In most Q&As after my documentary on virtual worlds, "Second Skin," I’m met with the same question, "Why spend time in virtual worlds?" I think it’s like asking, "How can you hang out with your friends for so long?"
For one thing, there are few places where we are not forced to be ourselves — the anonymity we arrive to in virtual worlds is empowering. Through it, we’re able to engage others without the burden of someone recognizing us, stereotyping us, or seeing us. (Just ask celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Vin Diesel and Mila Kunis, among others, who long in like everyone else.)
Virtual worlds level the playing field for anyone who might experience prejudice based on looks, weight, disability, class or race. Suddenly, someone who’s had negative social experiences for their entire life can start anew, without judgment, and be judged solely on their actions and words.
Though the media loves portraying gamers as social outcasts, nothing is further from the truth. Not only are gamers anything but anti-social, I would argue that gamers are more social than non-gamers. In a lot of ways, virtual worlds not only facilitate socializing but make for richer, deeper social experiences.
In fact, in a virtual world, it’s the community that becomes the most vital component of the experience. A guild or group of friends builds roots in a game by creating history, drama, responsibility and friendship. It’s exactly the same social norms we use to make ourselves important and useful in our real lives.
One of the biggest issues in society today is isolation from those around us, even our neighbors. It’s not surprising that we’re building less-intimidating ways to walk up to strangers.
Consider it through the lens of Andrew Monkelban.
Monkelban is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, which has rendered him mute and almost completely paralyzed. Nearly his entire personality has only one conduit for expression: his right index finger. When I met Andrew, we were inside the virtual world of "Second Life," we both had wings, and I had no idea he was disabled.
Andrew endeared himself to me immediately, being both incredibly down-to-earth and witty. We hung out quite a bit online, having many late-night conversations. It was weeks later that he revealed to me his disability, and months later that I decided to pay him a visit, camera in tow.
Hanging out with Andrew that afternoon was a life-changing experience that forced me to reconsider everything I felt about virtual worlds.
Walking through his bedroom door and meeting him, my first reaction was denial — this exuberant, funny online friend of mine was reduced to an unmoving, silent shell immediately. It took me most of the afternoon to become comfortable with him again, mostly because the forced silences felt so awkward and his face barely expressed his actual emotions.
In our world, Andrew was mostly limited to his room. Online, Andrew presided over a large guild and edited anime music videos, which he shared with his virtual world friends. His virtual life was infinitely more gratifying than his real life. He had multitudes of friends, none of whom judged him on his physical body, and he could truly be himself and show off his many talents.
And then I caught myself. Doesn’t that describe countless non-disabled people as well — not only the socially awkward or those that society deems physically unattractive, but those who haven’t found like-minded friends or neighbors or who want a more diverse, larger group of friends?
What makes virtual-world friends or virtual worlds, at all, inferior to our own?
While making this movie, I’ve seen virtual worlds bring together numerous couples, many of whom are now married. I’ve seen virtual worlds cement friendships, provide social outlets, and educate many children and teens by offering them a crowd of older, more mature friends. Of course, I’ve also seen these games cripple the lives of many, shatter relationships and even cost a few gamers their lives.
The takeaway may be to recognize how much reality has blurred with the virtual world already. In many ways being a gamer isn’t so different from using Facebook or Twitter, and whether I’m gaming or not, I’m — most of us are — always in front of a screen working on a project, emailing, chatting or all of the above.
At this point we’re all gamers in one way or another, and as we continue to move into the future I believe we’ll see our virtual identity become more relevant than our real self. I’m not quite sure if that hasn’t happened already.