Though I have said this in my little blurb about the nature of this blog, I feel the need to preface this post by saying that what follows is not intended as a rigorous philosophical treatise. My philosophical education focused on ethics, and while I have an interest in metaphysics, I don’t claim to be an expert on it or to be particularly well-read on the topic, so I ask those who are more knowledgeable of this topic to bear with me (and please feel free to comment or point me in the right direction if I say something ridiculous).
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about virtual worlds. As virtual reality becomes increasingly more feasible (to the point where mainstream adoption of VR technology seems all-but-inevitable – a topic for another post), and we become more invested in our online presence and things that exist merely as strings of bits, the question of how much – if any – value we should place on virtual things becomes ever more pertinent.
Many free-to-play games give players the option of spending real money to purchase items that exist solely in-game, and often are only of cosmetic value. Items that confer in-game advantages are frowned upon as they skew gameplay in favour of those who can afford the upgrades, meaning that success is no longer measured by player skill alone, but partly or wholly based on how much you are willing to spend. Games that allow the latter are disparagingly referred to as “pay-to-win.”
But if the items we spend money on are just pretty baubles that have no real impact on gameplay, why are people willing to drop so much cash on them? Or to put it another way, why do we place value on these objects at all? And given that clearly many of us do, in fact, value these objects, should we value them?
For an outsider who has never played a free-to-play game, or has rarely if ever played a video game, I imagine it would be very hard to understand why someone might purchase an in-game item. A common complaint is that, regardless of any additional in-game functionality or lack thereof, that item isn’t real. We seem to place a great deal of importance on whether or not something is “real,” the implication being that if you are spending your hard-earned money on “unreal” things, you are really just throwing that money away.
Now I expect many of you are now screaming, “but these things have value, even if they aren’t physical objects, because the player is invested in the experience, and these items enhance that experience. It’s the experience that matters, not whether it is ‘real’ or not!” You might even go so far as to challenge the idea that these things aren’t real – you might say that just because they are composed of bits instead of atoms, they still exist in some sense.
That fictional things “exist in some sense” is trivially true. Intuitively, it just feels wrong to say “pink unicorns are real” in the same way that we say “horses are real.” Yes, in some sense, pink unicorns “exist,” as words on a page, or a picture in a book or on a screen, or even just as an idea in someone’s head, a cluster of neurons firing at just the right time and just the right way. Of course, “it just feels wrong” is hardly a damning argument against these things being real, so I’ll give you a bit more to go on. When I say “pink unicorns are real,” most people expect me to mean that there are flesh-and-blood pink horses with a single horn wandering around somewhere in the universe (let’s leave aside parallel universes for the time being). I’m not saying that someone has an idea of a pink unicorn, or that someone has drawn a pink unicorn. Clearly all fictional things that have been dreamt up or articulated in some form “exist in some sense” as words and pictures or bits or neural firings, so to say that all of these things are “real” would be to include absolutely everything in that category and thus render the category meaningless. When we say that something is real, we are saying that it exists in a very particular sense. In the sense that a simulated fire will never burn your house down. The moment that a simulated fire becomes capable of burning your house down it stops being a simulation and becomes a “real” fire.
Virtual items are an interesting border-line case, because while we all know that you could never accidentally stab yourself with a virtual sword, that sword is likely more useful to you in a game than the mere thought of a sword. Even if it provides no gameplay function, it may perform the function of status symbol or demonstrate one’s support for the game developers. We might want to say that a virtual sword is “more real” than a drawing of a sword, though I’m resistant to thinking of reality as something that comes in degrees. I am inclined to regard a virtual sword as just as fictional as a drawing or an idea. It may be a better simulation of a sword, but it still meets none of the criteria required to be a real sword.
Okay, so the sword isn’t real, but does that mean it has no value? Only if the value of a sword is solely based on its ability to cut things. But even people who buy real swords in this day and age rarely buy them with the intention of cutting anything. In fact, since (I hope) most people only buy swords because they “look cool,” they have about as much value as a virtual sword, which looks just as cool on your virtual wall as your real sword looks on your real wall. If the purpose is to show off your passion for swords to the people you spend time with, and most of those people interact with you in a virtual location, the virtual sword may actually be more valuable to you than the real one (“to you” is an important proviso, since an actual sword is likely to retain its resale value for much longer, being made of things that aren’t dependent on servers remaining online).
This doesn’t apply in all instances, since we value many things for properties that only real things can have. The value of food is largely dependent on its nutritional properties, and the fact that food is made up of molecules and not bits is instrumental to that value. The virtual sword is only more valuable than the real sword because the properties that make it real or not are inconsequential to the player.
Virtual Reality blurs the line even more, since aside from the basic necessities, it can in principle (though in practice it still has a ways to go) provide most of what we seek in the “real world,” provide experiences that we could never afford in real life, allow us to do things too dangerous to attempt in real life, and have experiences that would be impossible to have in the real world.
At this point one might imagine a dystopia where everyone lives in VR bubbles and only take off the goggles when they need to attend to basic needs. I don’t think such a dystopia is plausible, but even if it were, it would only be a dystopia for the people on the outside. It’s only a dystopia if you accept the premise that the virtual world is value-less. But virtual experiences can have as much (and sometimes more) value as many real world experiences (and even if not, the virtual version is likely a lot cheaper and might be worth the trade-off). True, there are some things that can’t be replaced by virtual substitutes, at least not any time soon, and we would be wrongheaded to ignore what the real world has to offer in favour of an entirely online existence, but it would be equally wrongheaded to dismiss our experiences in the virtual world as less valuable simply because the world isn’t “real.”
Postscript: This is not to say that I support people spending thousands of dollars on virtual items, any more than I support people spending thousands of dollars on real, but equally useless, junk. I just don’t think the fact that an item isn’t real means that it is necessarily value-less (and I don’t personally think there is anything in the virtual world as it currently exists that I could justify dropping that kind of cash on).