I got brain-dumped a ton of provocative ideas and questions from the virtual worlds symposium sponsored by the USC Network Culture Project last week. (Thanks, Doug, Tori, Staci, et al!) One of the more relevant discussions related to why people are motivated to get involved in online games and virtual worlds by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. I argued that virtual worlds fill an emotional void in people — to feel important, heroic / villainous, connected. If the real world didn’t suck so much, people wouldn’t want to escape it all the time.
One of the participants responded that from his perspective, everything boiled down to the human need for community and the decline of civic institutions since the 1950s — a phenomenon that was chronicled so well in Robert Putnam’s remarkable book Bowling Alone (2000). I’ve been mulling this ever since.
I’m fairly active in Second Life, attending cultural, social and political events in-world even during off-hours. But I wouldn’t go as far to say that I look to virtual worlds to fulfill my need for community.
I’m a regular churchgoer, an active member of different non-profit and cultural groups, and involved in national and international political causes and campaigns. I don’t need virtual worlds to connect me to other people. I’m about as connected and civicly engaged as I can realistically manage.
That said, I know many others that are much more active than me in virtual worlds and online games who probably do get that emotional need for community at least partially fulfilled by their online activities. I have friends who are musicians and DJs who get to perform in front of live audiences despite being geographically or situationally isolated from real world performance venues. I know people who have various social anxieties that converse much more easily behind the artifice of an online world. And there are those for whom there are political and social costs to expressing their true selves in the real world who find accepting and supportive communities online.
On the other hand, there is a danger that if people are getting their civic buttons pushed online that they won’t take the steps needed to being "really" civicly engaged. Blogging doesn’t replace voting. Friend’ing someone on Facebook is not equivalent to being a Big Brother / Big Sister in the ghetto. Going to virtual Havana does not enlarge the worldview like sitting on the real Malecon with true Habañeros.
This overstates the case, of course. If part of the human condition is to be in community, then any technology that facilitates that is a net good, even without a real world change component. People derive real benefit from having a circle of friends (even if they happen to resemble blue bunnies and Gundam and samurai) and from being enmeshed in social institutions that involve cooperation, group problem-solving and a shared culture.