This essay

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Why does the claim that virtual worlds are real have a tendency to provoke such heated resistance? Imagine you’ve just spent the day working to end the Sudanese genocide, or listening to someone explain what it’s like to be diagnosed with an untreatable disease, or trying to comfort a recently orphaned child. In comparison to the hardship you would have encountered, the experiences that some people have by means of avatars in spaces like Second Life are bound to seem slight, trivial, ephemeral – in a word, not real. Indeed, failing to distinguish between these “real world experiences” and those that one might have in Second Life along the axis of reality would be a kind of moral blindness. Yet, it is also worth pausing before we conclude that the virtual worlds are not real – if only because there are so many reasonable people who are convinced that they are.

In an essay entitled “Being More Real,” the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick makes the crucial observation that reality is not an all or nothing matter. Starting in the realm of art, Nozick points out that it makes sense to say that some characters (Nozick names Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Raskolnikov) are more real than others. There also seems to be a sense in which some people (here, Nozick names Socrates, Buddha, Moses, and Gandi) are more real than most of us. And although it might be just a result of our pop-psychology, it is also worth noting that we sometimes urge each other to “get real” and think about when we ourselves are our “most real.” If you have a view on when you are most real – or alternatively, when you are at your least real – then you are committed to the idea that reality is a matter of degree.

If reality is a matter of degree, the next step is to figure out what would makes one thing more real than another. At first glance, it looks like there are a virtually endless list of features that are potentially relevant to the determination of something’s reality. In another essay, Nozick mentions such characteristics as “intensity,” “vividness,” “truth,” autonomy,” “creativity,” “enduringness,” “understanding,” “transcendence,” “growth,” and “novelty,” among others. But because this list has the potential to become unwieldy, let us follow Nozick in suggesting that something’s reality is fundamentally a function of its value, weight, meaning, and importance. The more value, weight, meaning and importance something has – the more real it will be.

With that philosophic background in place, let me give you an example of a virtual world activity that persuaded me that virtual worlds can in fact have some claim to reality. The virtual world I am thinking of involves teams that compete against one another in an online game. The teams have been together for a significant period of time when it comes to a particular teammate’s attention that one of his/her fellow teammates has passed away. The teammate makes this information public, an online memorial service is scheduled, and there is a general expectation that the competition among teams should stop. Other teams could take advantage of the memorial to jump ahead in the standings, but there is a consensus that doing so would be wrong.

What finally persuaded me that virtual worlds might be real was the realization that I would hesitate before taking advantage of memorial service to advance the interests of my team. After some reflection, I concluded that what would cause me to hesitate would be the sense that a memorial service is an activity that possesses a measure value, that is a meaningful way of remembering someone departed, that plays an important role in peoples’ lives. In other words, the things that come to mind are exactly the characteristics that are essential components of a thing’s reality.

Of course, the fact that such virtual activities possess a measure of reality does not yet show how much reality it has. My own view is that there is nothing to prevent us from concluding that some of what goes on in virtual worlds is in fact more real than much of what goes on in the non-virtual world. For instance, compare the experience of those who decided to participate in the memorial service with what you have done so far today at work, at school, or during your commute. Isn’t it at least possible that the memorial service was more valuable/meaningful/important/weighty than much of what you did today, and therefore more real?

When I have discussed the reality of virtual worlds with others, another question that often comes up is whether I would consent to spend my entire life in a virtual world. The intuition seems to be that most of us would not consent to spending our lives entirely in a virtual world because we believe that an entirely virtual life would lack some sort of value. And one potential explanation of the intuition that a life spent entirely in a virtual world would lack some sort of value is that such a life would somehow fail to make sufficient contact with reality. Yet, it is worth pointing out that it is possible to believe that there is critical value in spending part of your life concentrated on the external, physical world without also believing that the external, physical world is the only one that is real.

We began with the question why the claim that virtual worlds are real has a tendency to provoke heated opposition. I suggested that it is because there are other things – such things as genocide, untreatable illness, and homelessness – next to which the activities that take place in a virtual world seem decidedly unreal. And indeed, we might now suggest that these things are more real because at stake in each are issues of tremendous importance, weight, value, and meaning. However, the fact that virtual worlds seem decidedly less real than some things need not blind us to the realization that virtual worlds do possess a substantial degree of reality themselves. Our natural desire to affirm the overwhelming reality of some things should not prevent us from seeing that there is serious dose of reality in other areas as well.