In a discussion with students yesterday, with a powerful snowstorm raging outside, the (now quite old) question of real vs virtual came up. This is what happens when you read Julian Dibbell, even if you’re reading him to think about how democratic structures do or do not emerge inside of nascent communities. Do people in online spaces get so immersed that they disconnect from the real world. The question posed was a more interesting one that the typical, because it was focused on political blogging, which is not your classic “virtual” worry, like MUDs or Second Life or, way back when, Dungeons and Dragons in shuttered university corridors. The question was, do people get involved in political blogging, not for the connection to the real political landscape (support this issue, criticize this candidate, sway this election) but for the gamesmanship, the sheer process, the insular back-and-forth: here’s today’s Post editorial, let’s dissect it.

It’s an interesting question, but it also got me thinking back to that old concern about people getting lost in the virtual. And it struck me that a better way to think about it, a way to get past what really was a fear of an unfamiliar technology, is to think about the range of coordinated, social activities we engage in as on a spectrum: from interventionist to escapist. This is not about what the activity is so much as it is about how the pleasure of participating is presented. So participating in that political blog discussion is pitched as vitally connected to the real political landscape; Second Life is offered up as something separate from… an alternative to… a second life. So this is not just the offer of “virtual reality”, it is also the offer made by “murder mystery weekends” and costume parties and even the theater.

This is not to say that people must therefore experience it that way; there may be some who just enjoy the gamesmanship of political blogging, and clearly there are plenty who have turned to Second Life and found not an escape form their mundane experience, but a way to link the two. (I was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January with some fellow scholars, and one reported talking to an IBM rep, who described how they often host their bi-coastal meetings in Second Life. And, that there is a naked gnome who takes great pleasure in regularly streaking through their meetings.) Nor are we somehow duped by the illusion, as some fret. But the promise of these activities, along the spectrum of being interventionist or escapist, is a powerful one, especially to those who are trying to comment on it.

Maybe we could add another dimension, similar and often parallel but not the same: instrumental vs immersive. So it is no surprise that the 3D, highly visual environment of Second Life, or of video games, supports this promise of escapism. It is more difficult, though I suspect not impossible, to enjoy such escapist activity when the medium is sparse, when the aesthetics are mundane, when the activity is too reminiscent of the ones we engage in every day.

Which leaves me with a final thought, just to finally put the nail in the coffin to that old, but weirdly persistent worry that those who get too involved in these “virtual” spaces risk losing track of the ‘real” world: the best example I can think of for a escapist, immersive activity, is professional football. Not atching the gamr, but actually playing in it. It offers an alternative reality, where a bizarre set of rules of engament apply and every consents to obey them, it happens inside of a space entirely designed to make visible and confirm that world, to take you out of your real life, it offers no promise that engaging in the activity has any impact on the real world, only on the constructed world of professional football itself (the season, the rankings, the playoffs, etc.) They even wear costumes. Yet we do not worry that football players will “lose” themself in the game. In fact its seen as a legitimate thing to do, something we urge our high school kids to join in. I suspect that play in virtual environments will eventually shed these connontations and concerns — they’re already diminshing, especially around online environments and video gaming — and settle in as fanciful, escapist, but not psychologically seductive, activities.