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.

There exist, of course, a lot of (arguably necessary) defenses, many of them well-researched, of various kinds of video games, and plenty of experts ready to talk about how people who don’t like gaming are wrong, that gaming is actually quite good for you. In fact, there’s never been a better climate for gaming advocates: The “gamification” movement has corporations interested in using game elements to motivate and reward workers, while charismatic author and designer Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, is widely cited both in and out of the traditional game space because of its accessible assertions that gamers are actually the world’s best problem-solvers.

And because the social-media climate naturally lends itself to sharing achievements—successful recipes, exercise regimens, family milestones—there is a wealth of apps and gadgets designed to make your average couch potato feel more motivated and playful. Everything around us is becoming increasingly game-like, and it’s getting harder and harder to be game-negative.

Happily, Yee’s book is far from yet another takedown of Luddite bias. The Proteus Paradox applies its research most thoroughly to the fascinating way online game worlds are not living up to their potential. Given a highly influential and relevant medium whose appeal is supposedly about limitless possibility, even the chance to reinvent one’s self, we bring an unfortunate amount of human baggage into virtual spaces, Yee finds. Serious online players describe their commitment to their chosen game as a “second job,” full of friction and repetition.

One of the most pervasive myths about online games is one that’s gone unexamined even by the gaming industry: They aren’t the utopias of freedom, fluidity, and determinism we hoped for, but rather spaces where humans re-enact superstitions, gender and race biases, and where we end up destined not to escape the constraints of reality but to dutifully imitate them.

This is the “Proteus Paradox” Yee describes: Given infinite possibility, we loyally gravitate to the familiar—nearly every game or online world contains chairs, for example, even though virtual bodies never tire of standing. Just as it’s simpler to click a familiar text interface than to inhabit a new one, human beings, it seems, are most comfortable experiencing humanity with all its limitations. “Even when we believe we are free and empowered, our offline politics and cognitive baggage prevent us from changing,” writes Yee. “And where we think we are fully in control, unique psychological levers in virtual worlds (such as our avatars) powerfully change how we think and behave.”

Yee’s book is pleasantly neutral, avoiding the usual impulse that those who love technology often feel to overemphasize on its behalf. Games in particular have long been made to act as a universal receptacle for a broad swath of social fears—a recent study found that 61 percent of people in the UK think games can cause real-world violence and aggression, even though causal links between content and behavior in media have been persistently nigh-impossible to establish. And this viewpoint occurs in direct proportion with individuals’ acquaintance with games: The less one has played games, the more likely one is to presume they cause problematic behavior. The likelihood of this opinion jumps to 79 percent among people over age 60.

But while Yee has no end of evidence supporting the positive and often fascinatingly complex role online games like EverQuest (launched in 1999 and still beloved) play in the lives of millions of people, The Proteus Paradox deftly avoids righteousness and works primarily in the important service of challenging a medium rich with unexplored potential.

Yee restrains himself from breakneck advocacy for game concepts under all circumstances: If corporations use games to motivate and reward, might they not try to substitute those games for genuine compensation and the responsibility to instill a sense of value in their employees? If the collective ingenuity of a group of devoted gamers can be used to solve massive problems cooperatively, couldn’t ad firms also use virtual worlds’ “free-labor” economies to get players to, say, help generate high-impact keywords for a marketing campaign? “Engagement and exploitation may be two sides of the same coin,” Yee warns. “When we receive these invitations to play, we must remember that fun can end up being a lot of work.”

Online games still face significant and disheartening limitations that parallel the real-world problems many people believe virtual worlds should be able to solve—are maybe even responsible for solving. With so much to learn about ourselves in these massive play spaces, we urgently need to democratize the technology that will allow us to continue our creation of and experimentation with virtual worlds, Yee argues. What would we build if we had a new round of opportunity?

 

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Leigh Alexander is a gaming and social media culture journalist. As editor-at-large at Gamasutra, she covers issues of concern to the industry, and she freelances games criticism and essays. Her work has most recently appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, and The New Statesman.