The Threat of Virtual Worlds

Massively Multiplayer Online games are one of the newest, yet most persistent phenomena of the last 20 years.

Ever since the technology for relatively lag-free online experiences made its way into the mainstream, the popularity of online games has soared. Where we once used to congregate around a solitary screen and share experiences in a split-screen format, we are not sharing fully-realized worlds with on another form the comfort of our own homes.

The worlds and the activities therein are as numerous and varied as they come. From rustic fantasy landscapes and dungeoneer adventurers to far-flung starscapes and pensive asteroid miners, the professions that players can engage with are tailored to fit nearly every fantasy imaginable. These imagined virtual worlds were nothing new by the standards of gaming at the time, but the inclusion a persistent and shared world inhabited by other players catapulted MMOs into a realm of their own.

To this day, many of the first MMOs ever to be launched remain online. When one considers the longevity of the average video game, the lifespan of MMOs far eclipse what the standard single player or match-making game do. And there’s good reason for this. These communal virtual worlds are not just cohabited playgrounds, they are spaces where communities of individuals congregate to form bonds that can last a lifetime. Increasingly, they are becoming spaces where people can spend time with faraway friends and meet others that they may never have been able to in the first place.

Perhaps this profound attachment to these virtual spaces is what keeps us coming back to them. Whether it is a high-intensity activity or a leisurely chat among friends in a public hub, these virtual spaces have been shaping the culture and lives of millions of individuals across the globe. By creating virtual spaces that are accessible to nearly everyone, the developers of these worlds have tapped into the primal human instinct for connection. By giving their users and outlet by which to instantaneously reach out and connect with others, they have fabricated artificial worlds that are often more pleasurable to exist in that our own, default reality. Sometimes the call to action is felt so strongly by players, that bitter rivalries develop to fight over virtual territory in wars that can last for years.

Although not every game that has come out in the past decade has been an MMO, nearly all of them have included some form of online connection. Whether it’s multiplayer play or merely connecting with other players to compare stats, developers have plunged into the world of virtual social interactions deeply and vigorously. It’s no secret that we as humans are social animals, but these online interactions can go far beyond merely saying hi to friends and colleagues from time to time. As many of these online worlds are structured around the premise of groups of individuals collaborating to achieve a common goal, the bonds between group members are strengthened to a much greater degree than, say, taking everyone out for a round of drinks. Even a a form of plain-old-entertainment, immersing oneself into an MMO is becoming far more popular than the traditional pastime of whittling the hours away via TV.

This stems from the phenomenon that shared adversity creates immutable bonds between individuals. At its most extreme, this is made evident in the bond that individuals who serve in the armed forces view their squadmates as “brothers” and “family”. Or consider the amount of time and resources pour into training and “team-building” exercises for their employees to maximize their happiness, efficiency, and work quality. There’s no secret about it, us humans perform best when we collaborate with others, and very few amazing things happen in total isolation.

There are many incredible facets of this new technology that we still do not fully comprehend, but the signs of what’s coming has been staring us right in the face for quite some time. Worlds like EverQuest and Ultima Online were mere precursors to the global phenomenon that arrived with World of Warcraft. After release, the game began to consume the lives of some of their players. Some lost their jobs, others their personal relationships, and some even their homes. The world of Azeroth provided such an immersive and appealing escape to so many, that they willingly lost themselves in a world that was tailor-made to perfection for them.

Our reality is far from ideal. Many of the problems within our lives continue to plague us centuries later, and we have a host of new ones resulting from the way our species has conducted itself over the years. It is hardly surprising that many would seek an outlet to a reality that is tailor-made for them over the one we’ve fashioned for ourselves over the years.

MMOs have already proven that they have some of the longest lifespans of any entertainment products on the market, but their future potential remains largely unknown. As a genre that emerged largely as retrofitted classical game mechanics bolted-on to network architecture, MMOs have a lot of growing to do. There exists a real possibility that the “genre” of an MMO will become diluted and fade into nearly every form of virtual activity. If not populated by living and breathing humans, the worlds could come shipped with a host of hyper-intelligent Non-Player-Character super-intelligences. Talk about never needing to leave our house again.

And therein lies the danger. If we develop virtual worlds which we can escape into at our convince, at incredibly higher rates of fidelity and interactivity, we stand to lose much of our population to simulated realities, where all dreams can wishes can be fulfilled at a whim. And in our world, when you’ve lost someone’s attention, you’ve lost them for good.




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