One of the things that was once a term related to science fiction that have now become real life is the term “Virtual Reality”. When I was a kid, virtual reality brought about images of giant goggle helmets and gloves with wires on them. These days, VR headsets are things you can get for a relatively low price and just plug in your Samsung smart phone to experience virtual reality. However, that is really the most basic, simple product when it comes to the idea of a “virtual” space.
Have you ever known someone or have you ever played games such as Runescape, World of Warcraft, or Guild Wars? Or even Dungeons and Dragons? These things are all a sort of virtual reality.
Games in which people play a character of their creation and fulfill a role in the gaming world are in every way virtual reality. In her article, “Constructions and Reconstructins of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing in the MUDs”, regarding online PC virtual reality games, Sherry Turkle tells us,
“[These] worlds exist on international computer networks, which of course means that in a certain sense, a physical sense, they don’t exist at all. From all over the world, people use their individual machines to access a program which presents them with a game space-in the high tech world such spaces have come to be called “virtual”- in that they can navigate, converse, and build.”
And while games like this as virtual reality are not something most of us would struggle to imagine, I’m using those as an example to paint a picture of what virtual reality games are for the people who play them. As Turkle told us, these are international networks without any physical location where people can interact and build their own ‘self’ for the world.
Think about your online life. How many of us have a carefully cultivated presence online behind which we build a persona for the world to see? I confess, as a kid I was a HUGE fan of Harry Potter. I’m talking not just reading the books, but going to all the websites and being active on all the message boards. I can’t even remember what my username was, but I remember that I used the same username on every website (this was pre-twitter and tumblr, so I didn’t find just one location to be active on). Remember those little ‘build your own doll’ avatar makers that existed in the early 2000s where you designed a little cartoon version of yourself to use as a userpic? I had the same one of those on all my accounts. Because I was so active on all these websites, people recognized me from other sites they were on.
This was a virtual reality. My little 12 year old self has a virtual persona that wasn’t at all related to my real self. At the time, you had to be 13 to be on any website, so I was 15 to the websites. My avatar was redheaded when I have black hair. My name I do not remember, but it was nothing even remotely related to my real name because I grew up in the era of “never tell strangers online your real name”. I made guesses about what would happen in the next Harry Potter book and discussed these theories with people from all over the world. I would spend several hours each week talking to people who only knew that I was a 15 year old girl with red hair and a different name who loved Harry Potter as much as they did. This was its own reality. I’m sure most of those other people were also too-young-for-the-website kids with fake names and made up features on their avatars, but we all played these roles in our own nerdy fandom reality.
These days, social media allows us all to live in a virtual space. One of my best friends in my whole life, who has been my friend for the past decade, is a lady from England that I have never met in person. For the past ten years, we’ve shared not just correspondence almost daily, but life events, family tragedies, secret hopes and dreams, support, and love. She is just as any friend is to me, even though we have never been on the same continent. Our entire relationship, you could say, is therefore “Virtual Reality” rather than regular reality. Everything we have done together has been virtual by nature of space and time.
But it’s real. Our friendship is inescapably real. That raises the question, is virtual reality necessarily something that’s not real? Do the personas we build that depict a version of ourselves differ from the personas we build face to face with clients at work or relatives we don’t want knowing our secrets (I’m bisexual and very few relatives know this, for example). Though I am my genuine self with my friend, there are still parts of my life she doesn’t witness just by nature of the distance (think how she’s never seen inside my shoe closet, for example, so she may not realize I’m a shoe-addict).
These days, the question between what is virtual reality and what is ‘real’ reality is one that’s much harder to answer than it once was.