Since 2009 I have played the game World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, MMORPG. And while the social interactions in the game are with actual human beings, the sense interactions with the game environment are completely virtual. This brings up an interesting situation where the game world, known as Azeroth, has become, in my mind, a place that is just as real as, say the student center, or the state of Wyoming. I can just as easily find an alchemy vendor in many of the game’s cities as I can the nearest Walgreens in my hometown, and in both cases they involve just as much planning to get to and might even require an extra trip to the bank to make sure I have enough money (gold) to make my purchases.
Yet just merely interacting with this virtual environment is not the only benefit I’ve discovered. Some of my favorite actual memories are of moments within this game space. For example, when I first began playing I grouped up with a stranger to complete a particularly difficult task. We were able to complete our goal and then went our separate ways but a few months later (in real time) we ran into each other late at night in a rainy jungle environment (the zone of Feralas) and for over an hour we chatted about our game progress, what we’ve been doing since we last met, and what our plans were. In my mind that event didn’t take place in my living room in front of a computer screen but actually at the inn at the village of Camp Mojache in Feralas. In fact I have no memory of my physical self, only of the virtual setting and our two characters.
And it is this loss of “reality” and “self” within a virtual world that I find so appealing. After a long day of work or school, getting lost in an idealized environment full of monsters, difficult tasks, and real players is a relief, a stress reducer, and a chance to take on an alternate identity, which in my case is a Female Pandaren Holy Priest who rides a psychedelic dragon and is responsible for healing injured players.
There have been times when I’ve stepped away from the game for extended periods of time, yet my mind always recalls my experiences within it as if I had actually been an inhabitant of that world. I never recall my physical state, but always recall my experiences in relation to the virtual one. For me Azeroth is a real, living place full of real people (which is true, after all since all the players are being controlled by actual human beings). In fact I would go as far to say that Azeroth is more real (in my mind) than that of a fictional world of a novel. Perhaps because a virtual world allows you to actively engage in its environment whereas other forms of entertainment only allow for passive engagement is what makes the experience so much more realistic, but whatever the cause is the effect is uncanny. I have had dreams which take place within the game world, and more often than not have wished my real life and my virtual one could be swapped – at least for a little while.
And so the film “Her” captures this weird relationship between the virtual and the real and asks the viewer if an emotional experience gained from a fiction is any less valid than one received from the “real” world? My memories of World of Warcraft are real memories, and my experiences in the game did actually happen in that I performed a task using my computer to make the event occur, so why wouldn’t my emotions be just as valid as if I had, say taken a trip to Costa Rica and ran into an old friend in a small village one rainy evening as I waited for a bus? What really is the difference other than my physical body got to participate to a much greater degree in one example than the other?
I feel these issues need to be explored and addressed as technology advances and as the line between the real and the virtual grows even less clear if for any reason other than to help people cope with the loss that will eventually occur when the people who own and run World of Warcraft decide to shut it down and force everyone to disconnect from a virtual reality they have spent nearly a decade having real experiences and memories inside of. Being able to cope with an event like that by having our emotions of loss validated and not just brushed off as it having only been a video game will be important the deeper and more immersive the virtual realities become. I have had real emotional experiences within a virtual world and losing that would cause me grief and distress, and so it’s reassuring to see artists and filmmakers explore this phenomena because it lets me know I’m not crazy for having such a deep connection with something that is not “real” – whatever that even means!