Virtual Worlds and Lost Worlds

A decade (or more) ago the Internet had this particular feel to it: we had our cyber Utopias, this obsession with MMOs and MUDs and Second Life. There was a romance to the virtual world, this feeling of limitless possibility, that the beautiful worlds we dreamed of could actually be open to our inhabiting them. Even if you didn't play these games, this aesthetic infected the rest of the Internet too. Web 1.0 was “obsession friendly,” if not even “obsession required.” To play, you had to really indulge these crazy obsessions, let it all go and get lost in them and their worlds. Sometime between then and now, I've felt a little bit less like I could or would get lost in things.

Perhaps it's because I was closer to my childhood. Kids can get lost in their own inner worlds for hours on end, and it doesn't always seem to be anything of particular import: it could be drawing or toys or just a particularly fascinating meteorological phenomenon. It seems our young brains are just made for this. Perhaps this is harder to come by as we age. Perhaps we worry so much about why we are doing something that we don't really appreciate the doing. Everything must be done for a purpose, we're all so busy we don't have time for dilly-dallying. But this is an awfully closed off view of the world, the kind of attitude that leaves us closed off from play completely.

Replacing play with purpose could also just be part of the fundamental structure of the Internet recently too. It seems that every new product has a purpose, a “problem” it helps you solve, and this means we are also, as users, being pushed to do specific things. Creator’s focus on metrics may also be imbuing us with some uninvited direction.

More than that, though, is the sense that we stopped doing things for fun on the web. When the web became more “social,” it also lost many of the qualities that lent to virtual worlds that oasis feeling. Even though it wasn't well into Facebook's tenure that the word “gamification” started gaining steam, the web started the trend to gamification much earlier than that. The web has a natural affinity for numbers of course, but those cheery gif hit counters from Geocities grew into something more insidious than a simple reassurance that one is being heard. “Self expression” turned into building a personal brand, hit counters turned into detailed analytics and metrics, links to friend’s pages became hundreds (or thousands) of friends and followers, and php guestbook scripts became the addictive store of likes and favorites.

Is there much point anymore in posting something if it isn't liked? While the early web fostered a kind of “slow making,” with Web 2.0 we can't really afford to be quiet. Contemplation, thoughtfulness, meticulousness; these are from an earlier era. This might make me sound like a Luddite, but it's true: to be silent is to be forgotten. Even if your name is remembered, your personal “brand” fades away. This means that the requisite time to lose ourselves into a new world or a new obsession is no longer available to us. We develop the kind of brash and obvious interests that do well with the demands of the stream, the kind of interests that easily break into digestible chunks you can spit out with regularity and certainty. These are things where lines between right and wrong are so obvious that all our followers can automatically, thoughtlessly nod their heads along: yes, yes, yes! That's exactly what I think!

Arcane obsession still lives on on the Internet, and almost paradoxically, the non-obsessive Internet reveres and worships it, because it is, from afar, one of those easy things to like. Places like Minecraft let us obsess in public. These are not social websites: these are ecosystems for obsession. They take away many of the pressures of conversation that the web straddles us with and lets us focus on losing ourselves inside of them. Perhaps children love Minecraft because it lets their brain operate in what feels like a natural manner: obsessively. Aimlessly. Thoughtfully. It may be one of the last meaningfully inhabited virtual worlds. Perhaps the web is moving on, and the virtual worlds that held such magnetism for early users of the Internet aren't going to be a part of the new internet. But perhaps this phenomenon and the values it idealizes are worth preserving.