I've been reading Edward Castronova's compelling Exodus to the Virtual World, one of the best books yet on probable social effects of these technologies.
One of Castronova's key points concerns the increasing realism of virtual worlds; he compares them to Star Trek's Holodeck. I'll call his idea "the Holodeck Paradox": if the Holodeck were able to deliver a perfect simulation of the perfect personal fantasy, why would anyone on the Enterprise do anything else?
And as virtual worlds approach a "real enough" level of simulation, what will be given up in our real lives as we spend more time in-world(s)? Right now, SL is laggy and not as stable or intuitive as other forms of entertainment. Alternative social worlds--I'm not talking games here--are rickety like OpenLife (in my experience) or cartoonish, like the IMVU boopsies pictured above. My ideal lifestyle is not that of a Bratz dolly.
But virtual worlds will improve: when they have the GI Joe Adventure Team down, I'll be lost in virtuality. So let's take stock. Castronova is not afraid of using empirical and personal evidence. So I'm going to take inventory of my own life over the past two years in-world in SL:
- Less time with books and DVDs. I don't watch TV, except for an occasional clip or entire episode over the Internet. I am again reading more (working on only three books now) than a year ago but my pace has slowed . The writing, posting photos, and leaving comments in the blogosphere, not the actual time in-world, seem to be what devours my free time.
- Less time with face-to-face gaming. I never went for online games, because I'm more a gamemaster than player. When playing or refereeing, my interest was never about "leveling up" but about creating virtual places and adventures in my many role-playing campaigns (for more than 30 years). I rarely had time for more than a weekly "nerd night" with the usual suspects, but now I do not spend much time designing RPG "runs" and don't set up a massive WW II board game every so often and play it solo.
- Less patience for idiots. I've never suffered them lightly, but I have less and less patience in real life for stupid people since I began associating more often with clever SLers (idiots abound there too--I just walk away).
- Less money spent on hobbies. I build fewer model aircraft (I'm OCD that way) and collect fewer classic GI Joes (the shelf is full, too). Yet while these nerdy hobbies have yielded to "stuff" acquired in-world, other hobbies continue as they were before I made my exodus to virtual worlds. These survivors tend to be physical or spiritual: biking, gardening, a yoga practice, and do-it-yourself projects.
- More time writing. Now this seems paradoxical indeed, but the virtual world has given me subject matter for informal blogging, fiction, and academic articles.
The Holodeck may well arrive one day, but perhaps the slowness of its development will give others time to adapt habits and hobbies to a transformed notion of leisure time. Meanwhile, some tough adjustments will be made. I strolled across the quad to observe a class, and fell in with a colleague who knows about my work with SL. He is not taking a winter break to a mountain cabin because both kids and his wife cannot leave high-speed internet. They need it for their World of Warcraft lives.
There's a world of a story in that lonely mountain cabin, waiting to be told.