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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Get real: The case against virtual reality

    Later this week, a California based company is set to recreate the JFK assassination. Don’t panic; no one’s going to get shot. It’s all going to take place in Second Life. If you don’t know what that is, lucky you.

    Second Life, a kind of online virtual world that allows people to make up online personas, socialize with other “”residents,”” and even trade goods and services, is not a game in the strictest sense of the word. There’s no goal, no strategy, no way to score points; it’s just living in a virtual world for the sake of living in one.

    It gets better: Second Life has its own economy, and it’ll probably have its own Milton Friedman before long, what with the flourishing online discourse about its open markets and tax policies. You can date in Second Life or even get married.

    According to the Boston Globe, it’s got everything from a replica of a Darfur refugee camp to one of Bedrock, the Flintstones’ home town. (Who ever imagined that those two things could inhabit the same universe?)

    “”This feels exactly like it felt when the Web was first coming out,”” John Linder, Second Life company Linden Life’s community and education manager, said last year. “”I remember feeling the hair on the back of my neck standing up.””

    I do too, but for different reasons.

    Remember back when everyone decided that “”virtual reality”” was something fantastic we had to look forward to, like moving sidewalks and fling cars? Everyone seemed convinced that in the future, you’d be able to put on a helmet and find yourself in ancient Rome fighting the Visigoths, or participating in an episode of “”The West Wing.””

    The trouble is, there’s just something creepy about virtual reality. Maybe it’s the fact that Second Life addicts refer to this world (you know, the one we actually live in, the one in which Second Life takes place) as “”First Life.””

    Put it this way: Given the choice between eating ice cream and eating “”virtual”” ice cream, which would you go for? There comes a point when the artificial world just won’t cut it.

    When I mentioned this to a friend, she told me about an online virtual version of Hogwarts – you know, Harry Potter’s alma mater – where you can sign up for a four -year program at the famous wizards’ school. She’s acquainted with someone who attends; apparently she’s always complaining about how hard the homework is. Yes, there’s homework. Homework.

    It’s impossible to say when the break with reality occurred. Maybe it was back in the 1980s, when kids began spending hours upon hours in arcades, or at home absorbed by their Nintendos. A lot of parents used to complain that their kids were losing touch with the real world. (Yes, I too was one of those kids who tried to use the bogus “”It improves my eyehand coordination!”” argument.)

    I never bought that argument, though. Video games were fun and they weren’t any more “”antisocial”” than table tennis. No one actually believed that the Super Mario Brothers were real, or that Princess Zelda was a historical figure.

    That changed, though. It’s common to say that as video games progressed, they became “”more realistic.”” In fact, they became less realistic, because they pushed further and further into a sort of “”reality”” that bears no resemblance to actual reality. Now they’ve ceased to even be games.

    Who’s going to care if they live in a messy house – or, more importantly, a run-down city or a despoiled global environment – if they can sign on to a computer and enjoy a permanently pristine world where you never have to clean up after yourself? This is corrosive to our very notion of what it means to be human.

    On a classic episode of “”Seinfeld,”” Kramer and Newman become obsessed with a game of “”Risk,”” the board-game of “”world domination,”” and each goes to extreme lengths to ensure that the other does not cheat. In the show’s penultimate moment, a stern-looking Ukranian overhears Kramer, in “”character,”” ridiculing his otherland, and responds by smashing the hapless pair’s board in two.

    The moral of the episode was simple and harsh: Games aren’t reality. No matter how empty your life might seem, it’s still your life, and you owe it to yourself to live in this world, not a fantasy one.

    Judging from things like Second Life, we’re all in need of a stern-looking Ukranian to come along and bring us back to reality.

    Justyn Dillingham is a senior majoring in history and political science. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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