to treat it as such. The solution is to get outsiders to actually try it out and this is perhaps one of Second Life’s failings, even with the tutorials beginners often don’t have a clue what to do and why they’re doing it. Sure, that’s not exactly Linden’s fault but many people I’ve spoken to have tried Second Life out and become frustrated after 30 minutes or so and therefore have never experienced first-hand what an avatar is all about.
For more anthropologically inspired virtual world thoughts check out Jen Dornan’s posts on Terra Nova.