fter several weeks you have at last dispatched enough ogres, druids, warlocks, and sorcerers to earn enough skills and talents to make you truly formidable in the World of Warcraft. This is just one of the many online games that lure literally millions of people, mostly in the U.S. and Far East, into virtual reality every day.
Economist Edward Castronova calls these online games synthetic worlds, places of escape from everyday life going on around us. But virtual reality isnt what it used to be. Increasingly its encroaching on the real world. The binary is impacting the biological in ways that no one could have anticipated.
Castronova, an associate professor at Indiana University, says (online), I study synthetic worlds, especially large games, which are persistent online gameworlds with millions of players. The emergence of these places raises significant questions for society: markets, public policy, politics, law, daily life.1
The virtual reality that is so essential to online gaming affects far more than the mere monetary cost of the hardware and software to play the games and the astonishing amount of time expended on them. It has become a part of the warp and woof of real-world economics.
Consider, for example, that gamers are finding increasingly creative ways in the real world to better themselves in the virtual world. In the World of Warcraft, for example, a level 40 player is less powerful than a level 60 player. You increase your power by combating and defeating all kinds of opponents.
In the rules of the game, each time you kill an antagonist, you are entitled to a given amount of currency, measured in virtual gold pieces. And when you amass enough of these gold pieces, you may purchase a weapon, a skill, or a piece of equipment that will make you more powerful, move you to a higher level. The goal is to become all-powerful, or uber in game parlance.
Enter eBay. Through online auction you may use your real credit card (the plastic kind with embossed letters) to buy higher level characters and virtual gold pieces. At the end of November 2005, the exchange rate of World of Warcraft virtual gold was averaging just below 10 cents per piece. Now were in the world of real economics. Were talking U.S. dollars here.
And the inevitable entrepreneurial spirit continues to rise to the occasion. Gold farming, for example. Individuals and groups in Asia and Eastern Europe are paid low wages to play these games for hours at a time and amass virtual gold points, which are then sold for considerable profit through online sites.
So you can become uber by earning gold pieces inside the virtual world or by buying them from the real world outside. To most of the millions of players, it hardly matters where you got your gold points. For them reality is a kind of hybrid between the virtual and the organic.
And increasingly the nature of reality has become a recurrent theme in popular culture. William Gibson is generally credited with coining the word cyberspace for computer-simulated reality in his Sprawl Trilogy of the 1970s. By jacking in to computer programs, his characters explore cyberspace and, in so doing, begin to lose track of where they truly are. So does the reader.
Films are exploring the nature of reality too. In an October 2005 film conference entitled Reality: Fact or Fiction? speakers from the worlds of film and theology addressed some troubling issues on the nature of truth and reality.
One presentation was introduced in this provocative way: Films like Ray and Friday Night Lights are but two recent examples of successful films that have presented true stories to the public. But are they really true stories? And does anyone care?2
Presenters observed that even documentaries, once produced from a basis in objectivity and a scientific understanding of reality, have changed their style and approach to the subjective and highly personalized.
Isnt reality always reality? the Web site asks. How can there be so many different takes on it? Why is it that factuality is no longer the main criteria [sic] for determining whats real?3
In one of human historys most wretched dramatic ironies, Pontius Pilate had the temerity to ask Jesus his own version of the same question: What is truth? (John 18:38, KJV). Its an issue that is even more complex today. Yet its answer is just as profoundly simple for us in the twenty-first century as it was for Pilate. Its staring us right in the face (14:6).
Gary Swanson is the Associate Director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.