Is the Virtual World Really An Escape from Reality?

Or are they on a collision course?

Google Glass

The Role-Creating World

One of the most popular and successful genres of gaming is the role-playing game (RPG). In an RPG, the player is a character in a usually fantasy world, and is able to develop skills and abilities within that world to progress as a character. In the virtual world, one could grow more powerful or more wise, and take on more difficult obstacles.

Traditionally, these role-playing games—and in fact, all commercial video games—were played as an escape from reality. One could escape the loud, busy, modern world and live instead in a quiet, simple, and perhaps peaceful world.

WoW Screenshot 4
Screenshot from the game World of Warcraft.

One of the strongest effects of these games was to cause players to disregard socioeconomic stratification that existed in the real world. In the virtual worlds of RPG’s, everyone starts equal and has the same opportunities.

From an extensive CNN report on gaming:

A professor: “…people do not feel they have the freedom and kind of  their own power to change their own social roes and their own identities. But in cyberspace, people do not remember… your wealth.”

From a gamer interviewee, in the same report about the RPG known as Maple Story:

“It’s a game where you can make people grow and develop within a certain line of work.  …you get a feeling that you are improving.”

The anonymity of online gaming meant that players could ignore social and economic barriers in real life, and feel accomplished by themselves.

The Facebook Conundrum

The face of gaming was forever changed by Facebook. Instead of playing with anonymous players from all around the country, and even all around the world, players of Facebook games play with their real-life friends.

Screenshot from Farmville. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Moreover, many Facebook games have microtransactions, where players can pay real money to gaming companies in exchange for virtual goods or virtual currencies. In “older” style RPG’s, on the other hand, all currencies are in-game only and there is no legal exchange between virtual money and real money.

These are two big factors:

  • The veil of anonymity has lifted; and,
  • Real money is now able to affect your character’s position in the virtual world.

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is headed: into socioeconomic stratification in the virtual world, which was supposed to be the one place where players could escape from real world problems.

That is, in classic RPG’s, more successful players could attribute their victories to skill, knowledge, and effort. But in microtransaction-based games, the more successful players could be attributed to just being wealthier in the real world.

Diablo 3 and Marxism

Even in these microtransaction-based games on Facebook, the microtransactions can be thought of in terms of a state-controlled economy. Almost always, the company itself determines the prices of all virtual goods or currencies, and the company itself is the seller of goods. Zynga and Nexon are two examples of this.

Activision Blizzard took the idea of microtransactions one step further, and created a capitalist economy, where the players themselves sell goods to each other, while the company obtains a 15% tax on each virtual good sold.

Screenshot of the Real Money Auction House in Diablo 3. The $250 buyout is the max limit.

In the classic microtransaction models where every player who buys a particular item pays the same amount, no player feels ripped off or feels that the system is unfair.

But in the Real Money Auction House model, one player might buy a near identical good for half the price that another player paid, perhaps because the first player had carefully studied the market and compared options more carefully. The second player ends up feeling ripped off.

In this free market virtual economy, the stratification arising from unregulated capitalism has taken effect. Again, one doesn’t need to read Karl Marx to see what is going on in this virtual economy. The rich are getting richer by buying goods cheap and then reselling them for higher values, while the poor find it very difficult to start off. The poor have essentially turned into a working class. The Diablo 3 economy is very much akin to that of Industrial Revolution Britain.

The Future of the Virtual World

The virtual world began as an escape from reality, then transformed into a mirror of current reality, and then mutated again to a history of human reality.

If it continues down this path, then the virtual world of the future is not going to be the virtual world we saw in our dreams.

What we imagined virtual reality to be.

It will not be a place where we can set aside our real world and escape our problems for a few hours. It will not be a place where we have fun or meet people we would never see otherwise and talk about the little things in life without worrying about our financial position.

Instead, it will be an extension of the real world and everything in it. Those who are wealthier in the real world will have more options in the virtual world, and those who are poorer will remain poor. Ultimately, if virtual reality does not return to its roots as an escape from reality, people will end up escaping the virtual world as well.