Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other - Sherry Turkle (2011)
Part II. Networked
Chapter 11. Reduction and betrayal
In the mid-1990s, computer scientist and technological utopian Raymond Kurzweil created an avatar, Ramona, which he put into a virtual world. At that time, most players of online role-playing games had text-based avatars, complete with long descriptions of their histories and relationships, as well as the clothes they were wearing. Kurzweil looked forward to a new era. He didn’t want to describe himself as Grace Slick. He wanted to be Grace Slick. Kurzweil created a virtual world and made a beautiful, sexy avatar who sang before the psychedelic backdrops of his choosing. This was Ramona. In the real, Kurzweil wore high-tech gear that captured his every gesture and turned them into Ramona’s movements. His own voice was transformed into Ramona’s female voice. Watching Kurzweil perform as Ramona was mesmerizing. And Kurzweil himself was mesmerized. It was an occasion, he said, for him to reflect on the difficulties of inhabiting another body and on how he had to retrain his movements—the way he held his head, the shape of his gestures—to become an avatar of another gender. These days, certain aspects of that experience, once so revolutionary, have become banal. We have turned them into games.
One such game, The Beatles: Rock Band, was released in September 2009 and hailed by the New York Times as a “transformative entertainment experience.” 1 As in its older cousin, Rock Band, players hold game controllers in the shape of musical instruments and microphones that will transform the sounds they make into the sounds produced by screen avatars. Here the goal of play is to simulate the playing and singing of the Beatles. Such games are said to open music up to those who have no talent or no guitar. It is hoped that if children practice on such games, they will end up wanting to play a real instrument.
Like Kurzweil with Ramona, you have an avatar that you drive toward competency, and you have all that goes on in your head. The game sets you up not just to perform as a rock star but to feel like one, with all the attendant dreams and fantasies.
In online worlds and massively multiplayer online role-playing games, you have virtuosity and fantasy—and something more: your performances put you at the center of a new community with virtual best friends and a sense of belonging. It is not unusual for people to feel more comfortable in an unreal place than a real one because they feel that in simulation they show their better and perhaps truer self. With all of this going on, who will hold a brief for the real?
SERIOUS PLAY: A SECOND LIFE
When I joined Second Life, I was asked to choose a name for my avatar. I have often imagined having a name other than Sherry. It has never seemed quite right. Is it the Four Seasons song of the early 1960s that keeps it stuck in the world of junior high? But when I finally had the chance to be known as something else, I was confused. It was easy to dislike the name Sherry but not so easy to know what name I wanted. Fortunately, the system offered me choices. Once I chose, I felt relieved. Rachel. Something about this new name appealed. What was it? And with a question that simple, life on the screen became an identity workshop.2
Online worlds and role-playing games ask you to construct, edit, and perform a self. Yet, in these performances, like the performances we saw with sociable robots, something else breaks through. When we perform a life through our avatars, we express our hopes, strengths, and vulnerabilities.3 They are a kind of natural Rorschach.4 We have an opportunity to see what we wish for and what we might be missing. But more than this, we may work through blocks and address insecurities. People can use an avatar as “practice” for real life. As I’ve said, our lives on the screen may be play, but they are serious play.
Of course, people don’t forge online identities with the idea that they are embarking on a potentially “therapeutic” exercise. Experimentation and self-reflection sneak up on you. You begin the process of building an avatar to play a game or join an online community; you imagine that it will be a simple matter, but then, suddenly, it is not. You can’t, for example, decide on a name.
Joel, twenty-six, has given much thought to such questions of identity and online representation. For him, Second Life is quite literally his second life. In person, Joel appears far younger than his years. He is slender, casually dressed, with a slash of dark, tousled hair. Only a few years ago, his youthful appearance bothered Joel. He felt it was hard for people to take him seriously. Now, happily engaged to be married and settled down in a job he enjoys, Joel has made peace with his appearance. He still wishes he looked older but admits, “In the end, I suppose it can be helpful. Underestimation has its uses.” Joel grew up hoping to be an artist, but practical considerations led him to study computer science. He is a programmer, talented and sought after.
Joel runs a software-design team at an elite biotechnology firm. He is challenged by the work, but his search for more creative outlets in programming brought him to Second Life. This is where Pete, whom we met earlier, had his virtual love affair with the beautiful avatar Jade. Joel has no interest in a Second Life romance. He wants a place to explore his potential as an artist and a leader. In real life, he does not feel confirmed in either. But both are integral to who he wants to be. In the safety of the online world, Joel performs them to become them.
Anthropologist Victor Turner writes that we are most free to explore identity in places outside of our normal life routines, places that are in some way “betwixt and between.” Turner calls them liminal, from the Latin word for “threshold.” They are literally on the boundaries of things.5 Thomas Mann’s imagined world in The Magic Mountain is a place out of time and place; this is what Second Life is for Joel, a place on the border between reality and fantasy. While many in Second Life build an avatar that is sexy, chic, and buff—a physical embodiment of a certain kind of ideal self—Joel goes in a different direction. He builds a fantasy version of how he sees himself, warts and all. He makes his avatar a pint-sized elephant named Rashi, a mix of floppy-eared sweetness and down-to-earth practicality. On Second Life, Rashi has a winsome side but is respected as an artist and programmer. That is, Joel creates beautiful buildings and virtual sculptures by programming at his keyboard; his avatar Rashi gets the credit in Second Life. More than being an artist, Joel (as Rashi) also takes charge of things. He organizes virtual building projects and gallery installations. Rashi is the kind of manager Joel wants to be: strict but always calm and nonthreatening. Although an elephant, Rashi offers many possibilities for identity exploration to a man trying to bring together his artistic and managerial talents.
On Second Life, Joel could have built a tall and commanding avatar. He could have given his avatar a military bearing, or an Einsteinian “genius” allure. Instead, he crafted an avatar that faces the same challenges he does in the physical real. The avatar, like the man behind him, often has to prove his talent and self-discipline. For although he can be formal in manner, Rashi does, after all, resemble Dumbo more than the man in the gray flannel suit. So, like Joel, the elephant Rashi often works on teams whose members expect a lack of seriousness when they first meet him and then are taken aback by his dedication and technical virtuosity.
From the earliest days of online role-playing games, there were those who saw virtual places as essential to their life off the screen because online experiences were helping them to grow. One young man told me how he had “come out” online and saw this as practice for coming out to his friends and then to his family. A young woman who had lost a leg in a car crash and now wore a prosthetic limb felt ready to resume a sexual life after the accident but was still awkward and anxious. She created an online avatar with a prosthetic leg and had virtual relationships. Online, she practiced talking about her prosthetic limb and taking it off before being intimate with her virtual lovers. She grew more comfortable with her physical body through the experience of her virtual body. Another dedicated player described himself as a too-timid man. Online, he practiced greater assertiveness by playing a woman he called “a Katherine Hep-burn type.” Over time, he was able to bring assertiveness into his day-to-day life as a man. This is the kind of crossover effect that Joel is trying to effect. In the virtual, he cultivates skills he wants to use in the real.
In thinking about online life, it helps to distinguish between what psychologists call acting out and working through. In acting out, you take the conflicts you have in the physical real and express them again and again in the virtual. There is much repetition and little growth. In working through, you use the materials of online life to confront the conflicts of the real and search for new resolutions. This is how Joel uses Rashi. He has made a space for learning how to combine whimsy and gravitas.
Ever since high school, Joel has earned money building websites. He takes pleasure in beating deadlines and saving clients’ money through clever design. Joel credits this to teenage experiences in what he calls the “hacker” culture. Then, Joel felt part of a community of technical virtuosos who worked within a strict ethical code. Using the computer, hackers would play tricks on each other—these were the “hacks”—but they never played tricks on people outside the group, who could not defend themselves. (A classic hack might be to make a computer seem to crash, only to have it revive when a hacker in the know touched it with a particular keystroke.) If a young hacker did not play by these rules, senior hackers would step in and make things right. Joel mourns the passing of the hacker ethic. In today’s virtual worlds, he says, “there is more mischief.” Clever people who don’t feel a commitment to the community are in a position to do real damage. On Second Life, through Rashi, Joel has become an enforcer of “old-school” hacker standards. His elephant is there to keep people in line. Property is to be respected. People’s work is not to be destroyed. Rashi, with his elephant ears and mournful eyes, is a disheveled superhero, but he gets the job done.
Joel joined Second Life as soon as it was announced. He became a beta tester, meaning that he worked in the world before it was released to the public. His job was to help remove programming bugs, to make the environment as good as it could be. Joel’s first impression of Second Life was negative. “I didn’t like it. It was silly. Predictable. Good for techies.” He dropped out for a while, but then came back in search of a creative space. He had heard about a group of “builders,” artistic people who used the Second Life programming language to construct extraordinary and irreverent virtual architecture and art installations. In Second Life, these builders have status; they have made Second Life a significant destination for artists. Over time, Joel found a more welcoming community of artists in Second Life than he could in the real. Joel threw himself into the work of the group. He says, “If I was going to do it, I was going to do it well.”
LIFE ON THE SCREEN
In Second Life, Rashi is a master builder who adds a subtle design vision to any project. He is also very kind. This means that through Rashi, Joel has a rich virtual social life. It brings him into contact with a range of people—artists, intellectuals, writers, businesspeople—he would not ordinarily meet. Rashi is often invited to parties where avatars eat, drink, dance, and chat. Whenever he attends a formal function, Rashi makes an elegant (online) scrapbook of the event and sends it as a gift to his avatar host or hostess.
The week before Joel and I meet, Rashi attended a Second Life wedding. Two avatars got married, and Rashi was asked to be ring bearer. Joel accepted with pleasure and designed an elaborate elephant tuxedo for the occasion. Since the dress code listed on the wedding invitation was “creative formal,” Joel rendered the tuxedo in an iridescent multicolor fabric. He shows me the screenshot album he created after the event, the one that Rashi sent as a gift to the bride and groom. Rashi’s generosity draws people to him, as does his emotional composure. In real life, Joel is a contented man, and this state of mind projects into the game. Perhaps it is this calm that attracted Noelle, a Second Life avatar who presents as a depressed Frenchwoman. Noelle has most recently been talking to Rashi about suicide, that is, suicide in the real. Joel and I sit at his computer on a day after he, as Rashi, has spent many hours “talking her down.”
Noelle tells Rashi that their talks help her, and this makes Joel very happy. He also worries about her. Sometimes he thinks of himself as her father, sometimes as her brother. But since their entire relationship takes place in Second Life, the question of Noelle’s authenticity is unclear. Recently, however, it is very much on Joel’s mind. Who is she really? Is he talking with a depressed woman who has taken on the avatar Noelle, also depressed? Or is the person behind Noelle someone very different who is simply “playing” a depressed person online? Joel says that he would be “okay” if Noelle turns out not to be French. That would not seem a betrayal. But to have spent hours offering counsel to a woman who says she is contemplating suicide, only to find out it was “just a game”—that would feel wrong. Although delivered from Rashi to Noelle, the advice he gives, as Joel sees it, is from him as a human being to the purportedly depressed woman who is Noelle’s puppeteer.
On the game, Joel makes it a rule to take people “at interface value.” That is, he relates to what an avatar presents in the online world. And this is how he wants to be taken by other people. He wants to be treated as a whimsical elephant who is a good friend and a virtuoso programmer. Yet, Joel has been talking to Noelle about the possible death of the real person behind the avatar. And even though he doesn’t think Noelle is exactly as she presents—for one thing her name is surely not Noelle, any more than his is Rashi—he counts on her being enough like her avatar that their relationship is worth the time he puts into it. He certainly is “for real” in his hours of counseling her. He believes that their relationship means something, is worth something, but not if she is “performing” depression. Or, for that matter, if she is a he.
Joel is aware of how delicate a line he walks in his virtual relationship with Noelle. Yet, he admits that the ground rules are not clear. There is no contract stipulating that an avatar will be “truthful” to the reality of the person playing it. Some people create three or four avatars to have the experience of playing different aspects of self, genders other than their own, ages different from their own. Joel knows all of this. But he is moving in another direction. Most recently, Joel’s real-world business cards include his avatar name on Second Life.
We can guess why Joel doesn’t like the telephone. When he makes or receives a call, he feels impatient and fidgety. He says that a call is “too much interruption”; he prefers to text or instant-message. Second Life avatars are able to communicate with each other in real time with text and speech, but because players are so often in and out of the world, this is a place of asynchronous messaging. As I watch Joel on Second Life, he moves through hundreds of messages as though gliding in a layered space. For him these messages, even those sent hours or days before, seem “of the moment.” He experiences the asynchronous as synchronous. He has mastered a kind of information choreography. He speeds through pop-up messages and complex exchanges, surfing waves of information, graceful and in control. He only has to read one or two sentences of a message before he begins his response. Working without interruption, he feels both connected and pleasurably isolated.
Joel is in the same zone between connection and disconnection when he “parks” his avatar and flies without a body through Second Life. When he does this, Joel’s “self ” in the game is no longer Rashi. Joel explains that when he flies this way, he becomes a camera; his “I” becomes a disembodied “eye.” Joel jokingly refers to his ability to fly “bodiless” through Second Life as an “out-of-avatar experience.” He brings up an ethical issue: only some people can fly as he does, people who are experts. And when he flies this way, other people can’t see him or know he is looking at them. Joel acknowledges the problem but is not troubled by it. He is comfortable with his privilege because he knows he does not abuse it. He sees himself as a benign caretaker. His “eye” belongs to a superhero surveying his city on the hill. And besides, says Joel, this isn’t life. This is a game with a skill set that anyone is free to learn. Flying as an invisible eye is one such skill. He has paid his dues and this gives him the right to an activity that in another context might be thought of as spying.
Maria, a thirty-three-year-old financial analyst, can also fly as an “eye” through Second Life, but what she most enjoys in this virtual world is that life there is writ large. “The joy of Second Life is the heightened experience,” she says. Time and relationships speed up. Emotions ramp up: “The time from meeting to falling in love to marrying to passionate breakups … that all can happen in very short order.... It is easy to get people on Second Life to talk about the boredom of the everyday. But on Second Life there is overstimulation.” Maria explains that “the world leads people to emphasize big emotional markers. There is love, marriage, divorce—a lot of emotional culminating points are compressed into an hour in the world.... You are always attending to something big.” What you hear from people is “I want to [virtually] kill myself, I want to get married, I am in love, I want to go to an orgy.” Joel and Maria both say that after they leave the game, they need time to “decompress.” From Maria’s point of view, Second Life is not like life, but perhaps like life on speed. Yet, one of the things that Maria describes as most exhausting, “cycling through people,” others on Second Life describe as most sustaining. For them, the joy of this online world is that it is a place where “new friendships come from.”
Second Life gives Nora, thirty-seven, a happy feeling of continual renewal: “I never know who I’ll meet ‘in world.’” She contrasts this with the routine of her life at home with two toddlers. “At home I always know who I will meet. No one if I stay in with the kids. Or a bunch of nannies if I take the kids to the park. Or a bunch of bored rich-lady moms—I guess they’re like me—if I take them shopping at Formaggio [a well-known purveyor of gourmet foods] or for snacks at the Hi-Rise [a well-known coffee shop/bakery].” Nora is bored with her life but not with her Second Life. She says of her online connections, “They are always about something, always about a real interest.” But connections all about shared “interests” mean that Nora discards people when her “interests” change. She admits that there is a very rapid turnover in her Second Life friendships: “I toss people.... I make friends and then move on.... I know it gives me something of a reputation, but I like that there are always new people.” Alexa, a thirty-one-year-old architecture student, has a similar experience. She says of Second Life, “There is always someone else to talk to, someone else to meet. I don’t feel a commitment.”
A Second Life avatar offers the possibility of virtual youth and beauty and, with these, sexual encounters and romantic companionship not always available in the physical real. These may be engaged in to build confidence for real-life encounters, but sometimes practice seems perfect. Some citizens of Second Life claim that they have found, among other things, sex, art, education, and acceptance. We hear the familiar story: life on the screen moves from being better than nothing to simply being better. Here, the self is reassuringly protean. You can experiment with different kinds of people, but you don’t assume the risks of real relationships. Should you get bored or into trouble, you can, as Nora puts it, “move on.” Or you can “retire” your avatar and start again.
Does loving your Second Life resign you to your disappointments in the real? These days, if you can’t find a good job, you can reimagine yourself as successful in the virtual. You can escape a depressing apartment to entertain guests in a simulated mansion. But while for some the virtual may subdue discontents, for others it seems just a way to escape the doldrums. “During graduate school I spent four years on World of Warcraft [often referred to as WoW],” says Rennie, a thirty-two-year-old economist. “I loved the adventure, the puzzles, the mystery. I loved how I worked with so many different kinds of people. Once I was on a quest with a dancer from New York, a sixteen-year-old math prodigy from Arizona, and a London banker. Their perspectives were so interesting. The collaboration was awesome. It was the best thing in my life.” Now, married with children, Rennie still slips away to World of Warcraft whenever he can. “It’s better,” he says, “than any vacation.” What made it great in graduate school still obtains: it is his fastest, surest way to meet new people and find some thrills and challenges. “A vacation, well, it can work out or not. WoW always delivers.”
Simulation engages Adam, forty-three, to the point where everything else disappears and he just has to stay in the zone. His simulations of choice are the games Quake and Civilization. The first he plays in a group; the other he plays with online “bots,” the artificial intelligences that take the roles of people. Adam likes who he is in these games—a warrior and a world ruler—more than who he is outside of them. His handicaps are in the real; in the games he is a star.
Adam is single, an aspiring singer and songwriter. Beyond this, he dreams of writing a screenplay. To make ends meet, he provides technical support for an insurance company and takes care of an elderly man on the weekends. Neither of these “real jobs” engages him. He is barely holding on to them. He says, “They are slipping away,” under pressure from his game worlds, into which he disappears for up to fifteen-hour stretches. Adam gets little sleep, but he does not consider cutting back on his games. They are essential to his self-esteem, for it is inside these worlds that he feels most relaxed and happy. Adam describes a moment in Quake. “You’re walking through shadow, you can see—there’s snow on the ground, you’re walking through a shadow landscape, and then you’re walking out to the light, and you can see the sunlight!”
In one of the narratives on Quake, the greatest warriors of all time fight for the amusement of a race called the Vadrigar. It is a first-person shooter game. You, as player, are the gun. Adam describes it as a “testosterone-laced thing, where you blow up other guys with various weapons that you find on a little map.” Adam explains that when he plays Quake on a computer network, he can have one-on-one duels or join a team for tournament play. If he plays Quake alone, he duels against bots.
Now Adam plays alone. But in the past, he enjoyed playing Quake with groups of people. These game friends, he says, were the people who had “counted most” in his life. And he had played an online version of Scrabble with a woman named Erin, who became his closest friend. He doesn’t have contact with Erin any more. She moved on to another game.
Adam thinks back to his earlier days on games with nostalgia. He recalls that the group sessions began at the office. “Five or six guys were hooked up to the server. We would play in our cubicles when management had a long meeting.... As long as the Notes server didn’t explode, we would be able to blast away at each other and have a grand old time. And that got me hooked.” After a while, the group moved to playing tournaments at people’s homes. There was food and drink. And an easy way to be with people. Normally shy, Adam says that the game gave him things to talk about. “It didn’t have to be really personal. It could all be about the game.”
Somebody would have a decent-enough network at their home, and we would take our computers there, hook them up, pizza would be ordered, onion dip, lots of crappy food, piles of Coca-Cola. There’s actually a specialized drink for this sort of thing, called “Balz”—B-A-L-Z. Have you heard of it? I think it’s spelled B-A-L-Z. But the point is, it’s hypercaffeinated, something akin to Red Bull. For gaming, we’d set up the thing in the guy’s basement, and we’d do it for four or five hours and blast away.... We’d be screaming at each other.... We’d all be able to hang out during the game and shoot the shit during the game or after the game, and that was a lot of fun.
From gathering in people’s homes, the group went on to rent conference rooms at a hotel, with each participant contributing $50. Meetings now included food, dim lights, and marathon sessions of Quake, played for nine or ten hours at a stretch. Adam says that no one in the group wanted to leave: “And you keep going, you know, ‘Gotta keep doing it again. Let’s do it again! Blast away, you know.’” But the games in homes and hotel rooms have not happened in a long time. Now, Adam is most often on Quake as a single player, teaming up with the computer, with bots for companions. Adam says that the bots “do a great job.” It is easy to forget that they are not people. Although he says it was “more of an ego trip to play with people as the competition, the bots are fine.” Different bots have distinct personalities. They hold forth with scripted lines that simulate real player chat—usually irreverent and wise guy. In fact, Adam finds that “conversations with the [human] players … are about things that bots can talk about as well.” He explains that the bots are competent conversationalists because conversations on Quake tend to follow predictable patterns. There is talk about “the maps … the places to hide, places to get certain bombs, places to get certain forms of invincibility.” The bots can handle this.
Adam reminisces about moments of mastery on Quake; for him, mastery over the game world is a source of joy. “Over time,” Adam says, “you learn where things are.... You get really good.” In one play session, Adam ran around, as a cockroach, in a setting called “the Bathroom.” He admits that “it might not sound like much,” but it had engaged him, mind and body: “There are little tricks, you know, there are little slides, you can slide around, and you can leap up, and you’re going down the sink, you slide down the sink, you end up in the cabinet, you run up a little ramp then find another place … then you get to this other spot where you can grab this pair of wings and fly around the room, just blasting away.”
When Adam played Quake with his office mates, his favorite game had been a virtual version of Capture the Flag. Teams of players raid an opponent’s base to take its flag while holding on to their own. Capture the Flag had everything Adam likes best: competition, flying, and losing himself in the person—that agile and masterful person—he becomes in the game.
You want to beat your buddies. You want to make sure that you’ve outdone them. You capture one flag, and there’s this series of jets you can grab, and you can fly over to the other end and you grab the flag and fly back. And you’re flying, and all of a sudden, you hear [makes loud explosion noise, claps hands] and then “Boom.” … Red team scores [in a dramatic voice, then “ding ding ding ding,” indicating music]. And it’s like “DAMMIT!” [loudly] You get a whole idea of what the hell’s going on with the intensity of it. [laughs] You sorry you asked me for this? [laughs]
The game of Quake, played with his office friends and now played in single-player mode, makes Adam feel better about who he is in the game than who he is outside it. Adam says that he shows more skill at Capture the Flag than he does at his technical job, which he considers rote and beneath him. Beyond mastery, games offer the opportunity to perform roles he finds ennobling. Adam wants to be a generous person, but power is a prerequisite for benevolence. In life Adam feels he has none. In games he has a great deal. Indeed, in Civilization, which he now plays alone, Adam is in charge of nothing less than building the world.
These games take so long, you can literally play it for days. One time when I played it, I had just got the game, and I got so addicted, I stayed home the next day and I played.... I think it was like noon the next day, or like nine o’clock the next day, I played all night long. And I ended up winning. You get so advanced. You get superadvanced technology. The first wave of technology is like a warrior, and the next big advance is you got, like, a spear and a shield, and then later on you get these things like Aegis.... It’s a ship. It’s a modern-day ship, or like nuclear weapons.... And you can actually build a spaceship and can leave the planet.... That would be a way of winning the game....
To succeed in Civilization, Adam has to juggle exploration, conquest, economics, and diplomacy. He needs to exploit culture and technology—there is in-game research to produce an alphabet, build the pyramids, and discover gunpowder. He gets to choose the nature of his government; he feels good when he changes over from despotism to monarchy. “When you change the game to monarchy, [and you want to speed the production of something in a city] then you don’t lose citizens, you lose gold. So it gives you this feeling that you’re humane.”
But those toward whom Adam feels humane are not human. His benevolence is toward artificial intelligences. Adam has not forgotten that the bots are programs, but in the game he sees them as programs and as people. He exhibits the simultaneous vision we saw when people approached sociable robots. Adam enjoys the gratitude of his (AI) subjects. The fact that he takes good care of them makes him feel good about himself. This, in turn, makes him feel indebted to them. His sense of attachment grows. These are his bots, his people who aren’t. He speaks of them in terms of endearment.
Adam talks about how good it feels when “up steps some little guy” (a bot of course) who comes out of battle ready to go over to his side. “Once that one guy comes over,” he says, “there will be more and more of them.” Unlike in real life, allegiance within the game comes with its own soundtrack. Adam says, “There’s this little sound effect of a bunch of tribesmen going [grunt noise], and it echoes. It’s fucking great.”
The dictionary says that “humane” implies compassion and benevolence. Adam’s story has taken us to the domain of compassion and benevolence toward the inanimate. There are echoes here of the first rule of the Tamagotchi primer: we nurture what we love, and we love what we nurture. Adam has beings to care for and the resources to do so. They “appreciate” what he does for them. He feels that this brings out the best in him. He wants to keep playing Civilization so that he can continue to feel good. On Civilization, Adam plays at gratifications he does not believe will come to him any other way.
Laboratory research suggests that how we look and act in the virtual affects our behavior in the real.6 I found this to be the case in some of my clinical studies of role-playing games. Experimenting with behavior in online worlds—for example, a shy man standing up for himself—can sometimes help people develop a wider repertoire of real-world possibilities.7 On this subject, I have also said that virtual experience has the greatest chance of being therapeutic if it becomes grist for the mill in a therapeutic relationship. In Adam’s case, there is no evidence that online accomplishment is making him feel better about himself in the real. He says he is letting other things “slip away”—Erin, the girl he liked on the word game; his job; his hopes of singing and writing songs and screenplays. None of these can compete with his favorite simulations, which he describes as familiar and comforting, as places where he feels “special,” both masterful and good.
Success in simulation tempers Adam’s sense of disappointment with himself. He says that it calms him because, in games, he feels that he is “creating something new.” But this is creation where someone has already been. Like playing the guitar in The Beatles: Rock Band, it is not creation but the feeling of creation. It suits Adam’s purposes. He says he is feeling “less energetic than ever before.” The games make him feel that he is living a better life. He can be adventurous and playful because the games present “a format that has already been established, that you don’t have to create. You’re creating something as you go along with it, but it’s a format that provides you with all the grunt work already, it’s already there, it’s set up, and you just got this little area—it’s a fantasy, it’s a form of wish fulfillment. And you can go and do that.” And yet, in gaming he finds something exhilarating and his.
Adam describes his creativity in Civilization as “just the right amount of creating. It’s not like you really have to do something new. But it feels new.... It’s a very comforting kind of thing, this repetitive sort of thing, it’s like, ‘I’m building a city—oh, yes, I built a city.’” These are feelings of accomplishment on a time scale and with a certainty that the real cannot provide.
This is the sweet spot of simulation: the exhilaration of creativity without its pressures, the excitement of exploration without its risks. And so Adam plays on, escaping to a place where he does not have to think beyond the game. A jumble of words comes out when he describes how he feels when he puts the game aside: “gravity, weight, movement away, bathroom, food, television.” And then, without the game, there comes a flurry of unwelcome questions: “What am I going to do next? What are the things I really ought to be doing? … Off the game, I feel the weight of depression because I have to write my resume.”
Although Adam fears he will soon be out of work, he has not been writing songs or a screenplay. He has not finished his resume or filed his taxes. These things feel overwhelming. The games are reassuring, their payoff guaranteed. Real life takes too many steps and can always disappoint.
Adam gets what he wants from the games, but he no longer feels himself—or at least a self he admires—without them. Outside the games, he is soon to be jobless. Outside the games, he is unable to act on goals, even for so small a thing as a trip to the accountant. The woman he considers his most intimate friend has moved on to a different game. Adam’s thoughts turn back to the people with whom he had once played Quake. Their conversations had been mostly about game strategy, but Adam says, “That doesn’t matter. There’s something about the electronic glow that makes people connected in some weird way.” Adam feels down. His real life is falling apart. And so he moves back, toward the glow.
We are tempted, summoned by robots and bots, objects that address us as if they were people. And just as we imagine things as people, we invent ways of being with people that turn them into something close to things.
In a program called Chatroulette, you sit in front of your computer screen and are presented with an audio and video feed of a randomly chosen person, also logged into the game. You can see, talk to, and write each other in real time. The program, written by a Russian high school student, was launched in November 2009. By the following February, it had 1.5 million users. This translates into about thirty-five thousand people logged onto Chatroulette at any one time. Some are in their kitchens, cooking, and want some company; some are masturbating; some are looking for conversation. Some are simply curious about who else is out there. In only a few months, Chatroulette had contributed a new word to the international lexicon: “nexting.” This is the act of moving from one online contact to another by hitting the “next” button on your screen. On average, a Chatroulette user hits “next” every few seconds.
My own first session on Chatroulette took place in March 2010, during a class I teach at MIT. A student suggested it as a possible paper topic, and in our wired classroom, it took only a few seconds for me to meet my first connection. It was a penis. I hit next, and we parted company. Now my screen filled with giggling teenage girls. They nexted me. My third connection was another penis, this one being masturbated. Next. My fourth was a group of young Spanish men in a dimly lit room. They seemed to be having dinner by candlelight. They smiled and waved. Encouraged, I said, “Hi!” and was mortified by their friendly response, typed out: “Hello, old woman!” My class, protective, provided moral support and moved into the frame. I felt, of course, compelled to engage the Spaniards in lively conversation—old woman indeed! No one wanted to “next” on. But I needed to get back to other class business, so the Spaniards were made to disappear.
Chatroulette takes things to an extreme: faces and bodies become objects. But the mundane business of online life has its own reductions. The emoticon emotions of texting signal rather than express feelings. When we talk to artificial intelligences in our game worlds, we speak a language that the computer will be able to parse. Online, it becomes more difficult to tell which messages come from programs because we have taught ourselves to sound like them.8 At the extreme—and the extreme is in sight—when we sound like programs, we are perhaps less shocked when they propose themselves as interlocutors. In science fiction terms, as a friend put it to me, “We can’t identify the replicants because the people, inexplicably, took to acting like them.”
As I have been writing this book, many people who enjoy computer games have asked me, “What’s my problem? What’s wrong with Scrabble or chess played online or against a computer? What’s wrong with the new and artistic world of computer games?” Nothing is wrong with them. But looking to games for amusement is one thing. Looking to them for a life is another. As I have said, with robots, we are alone and imagine ourselves together. On networks, including game worlds, we are together but so lessen our expectations of other people that we can feel utterly alone. In both cases, our devices keep us distracted. They provide the sense of safety in a place of excluding concentration. Some call it the “zone.”9
Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihalyi examines the idea of “zone” through the prism of what he calls “flow,” the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity with focus and involvement.10 In the flow state, you have clear expectations and attainable goals. You concentrate on a limited field so that anxiety dissipates and you feel fully present. Flow would capture how Rudy, eighteen, describes the pleasure of computer games: “I like the game best if you get sucked in. That’s why I like playing single-player, not online, because you can get sucked into a character. There’s this whole different world you can pretend to be in, pretty much. That’s why it’s different from a movie. When you’re watching a movie, you’re watching all the things happening, but when you’re playing a video game, you’re inside of it, and you can become the character you’re playing as. It feels like you’re there.”
In the flow state, you are able to act without self-consciousness. Overstimulated, we seek out constrained worlds. You can have this experience at a Las Vegas gambling machine or on a ski slope. And now, you can have it during a game of Civilization or World of Warcraft. You can have it playing The Beatles: Rock Band. You can have it on Second Life. And it turns out, you can have it when texting or e-mailing or during an evening on Facebook. All of these are worlds that compel through their constraints, creating a pure space where there is nothing but its demands. It is flow that brings so many of us the experience of sitting down to do a few e-mails in the morning, just to “clear the decks” for a day of work, and then finding ourselves, five hours later, shocked that the day is half gone and no work has been done at all.
“I have to do my e-mail,” says Clara, a thirty-seven-year-old accountant, looking down at her BlackBerry during a lunch break. “It’s very tense,” she says, “but it’s also relaxing. Because when I’m doing it, that’s all there is.”11 In her study of slot machine gambling in Las Vegas, anthropologist Natasha Schüll argues that Americans face too many choices, but they are not real choices.12 They provide the illusion of choice—just enough to give a sense of overload, but not enough to enable a purposeful life. To escape, gamblers flee to a machine zone where the goal is not to win but to be. Gambling addicts simply want to stay in the game, comfortable in a pattern where other things are shut out. To make her point, Schüll cites my work on the psychology of video games.13 From the earliest days, video game players were less invested in winning than in going to a new psychic place where things were always a bit different, but always the same. The gambler and video game player share a life of contradiction: you are overwhelmed, and so you disappear into the game. But then the game so occupies you that you don’t have room for anything else.
When online life becomes your game, there are new complications. If lonely, you can find continual connection. But this may leave you more isolated, without real people around you. So you may return to the Internet for another hit of what feels like connection. Again, the Shakespeare paraphrase comes to mind: we are “consumed with that which we were nourished by.”
“I’m trying to write,” says a professor of economics. “My article is due. But I’m checking my e-mail every two minutes. And then, the worst is when I change the setting so that I don’t have to check the e-mail. It just comes in with a ‘ping.’ So now I’m like Pavlov’s dog. I’m sitting around, waiting for that ping. I should ignore it. But I go right to it.” An art critic with a book deadline took drastic measures: “I went away to a cabin. And I left my cell phone in the car. In the trunk. My idea was that maybe I would check it once a day. I kept walking out of the house to open the trunk and check the phone. I felt like an addict, like the people at work who huddle around the outdoor smoking places they keep on campus, the outdoor ashtray places. I kept going to that trunk.” It is not unusual for people to estimate that when at work, but taken up by search, surfing, e-mail, photos, and Facebook, they put in double the amount of hours to accommodate the siren of the Web.
Our neurochemical response to every ping and ring tone seems to be the one elicited by the “seeking” drive, a deep motivation of the human psyche.14 Connectivity becomes a craving; when we receive a text or an e-mail, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine. We are stimulated by connectivity itself. We learn to require it, even as it depletes us. A new generation already suspects this is the case. I think of a sixteen-year-old girl who tells me, “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.”
Her remark reminds me of Robin, twenty-six, a young woman in advertising who complains that her life has been swallowed by the demands of e-mail. When I first meet her, she has what she describes as a “nervous rash” and says she is going on a retreat in western Canada to “detox from my e-mail.” When I run into her three months later, there has been no retreat. She has found a doctor who diagnosed her rash as eczema. She explains that it can be brought on by stress, so surely e-mail had its role to play. But there is a pill she can take and a cream she can apply. And if she does all of this, she can stay online. It is easier to fix the eczema than to disconnect.
For many people, the metaphor of addiction feels like the only possible way to describe what is going on. I will have more to say about this later. For now, it must be given its due. Adam, whose only current passion is playing Civilization, says, “I’ve never taken opiates, but I imagine it’s an electronic version of that. I guess television’s that way too, but this is an opiate, or a numbing kind of thing. And you can find yourself satisfied in doing that.”
At first Adam describes Civilization as enhancing. “There are diplomatic wins, conquests, victories.” But he moves quickly to a language of compulsion. His achievements in the game—from instituting universal suffrage to building cultural wonders—seem dosed, dispensed like a drug designed to keep him hooked. Game success is fed to him in a way that “makes it hard to stop playing.” He says,
You just gotta keep having more popcorn, more potato chips. So what keeps the taste going? Well, I gotta achieve these little various things… . One city is building another riflement ... or you want universal suffrage. But, once you get universal suffrage, there’s like … [makes a booming noise] “Universal suffrage has been built in Washington,” and they show this great bronzed image.... You get this reward of this image that you normally don’t see. It’s a very comforting kind of thing, this repetitive sort of thing.
In Adam’s story we see the comfort of retreat that Schüll describes, where one feels a sense of adventure in a zone of predictable action. Simulation offers the warmth of a technological cocoon. And once we feel humane because we are good friends to bots, perhaps it is not so surprising that we confide in online strangers, even about the most personal matters. On confessional sites our expectations of each other are reduced, but people are warmed by their electronic hearth. Just as simulation makes it possible to do things you can’t accomplish in the real—become a guitar virtuoso or live like a benevolent prince—online confession gives you permission not to do things you should do in the real, like apologize and make amends.