Do we all have a second life?

On the first of what may be many topics regarding virtual worlds I’d like to lay down some initial thoughts on the basic concepts and questions I have on this subject.

Before starting I’d let it be known that I am a fan of World of Warcraft, the online MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game – yes I know it’s a bit of a mouthful!). For those who are unaware of the planets most played online game I shall give a broad overview. It is a virtual world, set in a mythological era, elves, dwarfs etc. Players undertake quests, battle against each other, team up with others from all around the globe to conquer the world (virtual of course).

But WoW (World of Warcraft) isn’t the only online virtual world. They come in all shapes and sizes, from XBOX 360 games to ones without the need to download and install anything. The style of play and interaction varies greatly, from action and adventure or puzzle solving to commerce and socialising. The questions posed here aren’t related to the format of these worlds but the involvement we have with them.

With the advent of the Information Revolution it is now possible to lead a second life, a virtual life, one which provides us with the ability to project an image of how we want others to perceive us. If you go back to basics, take away the computer and the internet, you will find that we have in fact been doing this for centuries. We play games from Chess to Monopoly, where we live out a short existence as another person, commanding an army or Pawns, Knights etc, or as a property tycoon buying and selling. Through the medium of story telling we have been able to make characters seem larger than life, better, faster, flawless, more beautiful, adventurous than the majority of us are.

Do we want to read about an average person going through their average daily life? At times maybe but we yearn for the extraordinary, those feats of bravery that lift our spirits and make us want to believe there may indeed be people who perform such amazing acts. This is where the art of storytelling comes in, our imagination is showered by the words that slide through our eyes into our minds.

And now we are able to create virtual worlds, not just with text but with rich imagery, amazing characters and new places to explore. Some might say they have a full and rich life as it is without the need to invent themselves in a virtual one. Yet the number of subscribers to virtual worlds seems to grow and grow. Does this mean that those who play have no life? No friends? No one around them they want to spend time with? You may call those who have a virtual existence geeks, nerds, saddos, billy-no-mates…and so on. More people choose to login and create a virtual avatar, so maybe those who don’t are the ones who can be ridiculed.

Some years ago, pre-PlayStation, the idea of sitting and playing video games was seen as a solo event, without socialising or interacting with anyone. With the advent of online gaming, clever media advertising, and social acceptance, video games are now seen as the norm. Gaming is a social pastime/hobby, friends meet up and play together, enjoy the fun of the competition.

Did you know that when you turn up for an interview some companies now enquire about your virtual life? Are you on Facebook or MySpace for example? They may even check you out as part of the selection process, after all why should a CV be only about qualifications and work history? Employers are making an investment in you after all, so by viewing your profile on a social networking website provides them with additional information about you. Do you have a lot of friends in your list? Do you update your profile regularly? How do your portray yourself to others? All these things can enable an employer to gain an insight into who you are.

The same goes for your online gaming habits. If, like me, you run a WoW guild (or other similar grouping in the virtual space) where people from all over the world come together to chat and quest, an employer could be interested to know that you have leadership skills, the ability to negotiate and communicate, organise and process a surprisingly large amount of information. Just because it’s all virtual does not mean it is just folly. If you can do these things virtually then chances are you can do them in real life too.

Not everyone has time to devote to virtual lives. But a great deal set aside a chunk of time each day to live through their alter ego. They can choose to be someone else for a while, similar to watching a movie or reading a book but more visual and immersive. It’s partly to do with escapism, some people like to watch soaps on TV, real life drama etc, others don’t see the point, they live in real life enough and desire escapism and fantasy.

How many people, given the chance, would take time to project themselves into a virtual world? After overcoming the usual stereotypical perception of “geekness” I believe a surprisingly large percentage of people would enjoy their new found virtuality. There are stories in the media from time to time concerning an individual who became addicted to living purely in a second online life, but these are rare.

Anger management – go boxing or learn martial arts, some therapists might advise. It seems they never suggest the patient heads for the nearest social virtual space and let their anger pour out over some well shaded polygons do they? Why not? Perhaps these kinds of interactive games are very good at helping people overcome problems like shyness, communication problems, attention disorders, even spelling!

You may think that just because I play an online game that I am biased toward the fact they are a good idea. You would be wrong, it is because I play them that I have the questions and find the wider implications of the subject fascinating. We all project different versions of ourselves to one another; the lover, the husband, the close friend, the mate at work, the mother, the distant friend who doesn’t know you very well but tries to appear friendly when you meet, the boss and the team player to name but a few. We don’t show these sides to everyone all the time, we choose when to open up that door inside our heads and allow the next version of our personality to step out.

So in answer to my question: Do we all have a second life? Yes we do, whether that be physical based in the real world or in a virtual existence, we all have different characters we show to different people and at different times. As humans we seem to thrive on individuality, it is our nature to express ourselves, to exist how we see fit, for better or worse.

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