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Grand Canyon or small crack? The divide between cyber and corporeal life

In a game called World of Warcraft, players play live and form guilds (groups) to achieve goals within the game. They instant message one another within the game, and form personal friendships as well as character alliances. Although death in the game is simply a temporary setback that might cost points or winnings, in real life it is a permanent state. One guild sadly lost a fellow member in real life to a stroke. They decided to express their grief together in an online memorial.

A rival guild somehow found out about the plans.

As the grieving guild gathered, laying down their weapons and honoring their lost friend, the rival guild attacked, killing them all, while typing messages such as, "LOL! OWNED!" and other smugly triumphant words.

One player created a video of the entire event, messages and opinions flew around Internet boards, threats and retaliatory plans were issued, and a number of players were banned.

I heard about this on the radio news Friday morning while driving downtown. Because I'm not a gamer, I am unaware of gamer protocol and etiquette, but this struck me as really, really wrong.

I do play on the Internet, in message forums and blogs. I generally use my real name, although I have used a "nom de plume" for message boards. I stuck to the name I enrolled with, and remained true to myself whether using my real or assumed name. I don't post anonymously in order to be cruel or use the Internet as a shield to do whatever I want. I believe in the principle that "wherever you go, there you are and what you do follows."

Then again, I am representing myself online, not a character in a game.

And how different might that be?

My husband says very, very different.

I tend to think that online gamers are mostly adolescent males or those with that sort of mentality.

My husband says this is not the case in all games, although it is generally the case in the game in question (World of Warcraft). He plays a game called Eve, which he says tends to attract grown-ups. He's met people from all over the world, most of whom seem to be academics.

Regardless, all of the games seem to be focused on stalking, hunting and killing fellow players, while stealing their valuables. It simply doesn't appeal to me, on that basis alone.

My husband believes it is simply a fun outlet. I think it encourages a mode of thinking that is unproductive in real life. I can't believe that people can so segment their personalities as to never act as themselves in the game, or as their character might in real life.

I am especially concerned about how it might affect the forming morals and mentality of young people who are in the process of maturing. This concern escalates when you consider that the Internet interactions can supplant real life ones; take over the time and relationships one might form in the real world as one's self.

Players had a lot to say about this idea and the event in which mourners were killed in the game.

This opinion supports my concern:

In all seriousness, the fact that her horde and other friends mourned a real life death is pretty surreal. I mean, they know this girl, but they didn't really know her. This just goes to show that you that games are starting to simulate life every day. The fact that the other horde decided to crash this funeral to gain some PvP time holds the same bearings as the funeral. It shows that human beings are ruthless, and will do anything to gain any advantage at any time, whether it be in real life or the virtual WoW world.

While these two support my husband's opinion:

You don't bring real life into a game, no matter what the circumstances. In game, they were justified in ambushing a large gathering of...the ENEMY faction. Anyone who cries foul on this needs to stick their face on an electric range for ten minutes.

I agree, games are to escape somewhat from real life, to do things you cant do in real life. You shouldnt bring games into real life and go down the street and fire into traffic, and likewise you shouldnt bring real life into games.

And then there were the scary ones, such as

They wouldn't have the balls to do that at a real funeral.

...and that's what separates the Men from the Boys ;)

Living online has expanded beyond simple message boards, blogs, and games; now you can also have a virtual life in Second Life. Run just like "real life" players have avatars who have jobs, wardrobes, homes, cars, and so forth. Players make a living as real estate developers, architects, interior decorators, musicians, bankers, restaurateurs, and even event planners. Characters hold cyber weddings and more. Players earn salaries in real money---that's real, not virtual---money, which sometimes exceeds their real life job earnings.

People are living out fantasies online. Online we can form relationships, earn a living, and even try experiences not possible in real life.

So where is the boundary? How does the cyber life affect the real life, and vice versa?

Do we carry aspects of ourselves, even suppressed ones, into the virtual world? And once unleashed online, does it open up a trigger to that in real life?

Consider the case of the virtual rape in Second Life.

In April, the Brussels public prosecutor dispatched detectives to investigate a virtual rape in Second Life.

In her article, "Virtual Rape is Traumatic, but is it a Crime?" Regina Lynn of Wired wrote

Adult communities facilitate our need to go deeper into our sexual selves, even into secret places around gender and taboos that we cannot acknowledge anywhere else. We feel safe because of the peculiar blend of disclosure and anonymity provided in online communities, and we journey along paths we might not even glance at in the physical world. We don't expect to have our control wrenched away or our minds assaulted or even the intensity of our anguish during and after.

The truth is, anywhere people gather, we bring all of our potential with us -- for love, for sex, for community and creation, and for violence and destruction, too. That's why we still enjoy pondering whether cybersex is real sex and whether an online affair is more or less damaging to a relationship than a physical affair. It's a tacit acknowledgement that while the time-space continuum may change, people don't.

(emphasis mine)

I believe this is true, whether you are blogging or creating an avatar (that in no way resembles you, with a name not your own) in some virtual world. Wherever we go, we carry who we are: our potential.

And what of our interactions with others?

Lynn expressed it well when she wrote, "We feel safe because of the peculiar blend of disclosure and anonymity provided in online communities, and we journey along paths we might not even glance at in the physical world."

Moving between real life and cyber life requires no passports; it requires only a shift in thinking.

In fact, a shift in thinking is exactly what the Internet can effect. How many of us have realized new truths, altered how we think, or chosen a different course of action due to something we read or experienced online? People consider their online experiences a real part of life, and often shift schedules and time to accommodate the activity. Our interactions with others online can be integral to our sense of self and our development.

I've heard it said time and again that the Internet won't bring different interactions to you than you find in real life. The emotions you feel are very real, and reflect how you feel about similar things in real life. As Lynn wrote, "...while the time-space continuum may change, people don't."

For example, when I read an article that expresses exactly how I feel about an issue, the blossom of relief that someone else gets it is very real. I do feel a degree of bond with this person on this issue.

My emotions don't distinguish reading these things on a blog from hearing these things from a real life friend.

My mind is a little more logical. Nevertheless, once I feel a bond has been formed with another person online, I have to be very careful to consider whether it is a bond of commonality or a bond of friendship.

This gets even more complicated when the online interaction becomes truly interactive and regular, especially if it is frequent, or moves off the main source of interaction (such as into private messages).

When a regular commenter suddenly vanishes and quits commenting on my blog, but continues to post and comment elsewhere, it feels a bit like being dumped and the hurt feeling of rejection is very real.

Of course I can logically remind myself that this is blogging not friendship, and people get busy and move on in interest, etc. I can console myself by saying, it wasn't me, it was an article on a page, like in a magazine...the interest moved on from my topics, not me, who I am. Although my words might be different than ones I use in real life, the method of consolation is similar. In this way, once again, I believe who we are comes through each experience, cyber or corporeal.

In games where you build a character---one that I believe in some way always reflects who you want to be or wish you were---it is even more difficult to separate the real you from the virtual you. The real person can feel slights and accolades to their avatar as strongly as if they had happened in real life.

It might be virtual, but it is, in a way, simply reality on a different plane. It's not just how you think of online and your investment in the online world; it's also a matter of the type of person you are.

The danger lurks behind the very features we laud and desire online: increasingly real looks, interaction and time. These features make it increasingly difficult to distinguish real from cyber in one's mind, but more especially in one's heart.

"It's becoming harder and harder to draw a distinction between the real world and the virtual world," said Lauren Weinstein, creator of an online discussion group called the Privacy Forum. "They've become so intertwined now that most of the same problems and risks that we associate with the real world are coming from the virtual side — and a whole lot of them that nobody thought of." Source: New York Times

At some point, we can cross a boundary online, and it's no longer just a name you cross frequently, now this is a person you really care about.

You can easily form true friendships. I count some people I met online among my best friends. The online friendships moved into real life, with real life meetings, as well.

You can also form true relationships. In the case of online affairs, when the emotion is real, ultimately it can become irrelevant whether it is a real encounter or a cyber one. I know marriages that have ended over cyber affairs. That's as real as it gets.

Online life is not exclusive to recreation and personal life, anymore, either. It now extends to professional life, and includes the even more mind-bending virtual reality.

U.S. Navy personnel using a virtual reality parachute trainer.

There is online and virtual medical training in virtual environments, flight training, role playing, cross-continent online meetings, Internet conferences, even psychological treatment of phobias using virtual worlds, and more.

In fact, online personas and hearsay can affect your real professional life, according to the stories of real people in New York Times article "When Online Hearsay Intrudes on Real Life."

Brock N. Meeks, a journalist in Washington, believes that his activities in the virtual world sometimes held him back in his real-world job searches.
The online persona established him as a dogged, sharp commentator. But more than once, he said, when he applied for jobs at national newspapers, editors who knew of his online work were wary. He said an editor at The Washington Post told him, "I expected an angry old guy."

We are growing more and more accustomed to using the online world to work and function within the real world. Using emails or instant messages to communicate is as likely, if not more so, than using the telephone. Using video conferencing is more likely than traveling to meet face-to-face. As the power and realistic elements of online life grow, the line between cyber and real is getting fuzzier. Most people are unable to segment themselves so fully as to completely distance and disassociate themselves from cyber life, as is evidenced by the real grief of the online players of the warcraft game who lost not some avatar on a screen, but someone who felt like a real friend.

Other players can say it's not real, but is.

And I'm not even sure that complete disassociation from online experience should be a goal. If the emotion is real, then the benefits gained from the online interaction can be real too.

Perhaps we need to alter our vocabulary and eliminate the word real when discussing life. Perhaps we should consider calling it cyber and corporeal life and acknowledge that both are all too real. Therefore, we must be careful where we put ourselves online, and consider our actions even more carefully. They do reflect our real life, and can affect it too.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert


Kyla said…
Loved this. I think you hit the nail on the head. Because I'm so young, I've "grown up" online. I met my husband over the Internet at the age of 13. It is a facet of our real lives, not just a pretend play land. The experiences and bonds to transfer over to the corporeal world. It is how we communicate with friends and family. It is a medium in which to express myself. It is a source of entertainment. It is a source of knowledge. I'm more likely to check my email than listen to voice mail. In fact, my voice mail is set up to email me messages, because I am so more likely to sit at my computer when I get a spare moment than to pick up the telephone. It is an important tool in our corporeal lives.

I can't imagine the amount of cyber and corporeal crossover there will be by the time our kids have grown.
thailandchani said…
I have long held that virtual communication is just another form of communication ~ no more and no less valid than any other form.

I don't like the binary thinking inherent in "real" life v. "on-line" life. They're both life.

In light of that, I believe the same courtesies apply, the same behavioral standards apply.

I'm not sure about friendships. My personal inclination is that friendships can also take many forms and configurations, none of them need to be measured against one another for authenticity.

If someone feels it's real, it's real. It's real with limitations. Example: I can't go shopping for an on-line friend when she's sick. That's just a limitation of the medium. But that doesn't mean I can't offer other things.

Some blogging habits seem rude to me such as the disappearing acts you mention. That doesn't mean someone is chained to us.. but sudden and abrupt departures can be just as disconcerting as a "real" acquaintance who begins to behave differently for no discernible reason.

Recently, I got "dumped" by a person like that. I see her comments elsewhere so I know she's not just busy or otherwise occupied.

This is someone I was very supportive of.. and kind on all occasions, in all interactions. So.. I can't say "I offended her somehow so this is a natural outcome."

My final conclusion was this: All I can do here is be as kind as I know how, given human frailty and occasional lapses. I would like to think that if I offend someone, she or he would just tell me. Disappearing or stomping off mad is kind of childish and unbecoming mature women and men.

The way that person reacted was rude. It is just plain rude. That in itself tells me that she wouldn't be a friend in corporeal life... and is not a friend on-line. I removed her from my blogroll, stopped visiting her site and called it good. It is the same thing that would have occurred if a former acquaintance stopped returning phone calls. I wouldn't continue contact. Sometimes we have to accept that people are just fickle.

Wow... this comment got a bit too long. Better stop before I use it up. LOL


Christine said…
THis was an interesting post, and a topic that i have been interested in for a while now.

First, that weird gaming behavior regarding the memorial was just wrong. Call me old fashioned, but real life or not respect is extremely important to me in all interactions. Absolutely none was shown in this case.

I've heard a lot about second life and similar games, but personally I don't find them interesting. My communications and life on line is about exploring who i am and interacting with others.

Sure we all have a certain persona or constructed self that we put out there, but for me, it is pretty real. Unconsciously we may create a slightly polished self for others to see on line, but creating an avatar, new looks, new jobs, etc. is another ball game. I can see how people would find them fun on one level, but I am not sure I could get serious about it. I prefer the political, emotional, and relevant discussions i find on blogs or other forums like them.

As for on-line relationships, I do believe they can be real and meaningful. But on line or IRL courtesy and respect and kindness is the key for me.

Wow, I could go on, but I'll spare you!
Anonymous said…
Wow this was just incredible. This post tapped into many thoughts and feelings I've had lately.

I think that it's important not to substitute a cyber life for a corporeal life. I catch myself doing that and think -oh girl you got to go talk to some live people. Unfortunately, none of the people I blog with live close by. I would hope those that I feel a connection with would transcend the cyber, but I have no way of really knowing that, do I?

I can't begin to understand role playing gamers . My sum total knowledge comes from a Southpark episode and your post. I do think that whether pretend or real it in some way affects your psyche.
Catherine said…
This is a great post...I ask these questions myself all the time, especially now as I raise a son.

My very adult, mature, intellegent and sensetive husband, and many of his friends, play World of Warcraft. I even created a character once, though I didn't play for more than a day. Just a fun fact. :)
S said…
I think I'm too old for this gaming phenomenon.

It just seems incredibly violent and unnecessary to me.

Do we really need to be any more sociopathic as a society than we already are?
Anonymous said…
The idea that some people believe their online personas, for better or for worse, have nothing to do with who they really are is disturbing to me. Of course they're related. How could they not be? You're using the same brain, thinking with the same mind...
Heather said…
My husband is an ex-WoW player and I remember that memorial occurrence well. It raised all of these same questions for me as did the level of involvement & committment many of my peers put into WoW. Some of them put more committment and time into their cyber life then their corporeal life. That is something that has always struck me as significant and something that should be examined and their time consiously divided as they see fit & appropriate, but many of them just blow it off as no big deal and just roll with their whims.

This is an excellent discussion.
Snoskred said…
This brings a whole other issue to my mind - if a tree falls down in a forest and nobody hears it.. what happens if a blogger becomes ill and dies, and there's nobody to tell their readers what happened to them? Do we leave instructions in our will for stuff like that?

I'm not joking, I'm perfectly serious. Anyone who has ever experienced a missing person or a missing pet will know what I mean when the *not knowing* is a horrible feeling. I went through it with a pet, I don't ever want to experience that with a fellow blogger.

I care about all the people I read regularly. There's about 200 of those at the moment, and a bunch more bookmarked who I like to go back and check on every so often.

Very thought provoking post. :)
Anonymous said…
As a bit of a luddite, I've come rather late to blogging, and I've been thinking about a lot of these issues as I enter this world. Thanks for the thought provoking post.
Unknown said…
Okay. I just deleted a post-length comment. I as wandering far and wide off the topic so it just had to go.

I think it is wise to spend some time considering the ramifications and nature of interaction in the cyber world. And, it is good for those of us who don't online game or hang out in Second Life to try to understand the appeal of and impact of these pursuits.

Ultimately, I think there are some generalizations about cyber relationships and the impact of participation. However, as with many things in life, what the individual brings to it is so important. My son is an avid gamer, but he so naturally prefers real life pursuits and people, that I have stopped worrying that he will be the guy found dead in his trashed apartment, video games his only contact with the world--although the impact on his writing, that will always bother me. But, if he were more of an introvert, had fewer friends or had more problems at home, who knows?

I also know that I am sometimes uncomfortable with the number of references on any given day I can make to something I read on a blog. I love it but I also kind of cringe when I think about how it looks to other people, like I'm some loser blog chick with nothing else in her life. Which I'm not. (Checking. . . yup, I do have plenty of real life stuff going on.)

Okay, this is getting long again. I should go. But, I do think there is so much that could be discussed in this area. Soooo much.
Aliki2006 said…
Excellent post. I've never fully understood online gaming, but I do understand what it means to form "virtual" friendships and to care about those I only know through blogging orm essge boards. There is so much that neds to be explored and discussed re: much of what you're addressing in this great post. I'm not sure where to begin myself--I've wrestled with getting my mind around some of these ussies--virtual vs. real life and where the boundaries begin and end.
Girlplustwo said…
i was going to touch on what snoskred already did...if one of us died, would it feel any less "real"? would there be a bloggy memorial? i tend to think there might be...and that too, is real.

and this is all real to me, so i appreciate you drawing the line.
Gwen said…
At the risk of sounding dogmatically argumentative, I'm going to say it's all real. I think there's a tendency for people, certain people, to hide behind the supposed anonymity of the internet and to use that cloak to work things out. But haven't there always been secret societies for this very thing, for the expression of the deeper, darker,less savory--and yet still very very real--parts of human nature?

I think we're in the middle of an evolution, in terms of cyber reality, and that our children will have different rules about the quality of interactions by the time they're our age.
Anonymous said…
I hadn't heard about the WoW memorial...that is so sad. I think that, even in real life, warriors *do* have a tendency to respect the grief of others; you don't hear about people bombing the funeral of world leaders all that often (except by terrorists).

The virtual rape question was something I was pondering and thinking of posting about.

In both cases, the real people behind the avatars become real to others by their actions, by their communications. Years ago, people did this via pen-pal relationships. It's one of the amazing things of humanity, this ability to use symbology (language) to open a window to a person's reality in such a way that people can fall in love (didn't CS Lewis fall in love with his wife that way? Via mail?).

I, personally, can't be anyone else than I am when I'm online. I've tried, on April Fool's Day gags on message boards, and it just doesn't work for me.

Very thought-provoking post, Julie.

(And I do still read, just don't comment much!)
Julie Pippert said…
Gwen, you don't sound dogmatically argumentative to me because you reinforced my point. :) I totally agree. The medium (space time continuum changed) but people haven't.


Jen, yes, as you and snoskred said, it is real...we do become enmeshed with one another, even used to a presence, and to lose it is sad, real sad. I know I feel good to hear happy news from people and am sad at bad news. I think an online memorial is reasonable.

In fact, a person I know corporeally lost her husband. The immediate respnse was to create an online memorial (in addition to other things).


Aliki, I know, this is but the tip of the ice berg: agreeing to language and concept. If we can agree to the concept that this IS real, and thus we need to call it cyber and corporeal to distinguish, then there is an adundance of topics that grow up from there.

This is, I think, the easy part.

Then we have to delve into issues such as whether cyber friendships are a beneficial as corporeal friendships, cyber versus corporeal time, how to refer to people we know only online, the cultural and societal impact, how spokem language and wirtten language are affected by online language, etc. Man I had to cut myself off. LOL


Hang on rest...will be back shortly...
Lawyer Mama said…
Fascinating topic, Julie!

I can't say that I understand the gaming thing. My father and brother are gamers, so I'll have to ask them about this too.

I haven't stopped to overly analyze it, but I guess I do consider on-line friends to be real friends, in the same way that any other acquaintance can become a friend. The medium is just different.

I too find it nearly impossible to try to be someone I am not. The anonymous nature of the internet is nice in some ways - my real name appears nowhere on my blog - but not in others. Trolls suck.

I agree with Gwen that our children will have completely different rules. In fact, they'll grow up knowing them and learning them the same way we learn the social rules of the "real" world.
Julie Pippert said…
ML, I agree...much to explore and discuss. And long comments gladden my heart so bring it on!

What were some of your thoughts about the appeal? Some of the generalizations? Nature of interaction?


Emily, there is a lot to consider. It can create an environment of self-censure which limits the picture presented of the person. And yet don't we all do that corporeally too?


Snoskred, that is a really excellent question. I imagine mos tof have a friend or partner who might announce it. I'm thinking of a local blogger here who recently succumber to cancer. A fellow blogger did an online memorial and announcement, and someone put it on her blog too.

Then there are the fakers.

A lot to consider.

And either way (if you read my blog back a few weeks you'll see I lost a lady who did childcare...she just vanished and it wasn't until the next week I learned why. She passed away and I mised her funeral.) it's real...and often a lot alike.


OKAY out of time again blast it...back to get to rest later. So many awesoem comments. I'm beside myself.
You make some excellent points. I've never played any of those games or gone onto message boards, but I am an avid blogger. I think the importance lies in setting boundaries. While I deeply enjoy posting, reading, and commenting on other people's blogs, I cannot involve myself into it to the point in which my family is neglected or suffers in any way.

I also worry about this from a professional standpoint. There have been many posts I have deleted or simply not written for that very reason.
Anonymous said…
I know nothing of the gamer world, but I, too, think the behavior was wrong.

No matter what the setting, some conduct is inappropriate, just as basic good manners will get you through almost any situation, even if you are unfamiliar with specific protocol.

I'm not smart enough or disciplined enough to adopt a role (consciously, anyway). I have trouble with just the one self; it has to serve in all occasions. But yes, I agree that even when another personage has been created, there cannot be a full separation between the personage and the brain behind it all.

There are black and white and all shades of gray to be found in online behaviors and relationships. If the cyber world permits or even encourages a loss of self-restraint for certain behaviors, then (I believe) the potential for those behaviors to spill out into real life is increased. The same is equally true of positive thinking, social justice, etc.

You summed it up for me on a personal level with this line: "Our interactions with others online can be integral to our sense of self and our development." Maybe when my "real" life involves more adult interaction I will shift my attention, but for now, blogging is an outlet I need.

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