Sunday, April 17, 2011

No Exodus to Virtual Worlds for These Millennials

Location: Glued to Keyboard, Working (not Gaming!) on a Fine Spring Day

On reading Edward Castronova’s Exodus to the Virtual World, once again the types of Millennial I teach are nearly uniform in their disdain for a cultural migration to use avatars in our lives and work. I think my students represent a majority view of career-driven and affluent US college students. I’m told that our campus is not that unique.

Dare I claim a surprising Neo-Luddite response in this rejection of virtual worlds?  Irony of ironies: as a decided Neo-Luddite, I see occasional use of virtual worlds as an environmentally sustainable alternative to academic conferences, expensive brick-and-mortar training, and even some forms of cultural tourism. Our driving is wrecking our planet's ecosystem. The less we do, the better, and I welcome all forms of telepresence as alternatives to "commuting to the office." We're more likely to power our grid with alternative technology, or at least clean the point sources at power plants than we are to tidy up billions of tail-pipes emitting poisons.

But enough of my fears; there are plenty from the students for one post. The finest negative response came from this writer; it is nuanced in a way many others are not and I think it shows what I’ve intuited among the Facebook: Yes, Games: No mainstream of Richmond students.
I don’t ever see myself using a virtual world, but that could just be because of my current situation. In college, I am constantly surrounded by my friends and love talking to them and spending time with them face to face. I don’t picture myself wanting to spend ten hours a day online in a virtual world, instead of laughing out loud and talking to my real life friends. In addition, my opportunity cost of spending more than two hours a day online is too great. I would be failing all my classes because I would be giving up time to study to be in a virtual world. I cannot afford to essentially waste my time not being productive. I also do not like the idea of anonymity online. People can create avatars that don’t look anything like them and pretend to be someone completely different. While people can be misleading on Facebook, I know I only communicate with my friends, people that I know in the real world. Virtual worlds can be very private and people do not meet the people in real life with whom they are making alliances and friends with.
Here are a few other voices from their class blogs, almost all negative:
“I do understand that there are many people today who are already deeply involved in virtual worlds. I am not one of these people. Perhaps, because of this, I am biased against such worlds. I would much rather spend my time talking with my friends or furthering my education (getting my parents' money's worth).”

“In my experience, games (even MMOs) are something that is outgrown.  I know many of my friends (myself included) who played consistently throughout middle and some of high school and then left due to lack of extra time or lack of interest.”

“An overwhelming majority of college-aged kids view virtual worlds as time wasting, unproductive, and nerdy addictions reserved for the socially inept.”

“I’m sorry, but I will never spend hours interacting in cyberspace, nor will I allow my children or my children’s children to join the exodus to the virtual world.”    

“The current generation (The Millennials) is almost entirely preoccupied with social networking. ‘Facebookers’ as we are sometimes called, we would rather use virtual realities to connect with old friends from back home, not to escape the confines of daily life. So instead of being active users, we may participate maybe once or twice a week, giving us no reason to participate in the exodus.”

“What he describes is something so artificial and unnatural. There are many gamers out in cyberspace right now who want to escape their lives and transform into something they are not, however I am not one of them. The main issue is of avoidance and denial. When you assume these fake identities then you are essentially in denial of your own life. I don’t think its healthy not to deal with the issues present and escape to a virtual world.”
One contrarian voice notes “I think that our bias as successful college individuals also blinds us from other populations that use games to escape from their circumstance.”

This is my opinion as well. My students cannot imagine the modern version of Emerson’s “quiet desperation” of many individuals who seek escape, or those who see themselves empowered to do things not possible in real life. Those may be artists working in a new medium, explorers of simulations not possible here (to one blogger, I cited Ancient Egypt or the interior of the human heart as examples).

Another student was kinder to Castronova’s ideas:
We all want to be challenged and overcome obstacles in order to feel good about ourselves. Additionally, we want to have fun, to simply enjoy our existence and be happy. As Castronova puts it “helping people find happiness may involve something other than giving them the things they currently seek” (88). This is what these online games promise.
One student who feels good about virtual worlds stands apart from the rest and says a great deal about what they don’t see:
I could jump into a virtual world right now.
No, really. All I'd need is a secure income. I could be there 24/7, easy.

As I looked around the classroom when this question was asked, I had the feeling I was the only one who felt this way. Some of you are probably shaking you're heads right now, thinking "You're crazy," but I'll tell you why I can do it.

For one, I'm used to it. Sitting in front of a screen for hours is easy to me. When I'm not at class or with my friends, I'm plopped in front of the screen. Furthermore, I'm used to synthetic worlds. Being in a fake world with filled with real people who don't look like themselves is normal to me. I don't find it weird.

Secondly, just about everyone is already engaged in a digital world, whether they realize it or not. We've really already migrated over in Facebook. My best friend once told me, "The more friends you have on Facebook, the fewer you have in real life." And as someone who has over 400 Facebook friends, but less than 10 real friends she can actually trust, she would know. She's in her own world where she has lots of friends that are easily accessible no matter where they live, where she thinks other people care about what her status is, where all her photos are of her looking perfect, and where she only has to care about what she wants to.
Here’s how I answered a different student, and my response could have been to them all:
Your comments echo many in the class. I understand your disdain, but the number of generalizations is enormous here. I applaud you for admitting your bias.

Before we judge these individuals, we might try better to understand them. As noted in class, Richmond students are, in many cases, from sheltered and loving families who provide support and care.

It is very different beyond the campus gates, even for many in your age-group; in fifteen years, as a virtual worlds researcher, I will be most curious to see how the Millennial generation regards escapist entertainment online.

I disagree with Castronova's thesis; I think virtual-world use will increase among all age groups, but there will be no exodus. Usage will be as a casual and occasional escape or for limited professional purposes such as simulations for technical or military training and meetings.

Reality will instead become more and more difficult, under the strains of environmental damage, political gridlock, resource scarcity, and economic stress, and we'll learn to take better care of the real again as we strive to fix the things generations before yours broke.

My biggest hope for you Millennials is that the researchers who wrote Millennials Rising are correct: yours is the next "Great Generation" able to collaborate, remain cheerful, and solve problems without the slack and cynicism of my Gen-X peers or the narcissism and greed of the Baby Boomers.

Maybe if your peers stay in Reality instead of making the exodus, you can accomplish great things. Maybe you'll even use Facebook to organize your efforts!


Elaine Greywalker said...

There are couple of things your students have missed. One is that in Second Life one can talk and laugh out loud person-to-person using the in-world voice chat. I've talked with others in Germany. I've chatted in group discussions. Second is that not everyone is there to be a scary anonymous avatar. I've made off-world friends with SL. Haven't read your assigned book but it seems like your students are all picking up on the negatives and none of the positives. You should make them write compare and contrast essays. Oh, and I know at least two people who are adults with responsible lives who are also serious gamers.

Mera Kranfel said...

I have said it before and i say it again. Virtual worlds are not for young people who has zillions of friends around them all days. But i know retired and slightly disabled people that enjoy it very much. Home wifes with small kids and middle aged people with kids that works too much to have time or energy to socialize in real life. With virtual friends you can have a nice chat and still be available to your kids. So forget your students, this is not for them =)

Vanish said...

This is a great post, Iggy. One thing that I believe is missing in the discussion is the independence of proximity. The real world restricts you in your connnections by proximity, the virtual world removes that (along with some other restrictions) and allows connections purely by interest. I wrote some about this here:

Basically, I think these kids are just repeating what they learned somewhere. They'll find out soon enough that just thinking about career and productivity is not much fun. Also, there's a lot of fulfillment to be gained from virtual worlds that may be hard or impossible to gain otherwise.

I guess in the end, it's about what you believe life is about. If the answer is that life is about making a career and lots of money (or giving value to your "parent's money"), then, sure, VW is a waste of time.

If life is about enjoying what you like doing and just making enough to afford that, then VW may be the best waste of time you ever had.

Iggy O said...

@Vanish, yes, Mrs. Iggy always rolls her eyes when I talk about how my Millennials are sooooo afraid of "creepy" stuff online. Her stock answer (from a K-5 teacher's perspective):

"That's just the Internet Safety course speaking. They've been programmed to fear the Internet."

Michael said...

Have we been programmed to fear others on the Internet? I agree to an extent that we were brought up being told to fear who is on the other side of the computer.

After-all, that pretty 'girl' character on Second Life is actually a


I understand that virtual worlds have something to offer to those who may have excess time on their hands or for those who may not "have zillions of friends around them". I can also comprehend that they have enjoyment attached to them.

On the other hand, for us as students, it's just as much a matter of time management as it is for adults in some ways. I think that there is a large assumption that college students have a lot of free time. It's true depending on the sub-population within the University. A student who is working hard to achieve a set of high grades, is working part-time, or is an athlete doesn't have that luxury of excess time.

Students who do have extra time want to be with the friends around them. So perhaps each of you is right that it is a question of age with respect to usage, but it could also be generational. Will we feel the urge to turn to virtual worlds for a social life? Maybe.

A last interesting thing to consider (as to why we oppose using virtual worlds) is that we are attempting to establish ourselves in a society that is increasingly competitive. Writing that I am a regular participant in a virtual world (a level 57 paladin if you will) doesn't exactly look impressive on a job resume. Most adults have already established themselves in the work place.

Iggy O said...

Nicely made points, Mike. I would say that many students could make more time in their schedules with careful time-management and more focus with studying.

But overall, Richmond students are overbooked...and it's not the party scene that Hollywood portrays. That may be true at other schools, but our best students work hard because they are "leveling up" to study abroad, get an internship, make Dean's list, take an LSAT course. Too many of my peers never attended college in such a manner. I sure did not (and I'm rather glad that I did have the free time to both party and study).

And even if today's students had more free time, why sit down at a computer with it? One reason that I don't spend more time "in world" is that my free time goes to gardening, working on old vehicles, even reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy for my fifth time.

Mera Kranfel said...

Michael; After-all, that pretty 'girl' character on Second Life is actually a


The opposite exists. I often walk around as a "horrible man" online and Im a "pretty girl" irl ;)