The word “game” is unfortunate, because it makes it sound like it isn’t real, but in multiplayer games and virtual worlds we do real romance, real learning and real business. Second Life has $2 million a day in real economic transactions. Unfortunately, these names have stuck. “Artificial intelligence” is real intelligence. “Virtual reality” is real reality. – Ray Kurzweil, Game Developers Conference 2008
The v-word – “virtual” – is a sticky wicket. We consider it a modern term, but its Latin roots go back to the 1400s, long before computers. Traditionally, it’s a fairly ugly word, used to describe something that is like something else but isn’t, such as the “virtual” extinction of a species or the “virtual” end of life as we know it. Even in its modern use applied to computer simulations of otherwise familiar activities, there is a general consensus that “virtual” means “not real.” And this is the root of its veritable obsolescence.
The Origins of Virtual
“Virtual” in computer terminology originally referred to simulated spaces within computers themselves known as “virtual memory.” Virtual servers and memory have risen into the geek consciousness more significantly in the last five years, but virtual memory itself was in use on German Mainframes as far back as 1959. Thus, when this computing term was applied in the early 1970s to another computer-mediated space first suggested in works of fiction, “virtual reality,” no one blinked an eye – even though this represented a fundamental shift in the application of the word.
The beginning of “virtual” in computer terms was exactly its use in other areas of language – a concession to the noun’s “not reality.” If “virtual reality” were reality, it wouldn’t need the adjective “virtual,” and so by adding it we made the qualification: “OK, so we know it’s not actually reality, but it’s like reality.”
Word-bridges like this are our method of communicating and labeling something we’ve never encountered before.
“Chinese Checkers” is neither Chinese nor related to checkers, but using that term allowed Bill and Jack Pressman to provide a familiar yet exotic context to a game that most Americans in the late 1920s found completely new.
The problem, as Ray Kurzweil points out, is that even though most people with access to computers know what a “virtual world” is, we still use the bridge term, mostly out of habit. It now carries baggage beyond its original intent and entirely separate from its linguistic bridge function.
“Virtual” itself is applied today more broadly than to online worlds, but the precise application of “virtual community” or “virtual file-hosting” only muddies the water further. The only commonality between those usages is a loose it’s-done-on-the-computer abstraction, an imprecision that continues to frustrate philosophers today.
But “virtual community” – which in the mainstream increasingly appears as “online community” due to its growing familiarity – leads to far less moral judgment than “virtual world,” and this is at the heart of its need for replacement. As we continue to broaden the application of “virtual,” from a computer networking term to colonoscopy via X-ray, the idea spaces that mediate between very real people are in much greater need of precise communication and understanding.
Ancient Virtual Worlds
In our modern and inevitably more crowded world, the urge to seek solitude is increasingly compelling, and increasingly found in smaller, more portable technologies: headphones on a packed subway car, cell phone web-browsing in line at the grocery store, etc. All of these create virtual worlds – retreats for the human mind.
Historically, this kind of “virtual world” has been critical to human survival under horrendous duress. Viktor Frankl famously quoted Nietzsche regarding his time and survival in three Nazi concentration camps: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” By creating a world within his mind, Frankl was able to conquer and survive an assault on his body and spirit of the worst imaginable sort. And he observed that those who did not have this mind-life succumbed to a fatal despair.
What is missing from the modern definition of “virtual” is this transcendent element by which we create power and triumph and clarity – all of which are evidenced and emphasized in modern popular online worlds – in these spaces within our minds. How incredible, how transformative, to share this island of order and heroism previously private to ourselves with another human being! Yet this practice is currently relegated to “not real,” “like but not” – “virtual.”
The Deleuze Solution
There is an alternative to dumping “virtual” entirely, but its road is considerably more winding.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze is a spring chicken in the history of philosophy, living and working from 1925 to 1995. Yet his influence has surged in the last 20 years, vying today with the most prominent philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries. He established a different definition of “virtual” that speaks to games and online experience in particular:
The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: “Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract”; and symbolic without being fictional. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the object – as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension.” – Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
Deleuze opposed essentialism, that is, the notion that existences, such as human beings, could be distilled into a single common identity. Instead, he saw existence in terms of multiplicity in all its forms – that, for instance, we as human beings are not single selves but multiple selves spread out in time, that life itself exists in a continuum and state of alchemical flow and information exchange.
This is heady stuff, to be sure, the domain of professional thinkers walled up in ivory towers. When it comes to the virtual, what Deleuze seems to be saying is that what we think of as “virtual” is in fact very real and important, accessed on a parallel dimension rife with meaning. He lifts the virtual up above the “actual,” or the material manifestation of what we observe in meatspace. Deleuze’s virtual is neither intrinsically inferior nor superior to the material, but it is on an incomparably different plane of existence.
This is a concept that would resonate with many World of Warcraft players. When we explore worlds online and connect with other players across vast physical distances, we do not become less real. Arguably, for those who have experienced this life, we feel more real – our physical masks pulled down, revealing the structure of ideas, passions and contemplations beneath.
Deleuze’s interpretation of “virtual” is actually closer to its Latin origin: virtualis, “from essence.” The same root gives us “virtue” and the Roman virtus, expressing a distillation of what was best in human behavior. Thanks to a general lack of social engineering, we typically think of neither term when considering online worlds, but what these words do express is our deep and ancient longing for idea-space, for understanding and for the manifestation of our deep potential.
So what’s in a name? What’s the big deal with “virtual,” even if it has been spread around to so many different applications that it ceases to hold meaning? How big a deal can a word be?
The problem is scale. We know that online gaming is continuing to grow. Online gamers spend more time playing than console gamers – they’re dedicated and increasing in number by the day. Second Life inhabitants continue to exchange millions of dollars every month to participate in their mind-space. In addition to online gaming, more people are investing time and companies investing dollars into online social tools that make consumer’s lives more rounded and fulfilled.
With population grows complexity. Here in the West, when it comes to games, we know that the biggest difference between us and China, at the end of the day, is population. When you have hundreds of millions of people playing games online, as we will soon have, you have bigger challenges and broader limits of behavior. Fringe individuals will bring the crazy, and games will be in the crossfire.
Virtual, with apologies to the Greeks and Deleuze, is fatally weighed down with ambiguity and vagueness. Consider instead “online” – its roundness, its iambic grace.
If we make the transition from the flimsy and awkward “virtual world” to the more accurate “online world,” we plant the ideological seeds of specificity and respect that turn our minds from lack of understanding to the pursuit of potential. “Online” is connection. “Online” is techno-prosperity. “Online” is the future.
It’s time to burn the bridge.
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.