Why Are Virtual Worlds So Appealing?

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Why Are Virtual Worlds So Appealing?
May 14, 2019

Great conversation that spun out of last week's great podcast interview with Philip Rosedale by ex-Linden Melinda Byerley, spinning off from my comment that "I'm a bit sad that he talks so much about how in the beginning, the focus was on making Second Life a living, breathing world with a simulated ecosystem and realistic ocean, sun and moon cycles, and so on... [when] both Second Life and High Fidelity, which now look, feel, and operate far more like interconnected 3D chat rooms."

 

To that point, Philip comments:

I so much agree about the magical appeal of the 'living, breathing world' - but why is it so appealing? I think about this a lot, and although I feel it in the most passionate way, I still wonder where the feeling comes from.

 

To that question, Mac speculates:

It may be because we, in our 'real', breathing lives, live in a vast ecology. We live on the ground (even if our feet are in an apartment 20 stories high). We exist in a network, invisible to us though it may be. We are solidly of our earth (and will return to it!). We are alive within an unimaginable connection which we evolved through and grew up in, through countless generations and millennia.

 

That may be why a series of discrete 'interconnected 3D chat rooms', as Wagner puts it, feels unnatural. The 'imagined reality' of these rooms technically and practically ends at their borders, unlike physical reality (in the physical reality of our world, you cannot get to the end of reality; you can't reach out and find that it has ceased. There is always something beyond your reach, be it air, space, vacuum, the rest of the universe. You cannot get to a point of 'nothing'). A teleport between rooms isn't quite the same as a physical tunnel. Discrete 3D chat rooms push against an internal fundamental knowledge that the world is still 'of a piece' even though it has become many pieces, many places, many communities. I would imagine that this feeling (analogous to the uncanny valley) will fade over time as we get used to non-geographically-designed digital landscapes: people can, have, and will adapt to situations which seem uncomfortable or unsuitable at the start. We are, after all, discursive and negotiable creatures. These are still teething times for the digital human.

 

In other words, he's arguing that it's a feeling we can evolve away from. Melinda herself makes a comment which suggests it's a feeling mainly confined to childhood:

I find myself drawn back to the phenomenon Philip described- that we as humans almost always base our creative efforts on what we have already experienced. We almost don't know as a species what to do with an infinite level of creative tools. Only children, as I said on the show, seem so unfettered creatively. which explains Minecraft and Fortnite. I don't know what the answer is, but I can now see why Philip has spent his whole life on this problem: because it's incredibly complex and has its roots in things that don't change quickly like human minds, educational systems, and hardware technology.

 

The sense that a virtual world has endless expanses to explore, or as with Fortnite, endless varieties of experiences, seems key to creating a world that can draw in tens of millions. More than anything, however, I think it's a matter of time. Most kids in the developed world have large swathes of free time to play and explore that none but the luckiest adult simply does not have. This is probably a core cause to Second Life's lack of growth: Not only that it has become more and more like a 3D chat room experience, but that it's always been positioned as a for-adults experience -- when it's kids and teens who most want, need, and most of all, have the idle time simulated worlds. 

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