VIRTUAL VS. REAL: And never the twain shall meet?

Virtual is as real as it gets
After reading the texts in the inaugural Virtual Worlds Research (2008) where Mark W. Bell and Ralph Schroeder embarked on defining the concept of a virtual world, I started to think about the connotations of the concept. The first images that came to my mind were things like The Matrix with Neo bending the reality of a virtual world, a flight simulator game I had played once, and Second Life avatars flying through the vast 3D cyberspace. Perhaps the following words visited the tip of my tong: artificial, digital and even fake. They seemed to be followed by perhaps more refined connotations like computer system, community, information technology. Then I looked up the word "virtual".

According to a definition recorded over six hundred years ago, virtual means influencing by physical virtues or capabilities. The Latin word virtus means excellence, potency and efficacy, or literally manliness and manhood. Indeed, our world is often virtual but not only in being excellent or manly. In 1959 the first definition linking virtual to computers was made as it was defined to mean also something that was “not physically existing but made to appear by software.” (See Online Etymology Dictionary.) According to most sources, virtual also “exists in essence or effect though not in actual fact (e.g. WordNet).” In common language virtual is something opposite to real. My view is that everything real is virtual and virtual is as real as it gets.

A Virtual World
Imagine a virtual world where Mary82 is walking across an urban 3D cityscape. She sees the avatar of her old friend Nora84 walking a dog in the distance. The dog has a collar with its name “Burtsie” on it. Mary82 approaches Nora84 and pokes her as a greeting. They chat for a while. Mary82 tells Nora84 about a movie trailer she just saw behind the corner of the DVD shop. She had also just seen the coolest jeans on the window of another shop but didn’t have the credit to buy them. Then they notice John84 joining their chat. He had just come from a real-time community meeting of anthropology students but as he had to go to work, he just petted Nora84’s dog and quit the conversation.

John84, Mary82 and Nora84 are heavy-users of this particular virtual world. A virtual world, following Bell (2008) and Schroeder (2008), is "a spatially based depiction of a persistent virtual environment" and can be "experienced by numerous participants at once". The world they inhabit also offers "an awareness of space, distance and co-existence". According to Bell and Schroeder, the participants communicate and interact with each other and the environment, and form short tem and long term social groups. The world of the aforementioned chatters, however, differs from Second Life, for example, in that its 3D avatars are far more complex. They look almost like the persons behind them and much of the interpersonal communication is auditory, not textual. Moreover, such is the addictiveness of this virtual world that most participants live in it, in some way, all the time. And it happens outside a computer network.

Most of you probably guessed it already. When you replace the nicknames such as Mary82 with real names such as Mary, and use the word “person” or “identity” instead of “avatar” you notice more clearly that I am, of course, talking about the real world. Or, should I say the physical world as a virtual world surely is as real as one gets. Then again, a virtual world must be physical too as, after all, it is made of silicon, wires, copper, fiber, plastic and so forth, all of which are materials of the physical world. So, perhaps I should say I’m talking about the world we live in and interact in person, in our physical bodies without a technological medium, at least some of the time. I mean the world that has the ground I step on when I walk on my real, meat-and-bones feet, a world that is not experienced through computers. To be clear, let’s just say I mean real is the world outside computers.

It seems like “real world” is at least as hard to define as “virtual world.”

We all live in a virtual world
We are, in fact, all living in a virtual world. That is something I as a cultural anthropologist have been more or less studying for the whole of my career. In a way we have always used avatars to communicate and move around in our real world. We have different avatars for different situations, and every day our avatar is dressed, fed, groomed, viewed, shaved and made up a bit differently to represent our personalities or us as individuals.

When, for example, my students see a tall skinny guy with glasses that looks like Jukka the anthropologist, he or she immediately interprets the symbol, that is, my appearance, in a way that connects it to all the qualities he or she has experienced me having. Perhaps I even inform others of my qualities, or call myself as "Dr. Jouhki" (instead of Jukka74), a nick that is supposed to reveal the essence of my personality.

If a virtual world means a world that is artificial, constructed, illusion, imitation and made-up, we don’t need computers. Ee never experience the world per se and we most definitely do not know individuals directly without the representations of their identity (avatars) interfering in the middle.

In addition to the virtuality of our individual identities, we have an image of “our people,” say the nation comprised of people of Finland, having certain qualities, a country that has clear borders and citizens with a certain affinity with each other. Moreover, to apply Stuart Hall (2008), we form temporary or lasting groups, join them and leave them. We use an avatar/identity when meeting our boss and another one for a wedding, and perhaps yet another one when we go out on a date.

But the most important element that makes our real world virtual is that although we imagine the world to be real and authentic it actually is something the myths, traditions and culture have taught us to believe in and something our biochemical and sociocultural configuration leads us to interpret. For most of us, our old technological interface, literacy, connects us with a world we know. Like Benedict Anderson (2006) has so aptly noted, when we read the newspaper we take part in an everyday ritual that reinforces the virtual structures of our world. We take a look at our world through television and reinforce the construction of our imagined world. We think “This is what happens in our world.” And the world exists as we have created it, as we know it to be.

I’m not saying an imagined world is a recent phenomenon or that the world is simply imaginary. Surely there is a world that has geological formations, a biosphere, temperatures, an orbit around the sun, and us people going about our businesses. What I am saying is that the world we experience is a sort of virtual world, a copy or an interpretation of a more real world. And how this virtual world appears to us depends on all kinds of collective and individual bio-cultural-psychological configurations behind it, in our heads.

The world is virtual - so what?
But what does this all have to do with the real virtual worlds, the ones we access through applications of information technology? So what if we don’t live in a world per se but in a virtual system experienced, shared and interpreted by people? Sure you can nitpick and call it virtual too.

Jean Baudrillard (1994) wrote that it is unfortunate that there are places like Disneyland because they make people believe the world outside them is not a fantasy. A concept pair like virtual-real that is used to describe places like Second Life and the physical world connote an unnecessary dichotomy as if the environment created inside computers would be a fake one, or a place like Second Life was somehow unreal. Surely it is as real as and perhaps even more real than the conventional world we are so used to experience. At least we are often more aware of the virtuality of it while we perhaps too often take our world view for granted in the “real” world.

I am not encouraging to omit the word virtual altogether but I do suggest caution in renewing the dichotomy of the real and virtual. In a way, physical reality is only a simulation albeit among all kinds of simulations it is the most significant to us. However, calling a virtual world virtual might lead us to believe the world outside of computer worlds is real as we experience it and a community based on a computer network was somehow less real or even fake.

Literature referred to
Anderson, Benedict 2006 [1983]. Imagined Communities, London: Verso.
Baudrillard, Jean 1994 [1985]. Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan press.
Bell, Mark W. 2008. ’Toward a Definition of Virtual Worlds”.’ Virtual Worlds Research, 1 (1).
Hall, Stuart 2008: Identiteetti, Tampere: Vastapaino.
Online Etymology Dictionary,
Schroeder, Ralp 2008: ‘Defining Virtual Worlds and Virtual Environments.’ Virtual Worlds Research, 1 (1).

Pic sources
1st pic portraying Second Life avatars from ZDNET, the avatar dog from Newsweek, PhD bear from Monash University merchandise, many faces from Esquire, Disneyland from