The crew of the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix (first film)[These 'thoughtful' posts are usually much more free-form and a-wandering than my other blog entries. You are more than welcome to jump in and finish a particular train of thought, or challenge something you think is false. This is as much about me getting my head around something as it is for you! You probably want to read yesterday's entry on 'Single-Player Immersion' before you read this.]

We know that our imagination is powerful — it is as powerful or more so than actual reality. Sure, it can’t physically take us places, but do people really claim that being scared by a horror film isn’t equivalent to being attacked by a knife-wielding maniac? (OK, don’t think about that one too much — just go with it!) And then there’s the matter of time-travel: our imagination can take us back in time! Through the media of books, films and games our infinitesimally short life-span can be expanded and extended to include different places and worlds from throughout history. Magical.

Why though must all of these virtual worlds exist outside the realm of reality? Can you imagine ‘losing yourself’ in the contemporary world — while reading the morning paper? No. You lose yourself while reading about the culture and creepy rites of Ancient Egypt. You readily find yourself escaping to alternate realities where vampires and undead exist, roaming and scheming under the cover of darkness. After that scene in The Matrix, did you stop to consider if it really is air that you’re breathing? I did.

Why can’t we be immersed in real life? Why can’t we attack and question our surroundings in real life with the same fervor?

A quick change of tack: yesterday, I mentioned how immersion can also occur to groups of people. The obvious examples here are table-top role-playing games (Dungeons & Dragons and the like), Internet forums and online games. This ‘multi-player shared reality’ is nearly always cooperative, towards some common goal. They take the same form as real-life teams and groups, only… they are virtual. Or rather, their sphere of influence is virtual (though their real-world impact can be quite significant too — some people get married in a virtual world,  and later in real life too).  The inhabitants of these shared, imagined illusions are avatars, projections of one’s self upon the fundament of a virtual world.

This won’t make a lot of sense if you’ve never been part of such a shared reality, but take my word for it: community and social bonds form a lot more readily in virtual spaces. It’s like… necessity throws people together, and somehow… it sticks. Not entirely without conflict, but generally these communities stick it out. This might be stretching it a little, but it’s a little like arranged marriages: you are thrown together, perhaps against your will, but for a variety of external reasons, you are compelled to try your best. Without other choices available, you are forced to survive and succeed (not a bad thing, really?) Those of us in the West look on in disgust at these teenagers being married off without their consent. We think our system is so much better. But their system does seem to work, no?

Anyway

My point is this: if you think you’ve been immersed in a book or film or game, it is nothing compared to group immersion. It is nothing compared to running around with other people that also think they’re vampires or piloting the same spaceship as you. It’s nothing compared to working together with hundreds or thousands of like-minded friends in an online virtual world.  By sharing the world with others, your imagination is being validated. By occupying the same world as someone else, it’s no longer ‘imaginary’ or ‘just in your head’, it’s actually — holy shit! — real.

FarmVille logo -- copyright Zynga Inc.!So what about FarmVille? It’s a primitive game, sure, but it is a virtual world; a world full of rosy-cheeked, benevolent farmers that spend half their time harvesting, and the other half helping out other farmers. The level of immersion (or ‘gameness?) is limited at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ability to group up with other farmers appeared soon. And that then is only one step away from building a town in the middle of a clutch of farms… and then cities and counties and…

Why can’t we be as immersed in real life? What stops us from enacting our imagination in reality? Is it just merely fear of failure? Or… something else?

I’m looking for a real-world analogy here, and again I’m thinking of the New World, America. A bunch of individuals lumped together in a new, harsh environment where the only way out of trouble (and death!)  is teamwork. Are we simply ‘stuck’ here in the mundanity of real life because there is no necessity to try any harder?

I am just trying to work out why it feels so damn good to form a group in an online game and work together towards a common goal. I wonder why we so rarely do it in real life. Why is it every man for himself in London, while we readily cooperate in virtual worlds?

Historically, were we more immersed? When it was harder to survive and teamwork was a necessity, did we have to become more involved? I wonder if we need something dramatic like another war to force us back into our own lives, and our own world.

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I'm so lonely...

Sebastian

I am a tall, hairy, British writer who blogs about technology, photography, travel, and whatever else catches my eye.

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