Virtual worlds are still part of reality

Rex on Savage Minds wrote a rather interesting post

“I’ve argued in my recent article in Anthropological Quarterly that we cannot think of virtual worlds as islands of culture to be explored without reference to the real-world engagement of their denizens,”

“…the focus should be on ‘virtual world ideologies’: the explicit ideas that people have about the way that virtual worlds interact with actual ones.”

The idea of salvage anthropology in online worlds makes sense, and I have often wondered what will happen when people go back through digital archives and try to make sense of what remains. I am also fascinated by how much is going to be lost, not just when it comes to data but also when it comes to the materiality of it all. Trying to read off old computer screens is nothing like using the ones around at the moment. The feel of keyboards is changing, with newer ones seeming to mimic the flat key design of laptops. Screens are coming in different sizes and shapes. There are also changing fashions and protocols around document and page design.

I really enjoyed his paper that the post linked to (Golub 2010) because it was interesting to learn about World of Warcraft and what people actually do when they play multiplayer games, but it was also interesting to take a little tour through the ways people have sought to understand virtual worlds. I like his adoption of the terms virtual and actual worlds, with both terms referring to something real.

Hopefully this work will help me articulate further down to the path why it is that I feel it is important to deal with the online discussion and information sharing about the suburb I study. People might not be ‘joiners’ in the way that Putnam and those public health people who accept his questionable claims (Muntaner and Lunch 2002: 262) may be calling for, but there are many ways that people contribute to online understandings of places.

Of course this is not going to make sense everywhere. I doubt the augmented reality apps that I have been playing with would be able to tell me where to eat if I was to leave a large city. I still remember being in Ghana in 2003 and realising that you cannot just get a map to find your way around towns. As a traveller you had to make educated guesses and ask. Perhaps user generated online content is not a radically new way of understanding places. Googling a shopping strip to search for a restaurant to find a place to go for dinner is likely to throw up a lot of reviews and possibly information of diverse quality, not too different to having to ask people on the street. I guess one major difference is that the people on the street will be able to see if you trusted their information or not based on observing which way you walked.

Golub, A. (2010). “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game.” Anthropological Quarterly 83(1): 17-45.

Muntaner, C. and J. Lynch (2002). “Social capital, class, gender and race conflict, and population health: an essay review of Bowling Alone’simplifications for social epidemiology.” Int J Epidemiol 31: 261-267.



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