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Virtually everything at stake

A video game designer and a scientist explore the undeniable pull of virtual worlds

November 13, 2011

Lee Guzofski loves people, and that’s why he loves virtual reality. By the time I arrived to interview him at a coffee shop near Washington Square Park in Manhattan, he was already on a first-name basis with the baristo Leo, chatting with him like an old friend. “New York City is endlessly fascinating and authentic,” Guzofski told me after I sat down across from him. He watched people pass on the street, rapt, commenting that everyone has a story to tell. “And, fundamentally, what makes us human is storytelling,” he said.

Guzofski is the chief executive of G2G Enterprises, a video game company that he says is about to release a ground-breaking, top-secret virtual reality computer game. He was one of two speakers at “Virtual Humanity: The Anthropology of Online Worlds,” a recent event at the New York Academy of Sciences. The other speaker was Thomas Malaby, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and author of Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life.

There’s no doubt that modern virtual reality games like Second Life and World of Warcraft are wildly popular; World of Warcraft alone currently enthralls around 11 million players. The more interesting topic is why people derive so much value from gaming.

Guzofski thinks it’s because virtual reality video games allow people to tell their stories in a way real life does not. Through complex games like World of Warcraft, people are interacting with fellow gamers to achieve goals in which each player’s knowledge and skills are recognized. While real life is often more subtle and layered, the direct formulas of a game give players “the barbaric yawlp” of success, as Guzofski puts it.

Modern virtual reality games are like ancient Greek epics in which everyone gets to feel like Aeneas or Odysseus, Guzofski says. Since people experience the same physical excitements in the brain whether facing a dragon in a virtual world or a boss in the real world, he thinks positive virtual experiences can be transferred into our daily lives. “By sharing emotions,” he said, “you get muscle memory of emotions — of coming together and winning — and you can better face reality.”

However, some gamers tend to completely give up reality for their virtual worlds. Video game addictions, especially among children, are a common news topic. Guzofski himself boasts that 91 percent of American children are gaming. But he was incredulous that a person would choose to live entirely in a virtual realm. “Why are people forsaking their bodies?” he asked, without having an answer.

Malaby thinks that some game designers use the compelling nature of their games to exploit players. A lightweight example is Google’s image labeler game. By creating a fun game, Google got free labor from the populace. Players zealously added labels to images so the search engine could find them. “Games are potent. How they are used and toward what ends is an important question,” Malaby says.

Malaby, who has peeled apart and inspected the social structure of virtual worlds in his academic research, focuses more on what people put into video games rather than what people get out of them. “Games are, to anthropological eyes, a cultural form, a ritual,” he said at the academy event. “We would like to be able to act and have our actions produce desired effects.” That’s the allure of the game: making virtual sense of the unpredictability we face in real life.

Games hold power over us by mimicking reality, and mimicking it well, Malaby says. Therefore, game designers want to create a platform reflecting current culture so that the players have “shared expectations and conventions,” a necessity for a successful game. Malaby says the culture of most recent video games is a “post-war American, resolutely individual” model. “But this leads to worlds that aren’t very social at all,” he said, referencing the way World of Warcraft and Second Life were initially designed to focus on the individual’s desires and achievements.

However, the players themselves brought a desire to live in a more communal virtual world. Malaby says that both World of Warcraft and Second Life have changed over time. Now World of Warcraft offers group rewards for working together and an outlet for shared interests, like a place for virtual-pet owners to connect. In Second Life, players went beyond the sparse world-building tools offered by the maker, Linden Lab, and created their own social spaces, like a support group for breast cancer survivors.

As players of virtual games create a meaningful social context, the games become increasingly less game-like and more like real life. When I asked him why people would want to play a very real game rather than just go out and live, Malaby replied, “People aren’t making a choice between the real and the virtual.” Real activities and virtual activities are merely different kinds of adventures that appeal to us. But Malaby concedes that a few players will find the appeal of virtual worlds too strong and commit too much time to virtual reality. “If games are powerful, they are powerful. So we should expect that games will have reactions across the board,” he said.

Gudzofki thinks these individual reactions to games are exactly what make games remarkable. “My job is to give you a world,” he said. “Your job is to make that world yours.”

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About the Author

Kelly Slivka finished up her B.A. in English and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, after which she traded amber waves of grain for actual waves of water. The past three years, she’s been stalking endangered whales on the East Coast for various conservation and research institutions, a profession that has given her plenty of fodder for fascinating science writing, but no feasible outlet. Now, through NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program she’s moved on to stalking all things new and cool in science and sharing it with, well, everyone! You can learn more about Kelly on her website, www.kellyslivka.com, and follow her on Twitter @k_sliv.

Discussion

1 Comment

soror Nishi says:

Yes, the idea that you have either a virtual life OR a ‘real’ life is very dated. A Second Life does not preclude a ‘real’ life, this is pure media BS.
I can collaborate with people from all over the globe in real time at very little expense whether that be on an art, education, social or charity endeavour.
The possible uses for virtual worlds will only increase as the hardware and broadband limitations fade and we learn how to use this new medium.

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