Friday, February 02, 2007

Where does real end and virtual begin?

This is very much a thinking-out-loud post, and I welcome any thoughts, rebuttals and contributions you might have!

A colleague and I were having this conversation yesterday on the train after Learning Technologies 2007. The conversation was sparked off when my colleague asked if I had ever ventured into the world of Second Life (I hadn't). I mentioned that fact that Sweden was opening an SL embassy. I also touched on some of the other matters I covered in my post on that topic.

I discovered that this is a point that has been exercising him for some time, too. If you can buy properties in SL on eBay, are they virtual? If a thing has sufficient value to a person to warrant them spending hard currency on it, doesn't that make it "real"? And from there, a natural segue to money itself. Even hard currency isn't real. Notes are in fact promisory notes - they aren't money, at all. They're a phyiscal manifestation of a virtual commodity. As I understand it, there is even an exchange rate between SL money (I really must find out what it's called!) and $ or £ or € or whatever. If this is the case, does that not lend weight to the argument that realness and virtuality are no more true of one than the other?

Then we moved on to the things we pay hard currency for. For example, you pay to go to the movies, to a rock concert, to the theatre, to ride a scrambler, drive a tank, ride a roller coaster, adopt a monkey in the zoo, to stay overnight in a 5 star hotel. What are you actually getting for your money? You don't actually own anything afterwards that you didn't own before, and you're broker in fiscal terms. So what is it? An experience? Entertainment? Well, is this real or virtual? How is it any more real than the experience you have online? Than the plot of land you buy in SL? Than the house/family you create in the Sims? Than interacting with your tamagotchi? And on that point, since a tamagotchi is a physical object that you must keep with you, that you must interact with by means of direct touch to meet its many and varied needs, that has a lifespan, how is that a "virtual" pet? Electronic, yes. Virtual, no.

And simulations have been used as valid learning environments for ages. Especially when real world mistakes could lead to loss of assets, money and lives. So is that learning "virtual" or "real"? I would have to say that the learning was real, even if the environment was virtual. But hang on a minute! How virtual is the environment? The learner pilot (for argument's sake) is really a learner pilot. The cockpit is really a cockpit, even though it isn't attached to an aeroplane. The controls really are controls and the pilot will use them exactly as he/she would if there were a plane attached to the cockpit several thousand metres above the earth. The scenario is virtual. True, but the pilot must respond to them exactly as if it were real or his flying career will end before it has gotten off the ground.

Ooh, it's a proper can of worms this! Once you get the lid off, there's no way of knowing where those little blighters might end up!

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