Issue 27 07.15.2011

Issue 27
Virtual Worlds and the Collapse of Metaphor

Human beings desire frameworks. The birth of language, both written and spoken, was driven by our need to create a framework for our thoughts, a common scaffolding upon which we can share our ideas, and a way for us to understand each other. Human beings also desire tools. This desire drove the birth of modern technology and global communication networks. We eagerly build these tools, using them to extend and augment ourselves. They allow us to interact with and manipulate the world in ways never before imagined. Our tools and frameworks define how we see ourselves and they define how we see the world as we shape it around us.
New media lives at the intersection of all these tools and frameworks, coalescing as a new language of digital imagery and symbols, a new constellation of technological tools for building global communities and sharing knowledge. But at the end of the day, we are still human beings. We are bound by our biology and our evolutionary roots.

Our minds developed over millennia as we strove to survive in a physical world that was mysterious and challenging, which is of course why we developed such a strong desire to create tools and frameworks in the first place–to help us understand and shape the physical world. This is why the new media of virtual worlds is so compelling.
Immersing ourselves perceptually in virtual world environments initially seems like the ultimate detachment from what it means to be human. It seems like a synthetic imitation, without substance yet simulating substance, our identities embodied as avatars walking across the streets of cities that do not exist. Yet, there is a deep resonance in this perception. We understand virtual worlds as we understand the physical world. We understand the idea of people and places within those worlds. Something ancient in our minds silently clicks into place and our minds begin to interpret the virtual world as real. It feels real and we feel real within it.
Virtual worlds exist today most commonly as video games. They also exist as open-ended creative platforms without predefined goals. As a canvas for new media expression, they provide new opportunities for engaging people in perceptually immersive experiences. New languages for storytelling and artistic expression unfold with new affordances. Advances in technology will only make these virtual worlds more perceptually immersive.

We will eventually be able to lose ourselves in environments that fully engage all of our senses. At some future point in time, we will not be able to tell the difference between the virtual experiences and the physical ones. Distinctions between virtual and real will be meaningless.
In this way, the virtual world metaphor will collapse into a new shared reality. As we approach that point, we will be coming full circle: back to fulfilling our basic human desires to explore, understand, and shape the world around us, back to our needs to explore new worlds with other people, back to what makes us most human.


John Lester (AKA Pathfinder)