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).”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.”
“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.”
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.Here’s how I answered a different student, and my response could have been to them all:
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.
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!