Other People in Virtual Worlds

Let’s talk about video games, shall we?

Although there is some really excellent work being done on the subject of virtual worlds, most of it operates on a notably limited definition of what a “virtual world” is. Take Terra Nova, a cyber-aggregate of writers whose research on games is confined strictly to online, massively multiplayer experiences. While I am certainly not denying that World of Warcraft and Second Life (and EVE Online and Everquest and Free Realms) are fascinating, worthy objects of contemplation, why stop there? Isn’t Left 4 Dead a compelling virtual world, even though it isn’t massively multiplayer? Isn’t Braid a compelling virtual world, even though it isn’t multiplayer at all?

It is easy to see why massively multiplayer online games (or MMOs) appeal to Sociologists: In these games the avatars all, or mostly, represent human players. Many of the rules of social interaction from the Real World therefore carry over into the virtual worlds of MMOs.  Autonomous individuals organize themselves into economies, and factions, and so on, beholden to the rules of their world but free to express their social agency within it.

Single-player games represent a rather different, entirely solipsistic ontological situation.  In such games, Gorgias and René Descartes (and George Berkeley, and Edmund Husserl, and many, many others) turn out to have been correct when they suspected that the other people around them were figments of their imaginations rather than thinking beings coequal with themselves.  In the model they feared, only one person (Gorgias, or me, or you, or whoever is doing the thinking) is a real human.  Everyone else is a simulation thereof.   Non-Player Characters (or NPCs) are exactly the sort of puppet-like, non-human humans whose supposed semi-existence has long troubled Western philosophers.

Sociology would be a very different discipline, if not an outright impossibility, in such a solipsistic universe.  So the folks at Terra Nova have limited their field of study in the manner that they find most useful, and that makes best use of their collective skill set. And there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that, except that it leaves several fairly large gaps to be filled by other, differently-focused writers.

In my next few posts, I would like to try and fill in some of those gaps.

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