This is the continuation of the paper from yesterday on virtual worlds. I will wrap it up tomorrow with a discussion of community and temptation as they relate to these interactive worlds.
Morality of Interactive Virtual Worlds: Part 2
One desire that is driving the creation and use of virtual worlds is the individual’s desire to be like God, rejecting the appropriate place of man in reference to his Creator. In the virtual world, the user can create according to his desires and be exactly who he wants to be. This allows for the complete rejection of who God has made them to be and helps him to be his own god. This is seen as the advantage that the virtual world has over the real world, one can both imitate the real and overcome it by being free of limitations.[i] The freedom perceived convinces the user that his desires of control in real life are valid and should be pursued.[ii] However, even virtual reality can only feel real when it is like real life, confirming the original creation and order of the world.[iii]
Through participating in an online virtual world, a person can feel like he is transcendent. Of course, there is no actual transcendence in virtual reality, but the perception of control over one’s world is certainly there.[iv] The user is no longer bound by the limits of time or space, but can act outside of these universal human limitations which is what gives the user a perception of the godlike ability of transcendence.[v] In the virtual world, a “ ‘disembodied presence’ is not just possible, it is even desirable.”[vi]
The Gnostic idea of removal of the soul from the fleshly dwelling is clearly manifested in a virtual world where no avatar has a true body. This ideal is a problem for the believer because Christ Himself took on flesh.[vii] The believer should not quickly reject the flesh and most certainly should not perceive the created body as an evil to escape. In virtual reality the material and the actual are completely done away with and replaced with the immaterial and the imagined. Escaping the physical body and living in the virtually resurrected fleshless body is an attractive characteristic of the virtual world, but it is only attractive in the sense that it appeals to man’s desire to be like God and not giving proper glory to God.[viii]
Another issue that must be considered when evaluating the morality of interactive virtual worlds from a Christian perspective is the idea of gender. Players in these online communities can choose whichever gender they desire, and in some worlds can choose to be gender neutral or even of another species. On the original MUD, Habitat, there were four male users to every one woman, but the gender ration of online personalities was only three male users to every one female.[ix] Clearly, gender crossing is a common feature of these online communities. The Bible tells us that God made humans male and female; it is not something one can choose.[x] However, some virtual reality players claim that by playing several characters of different personalities and genders, they can feel out who they are themselves.[xi]
This is further complicated when considering that an online community member is not merely choosing whether or not to choose their real-life gender in virtual reality, they are interacting with individuals online that may or may not be of the gender that they present themselves to be. Having romantic relationships between avatars stirs the pot even further. These sexual encounters are not only sinful, they can be perverse as well. Though some argue that one’s avatar is distinct from the individual which controls it,[xii] that individual still considers that avatar to be them in this online world. The user is vicariously doing the activities that his avatar is exhibiting.
Being able to choose one’s own identity online is usually seen as a positive. David Berger thinks that the fact that one can easily “become” somebody on the Internet should serve as a warning.[xiii] Those that are interacting with one another know nothing truly about the person behind the other’s avatar and may spend considerable time with someone that they would not in real life, for better or for worse. In virtual communities, participants can be truly blind to individual differences and cannot be guided by their real-life prejudices. Every interaction is taking place from behind “masks.”[xiv]
This makes it possible for a child or teenager to have close, though virtual, interactions with a pedophile, or a woman becoming virtually involved with a convicted rapist. This new type of community is believed to provide “the answer to the theorist’s search for a less exclusionary or repressive experience of community.”[xv] It is unlikely, however, that someone who has felt rejected by real life society for whatever reason will now feel good about being included in the community since it would be obvious the difference rests in the disguise of the characteristic prejudiced against rather than the welcoming of it.
It is this ambiguity of true identity online that makes real community unlikely and at best forced and superficial. Most users, however, do view the online virtual community as a true community, even if it is different than face-to-face interactions.[xvi] Through the virtual world, one user can impact another, therefore community is felt. Howard Rheingold believes that this is a true community because like others it “is also a collection of people who adhere to a certain (loose) social contract and who share certain (eclectic) interests.”[xvii] There is believed to be some benefit from connecting with strangers online who share your passions and ideas rather than hopelessly trying to connect with those around you with whom you cannot relate as well.[xviii]
However, the ability to choose to exit at anytime with no consequence and the possibility of presenting oneself as someone entirely different than one’s real life persona makes whatever connection made tentative and fragile. Not knowing the individual behind the avatar severely limits the possibility for any true heart-to-heart connection. By allowing members of the online community to enter and exit at will, the so-called community “erodes trust, and renders impossible the collective building of a shared history and a shared set of ideals” that are necessary in a true community.[xix]
[i] Cooper, “Plenitude,” 100.
[ii] Kugel, “House.”
[iii] Terry J. Wright, “Confusing the Issue” Theology 104, no. 820 (2001), 261.
[iv] Graham Ward, Cities of God (New York: Routledge, 2000), 250.
[v] Rubina Ramji, “Building Community Word by Word: Religion in the Virtual World,” in God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, ed. Erick Michael Mazur and Kate McCarthy (New York: Routledge, 2001), 267.
[vi] Barry E. Bryant, “Trinity, Technology and the Meaning of Personhood,” Memphis Theological Seminary Journal 38 (2002), 13.
[vii] Berger, “Cybergnosticism,” 341-344.
[viii] Ward, Cities, 251.
[ix] Turkle, Life, 212.
[x] Genesis 1:27.
[xi] Turkle, Life, 185.
[xii] Kugel, “House.”
[xiii] Berger, “Cybergnosticism,” 342.
[xiv] Howard Rheingold, “Virtual Communities,” in The Community of the Future, ed. Frances Hesselbein, et al (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), 117-120.
[xv] Michelle Willson, “Community in the Abstract: a Political and Ethical Dilemma?” in Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace, ed. David Holmes (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1997), 145.
[xvi] Ramji, “Community,” 278.
[xvii] Rheingold, “Communities,” 116-118.
[xviii] Berger, “Cybergnosticism,” 341.
[xix] Daniel M. Griswald, “Beyond the Hype: the Internet and the Church” Perspectives 18, no. 1 (2003): 9.