I spent most of junior high and high school in my head, preoccupied with bits of songs and images and ideas that drifted, connected, and broke apart. By the time I was in my early teens, my daydreams were mostly fantasy-adventure related, centered around the pen and paper role-playing games that I was playing in or running, and the rules that constrained them.
I was a prime candidate for RPGs – and later, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). They provided escapism, stress relief, and a lot of pleasure in my teens and into my twenties, but I ultimately came to believe that they’d done as much harm as good in my life , which leads me to Oculus Rift, and Facebook’s billion player MMO.
What Does it Mean, to Live?
I’m not quite ready to take on the meaning of life: it may (!!!) be too big a question for a thousand word essay, written in my pajamas.
What I’m fairly sure of, though, is that it’s important to be present. A life well-lived is full of genuine connections – not just with people, but with things and ideas, and your own body. The two-way current of these connections changes us, and that’s the stuff of life. It can be hard, even counterintuitive, depending on how much your natural state is to live in your head, and there’s no promise that the life of the real will be better than the life of the imagination – only that the former offers meaning and purpose in a way that the latter cannot, and the two work best in balance.
So what does it mean, to be present? It means doing a lot of listening and thinking, but also acting. It means trying not to kid yourself about who you are, and trying to see and understand the people around you. It means bringing to bear a certain level of conscious reflection: an active awareness of the life that’s behind you, ahead of you, and that you’re living, right now. It means putting yourself out there. It means not getting distracted.
What Does it Mean, to Play an MMO?
I stopped playing pen and paper RPGs because I knew fewer and fewer people who played, and I was becoming disenchanted with what they represented. I took up MMOs in no small part because I could play them by myself. I wanted to run the role-playing part of my life on a separate track: to keep it, but keep its power in check – to help me live in the world. For a long time, it worked pretty well. It still does – these days I just put the creation and consumption of written narrative first.
I’ve written about online gaming before, from a slightly different angle. It’s a tempting proposition: a world with defined parameters, where success, given enough time, is guaranteed. The illusion of challenge is maintained, and the trappings. Skill is required, but only in the form of practice and cursory study. Within the context of the virtual world you are heroic, or villainous enough to give pleasure but not provoke anxiety. There may be puzzles, but if you can’t solve them you can find the answer, online. Death is an inconvenience, rather than a true impediment. Playing an MMO means living – for a time – in a world that runs parallel to our own, but where success is assurred.
The billion player MMO could take that paradigm to the next level. All of it exists, today: virtual adventures, virtual stores, virtual life. A billion player MMO would offer a connecting platform and a shared ruleset. Whether its execution is through Facebook and Oculus Rift, or some other entity, the extension of our virtual lives is inevitable.
The Price of Virtual Reality is Vigilance
I don’t think we’re headed for Snowcrash or Ready Player One. What I suspect we might get – perhaps in my lifetime – is closer to a merging of the traditional MMO with Facebook-like social features, along with a landslide of subtle and not-so-subtle advertising. I expect it to be interactive, and to come with opportunities for advancement. I expect it to be fun, and to take a lot of time. In other words, I expect it to be a lot like life, except in the sense that it will be carefully controlled, watered down, and monetized.
Life is as much about failure as it is about success. We don’t mature as individuals if we aren’t confronted by ideas and people that make us upset: that force us to understand, integrate, and sometimes compromise with The Other. The idea that an environment could be created where much of our lives take place without those challenges is sobering. It’s not that real life can’t go on in a virtual space: people can meet, talk, get to know each other – but we don’t have to be present in the virtual world the way we do in the real, and though the real world may not always nurture us, its risks come with rewards: a billion player MMO is unlikely to force understanding or compromise, or promote individual growth, at least as long as its primary purpose is to create profit.
Are you looking forward to the billion player MMO? I am (though I intend to keep away from the forums). But when it comes, I hope I’ll approach it thoughtfully, and avoid defining my goals, dreams, and relationships virtually. A game is still a game, and on some level a distraction, even if sometimes a welcome one; a life rigged in my favor might be relaxing and enjoyable, but it won’t be real. In the din of voices inviting us to play, promising rewards and fun, goods and achievements, I wonder which path we will choose.