I have been thinking for some time about how computers are shaping the ways we think. The massively multi-player online role-playing games are an interesting example, though not the only ones. Involved players are reported to often become disappointed in real life, because it lacks the excellent add-ons they enjoy in the games. The creation of idealized or radically different avatars that change their real-world shape and persona is one special perquisite of role-playing virtual reality games. However, there are social constrictions on how "fake" the avatar can be, and still be acceptable, if the player is known to friends online. Many games offer floater cars, wings, and other special transport not available in the real world. The cities and social worlds can be constructed with more or less idealism to fit the desires of the group. The only limit is the ultimate "law" imposed by the owner of the game system, and any laws adopted by the gamers as a group. See earlier OOTJ post here of March 9, 2006, Law and Order on the Virtual Frontier.
I have never played a MMORG, though it's tempting. I think I would have to take another sabbatical, because it sounds very absorbing. Also, I think most of the people involved tend to be a lot younger than I. My son rails against the economics of the games because you pay for the game at the store, and then have to pay a fee each year to stay connected. There is no way to play offline. What we have played at our house are the various types of sim games produced by Maxis: Sim City 1, 2, 3 and Sim Life, Sim Ant, Sim Farm, Sim Tower, Sim Park. I have to admit my favorite part in Sim City is shooting down the traffic copter -- I'm so bad! It is very attractive to move into God Mode and set up disasters to destroy cities, though I get so attached to my sims that I have trouble doing this.
So, we have a lot of single-player sim games. They are a lot of fun and are not multi-player games. But I can already see the lure and twist on reality: we starting talking about "I should have saved!" years ago. Wow, what a great feature! Save your action before you do something risky, and then if there is a disaster, you can just quit and go back to the situation as it was before you took that risk. Gee what a great concept. Too bad you can't do that in real life.
So, how much is this online reality shaping people's thinking about the world? I think it is doing this in subtle ways. Nobody in my family really thinks they can save the game and go back if a disaster happens. But the idea has been planted. We wish it were possible. We hadn't thought about it before. I think it's like the way Star Trek subtly influenced the development of technology. Watch the oldest shows, and you will see that the little memory disks look a lot like our CDs and DVDs. The communicaters look like cell phones. I can't help but think that the CDs look the way they do because the folks who worked to develop them watched Star Trek in their youth and were influenced by it. The communicaters affected the development of cell phone design for the same reason. There is no reason these things have to look like that. Other science fiction shows had other technology looks. But Star Trek, while its science was often wrong, got the scientific ethos, the science style, right. They treated science with reverence. So, it had a strong influence on scientists and scientists- and technologists-to-be. Here is a nice link to NASA with an informational webpage about the science of Star Trek. They took it pretty seriously, even though twinkling their eyes with nostalgia.
So, I think we are seeing a huge influence on the future. Younger people are going to say, "If we can do this, and live this way online, why not in the real world?" Will that include, not just technology, but the social and legal aspects? That would be very interesting, indeed! I find the article posted in PDF format here, by Betsy Book, looking at social aspects of virtual worlds to be a very thought provoking piece. I recommend looking at it in some depth, though it takes a bit of time to download unless you have a quick connection.
Also, people are blurring the edges between virtual reality and electronic media and old media and plain old life. The illustration for this blog entry is from Wagner James Au's blog about Second Life, New World Notes at http://nwn.blogs.com/. The entry is reporting on an interview he undertook on telephone for NPR Open Source with Christopher Lydon on March 29, 2006, and "... appearing live from an SL stage created by The Electric Sheep Company. Also on the panel is the esteemed Sherry Turkle of MIT, author of the vastly influential Life on the Screen-- without which, I likely wouldn't be writing this blog." (quoting from the blog entry). Then the MP3 of the interview was posted to PRI's website here. I found the blog entry and illustration with avatars and a real photograph mixed to be a perfect metaphor and example of how people are merging media, virtual reality and plain life.