Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMOs) have been in the news of late. A recent article on MSNBC discusses World of Warcraft, an online universe with 7 million subscription-paying virtual citizens. In many ways, the virtual world mimics the real world. In the real world, protesters march at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq in a rather twisted attack on gay rights in America, and in the virtual world, a rival online "guild" attacks the online commemoration of the death (in real life) of a member by ambushing and slaughtering everyone who attended. Okay, that's not exactly like real life, but the antisocial aspects are certainly similar.
In other news, Second Life, a popular MMO with 650,000 users who design their own online characters, was hacked, and some user information - including credit card details - was stolen.
Clearly, MMOs are popular, and as technology advances and the realism possible in these virtual world increases, are likely to become more popular still. The Warcraft article closed with this interesting observation:
Edward Castronova sees all this as an early indicator of what will become a vast participation in synthetic worlds, with fuzzier and fuzzier lines between virtual and physical realms. "In 20 or 30 years the technology will be here to create incredibly more realistic and immersive worlds," he says. "There will be a world that fits the fantasy of any life you want to lead." Those deep into WOW, of course, are already living that future. "Yes, it's just a game," says Joi Ito. "The way that the real world is a game."
I agree, and it will introduce some interesting problems. The big limiter on the popularity of such games is that you still need to interact with that virtual universe through a computer monitor, which though clearly enough to turn many users into addicts, is less than ideal. Imagine an MMO that you can "play" on your HD game console through your 85" HDTV, or see superimposed onto the walls and surfaces of your living room in some holographic TV projection system of the future...
...or imagine a world where the virtual universe is directly jacked into our nervous system. You see and feel the virtual universe as if it were real.
This isn't a particularly original idea. Tad Williams explored the idea fairly extensively in his Otherland series, and others have done so as well. What hasn't been explored as much, however, is the degree to which this immersive reality will be allowed to replace the real world, particularly in a nanotech future where basic needs are more than covered at practically no cost to consumers, creating vast new stretches of leisure time for the average person (which is an assumption that depends on whether nanotech predictions are true).
In the Matrix, all of mankind lived in virtual reality tubs, placed there by machines that hoped to harness the bioelectric energy produced by human bodies to power themselves in a world mostly obscured by thick clouds. More likely is that most of the world will place themselves in such tubs voluntarily, because virtual reality would be so much more exciting than the real world. You can be anyone you want. You can fly. You can live in a Dungeon & Dragons universe, and never get sick (and never really get hurt). You can explore space without a space suit. Disease is a non-issue. If you go camping, the tempature is always perfect, there are no bugs, and it never rains (unless you want it to).
I bet the real world would quickly lose out to the virtual world in the minds of most people, which introduces an interesting theory as to why the SETI program never detected signs of intelligent life beyond Earth in spite of years spent looking for it. Perhaps the problem is that intelligent life, shortly after developing the ability to generate signals that we could detect, quickly (on cosmic scales, say 100 years) develops a fully-immersive virtual reality that is so compelling that everyone follows an altered version of Timothy Leary's mantra and "plugs in, tunes in, and drops out" from the real world...completely voluntarily.
Okay, strange observation. Ummm....LOOK, a LEGO rubber-band chain gun...