Thursday, March 15, 2007

Virtual Worlds as Virtual Reality

I have been catching up on some reading that I've wanted to do, and the first on my list was Synthetic Worlds by Edward Castranova. I will post a complete review of my thoughts on the book when I have finished, but I wanted to take a moment to look at a very interesting distinction that Castranova draws early in his work.

The difference was this: the science program focused on sensory-input hardware,
while gamers focused on mentally and emotionally engaging software. As you
can imagine, a person can become "immersed" either way: either the sensory
inputs are so good you actually think the crafted environment you're in
is genuine, or, you become so involved mentally and emotionally in the synthetic
world that you stop paying attention to the fact that it is only
synthetic. It turns out that the way humans are made, the software-based
approach seems to have had much more success (Castranova 2005).

The parallel that he draws with regards to the scientific study of virtual reality and the rise of the gaming industry, specifically in the genre of online virtual worlds, is very exciting. I think that great merit lies in the underlying hypothesis that he is able to draw about human nature and our need for the emotional and mental elements that the 'synthetic worlds' provide.

The greatest distinction lies in the relevance of human social contact. In a virtual reality engine, these sensory inputs stimulate our brain to perceive those social bonds with our environment and with other members of the environment, but they do not if fact exist. I believe that on a basic 'gut' level the human brain and body will always be aware of that distinction. However when we transition to virtual worlds, the interactions with other humans through their representative avatars, we experience those same sensory mechanics, however the brain and body knows that the interaction is genuine. The world may be crafted but the fundamental societal and emotional capital within in are fundamentally real.

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