Virtual Worlds, the Good and Bad

Virtual worlds are and will always be a very interesting topic.  There are various perspectives, issues, and challenges when it comes to these virtual communities, and I personally can’t decide whether I should care about them or not.  On one side of the spectrum, I see virtual worlds as a tool that people use to escape from reality.  As long as they don’t cross over into real space, that should be ok. On the opposite end of the spectrum there is a belief that there is no separation from virtual worlds and reality.  The two go hand and hand; therefore whatever happens in either world indirectly connects with the other.

There are several interesting theories proposed by scholars concerning the phenomenon.  One such article argued that virtual worlds are changing the way we learn. Not learning in the sense of accumulation of information or facts, but the type of learning that occurs when individuals of different backgrounds come together in virtual space.  One can argue there is great deal of learning occurring in games such as World or Warcraft in which people come together to solve problems, solidifying what  Douglas Thomas calls the networked imagination.  He writes:

“The idea of a network of imagination ties together notions of community, technologically mediated collective action, and imagination, when players begin to act through joint investment in the pursuit of common ground. This kind of collective action is more than networked work or distributed problem solving. It requires that problems be thought of as group problems and that the goals of all actions and practices are to move the group forward.”
-Why Virtual Worlds Could Matter

This argument is definitely valid.  It is apparent that activities involving high group collaboration can be an avenue to feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself (which Jane McGonigal argues is a necessity), as well as a way to engage with people from all over the world with different perspectives, ideas, and contributions.  The very act of this type of engagement in virtual reality educates people with knowledge that can be applied to the real world.

Ethical Issues in Second Life (by Hope R. Botterbusch and R. S. Talab) was a very interesting article about issues that occur in virtual worlds. I must admit that sometimes I think it’s silly to put so much emphasis on virtual worlds when it’s not a real world.  Who cares about what happens in a fake world?  However there are people out there who do care.  Issues such as copyright infringement, exploitation, vandalism, and identity deception are just a few associated with Second Life. Botterbusch and Talab research findings imply that people who commit what I’ll call virtual crimes commit them because they have no fear of consequences of the real world.

One example in the article explains how “Miss Avatar” decides to create a shop where she sales digital products she created.  One day she notices some players have access to her products that she hadn’t receive compensation (Lindens) for.  Someone used Copybot which allowed them to copy her digital products.  She filed a copyright infringement suit which eventually got turned over to real life lawyers.

So the question becomes is this right or wrong?  I personally can’t take a firm stand on either side of the issue. However, I think a big source of the problem is crossing real world constructs over into virtual worlds.  In other words, I don’t think this would be that big of a deal if the Second Life Linden was not connected in any way shape or form to real world dollar.

Any negative aspect crossing from virtual worlds to the real world can be considered a problem. It’s ok if a person uses virtual worlds to escape from reality or to explore their identity, but when the lines are not drawn between the two worlds, problems can arise.  It will be interesting to see how governance or the lack thereof matriculates as years go by and virtual worlds become increasingly associated with the real world.

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