The fantasy of cyberspace and virtual worlds has captured the human imagination for decades. There’s a romance inherent in the idea that people can create entire universes inside machines, and live second lives there. Just a handful of years ago, dreamers and thought leaders believed the Western world was not far off from a “virtual Web,” where we all would be represented by avatars, and the internet by a literal geography that would allow for self-expression free of traditional social constraints.
In other words, cyberspace fans thought that instead of sitting in front of a computer and typing in a website, a user would log in to the avatar she inhabits—an image of herself that feels ideal, perhaps not even in the body of a human—walk down a digital road to a 3D virtual store where she would browse and purchase 3D goods whose tangible equivalents would eventually arrive at the user’s real-world home.
The desire to realize the fantasies of futurist fiction doubtless helps drive many of our genuine inventions and innovations, and avatar-based online worlds like Second Life did in fact generate big money—and big hype—for a relatively short while (between 2006 and 2009, roughly) before ebbing off, leaving disappointingly real business lessons in their wake.
But the last decade’s widespread mainstreaming of internet use in the West revealed that while the “3D Web” makes for an exciting fantasy, it’s much simpler for most of us to go to Amazon’s regular old Web page to find what we want to buy. Possibility and efficiency are often at odds.
Surely, though, gaming and play would be better suited to the confluence of virtual-world technology and fantasy. Massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft (with 7 million monthly subscribers, it’s still the biggest game of its kind) offer fantastic escapes, enticing gamers to play for hours every week, sometimes for years, in magical universes where strangers become friends and ordinary people become heroes.
There are a lot of ideas about online games: that they’re addictive; that they’re for troublesome teenage boys and manchildren and few others; that you risk contact with potentially dangerous freaks and predators lying in wait behind the guise of a scantily-clad virtual elf. People also believe that online games teach us to be more resilient at challenging tasks, and to be better team players—to the extent that game-design concepts could be usefully applied in the workplace. Online games are also thought to help build healthy social behavior, to allow people to explore their identity, and to empower people with disabilities.
The Proteus Paradox, Nick Yee’s fascinating new book on the human relationship to online games, uses years of exhaustive studies to calmly debunk some of the persistent myths about online games. His own Daedalus Project regularly surveyed a total of 50,000 players between 2003 and 2009, a significant study period in the flourishing of online play spaces. Armed with this data, Yee examines the moral panic commonly associated with technology, and interrogates how people view online behavior and the “deviance” of gaming. The result is a surprising and far more interesting picture of online games, and the people who play them, than the one painted by conventional wisdom. It also is a lesson for journalists writing about games and gaming culture on the need to question the assumptions that come with this beat.
For example, only 20 percent of online gamers are teenage boys, and the image of the lonesome basement-dweller is derived from media stereotypes: 50 percent of online gamers have full-time jobs and 36 percent are married. Players are as rational about the bonds they form with strangers in games as they would be anywhere else, and many people fall in love or develop lasting friendships with other players.
The broad age range often found in groups of online players means “teenagers who may feel a lack of control and agency in their everyday lives are suddenly able to work with adults as equals or supervisors—something that almost never happens in the physical world,” as Yee writes. “The stereotypical association of video games and teenagers is not only false, but hinders our ability to understand how online games can be positive social spaces for younger players.”
Preconceptions about addiction or antisocial behavior in the players of online games also aren’t borne out by the research; there’s not much difference between studies of the investment of time in online games and Nielsen data on time spent watching television. According to Yee’s research, 70 percent of online gamers play with someone they know in the real world: “It is also worth noting that a family sitting together silently in front of the television is deemed socially acceptable, but if they chat and collaborate in a virtual world, this is stereotyped as being antisocial,” he writes.