the 1995 cult film Strange Days, Ralph Feinnes
plays Lenny Nero, a rogue ex-cop living in Los Angeles
during the last two days of 1999. Nero deals in
the illegal business of virtual reality machines,
which were described by Roger Ebert in his Chicago
Sun-Times review of the film as "brain wave
transmitter[s which] create the impression that
you are having someone else's experiences."
transmitter, which is similar to the "jacking in"
technology found in William Gibson's 1984 novel
Neuromancer, allows the user to inhabit a
fully-immersive, five sense-utilizing artificial
environment which is arguably as real as 'real life'
itself, by using electrodes to create a direct link
between a person's brain and a computer. Nero tells
his prospective clients that his transmitter is
better than television -- "[it] is a piece of someone's
life...straight from the cerebral cortex."
character tells one male client that he can be buff,
have a hot girlfriend, or even be that girlfriend,
all with the help of the virtual reality brain wave
transmitter. Nero himself uses the transmitter to
do everything from reliving happier times with his
own girlfriend to robbing a liquor store just for
the adrenaline rush. The movie, which is itself
a century-old form of virtual reality, displays
a futuristic time where the real and virtual worlds
are indistinguishable -- it is all just a matter
of perception. Director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates
that by using the transmitter Nero has to rely on
his own values and belief systems (good or bad)
in both realities, despite the fact that one is
this near-future scenario, Bigelow explores the
fact that as virtual environments become more complex,
dynamic, and, well, real, our own morality
in these artificial worlds comes to mirror its real
the past few years our morality in concerns to technology
has been tested in new and important ways. In recently-released
virtual worlds such as Origin System's "Ultima Online,"
Sony's "EverQuest," and Maxis' "The Sims," a connected
virtual reality is being populated by other real
people who express themselves through their avatars
-- and, in turn, their own morality -- in the games.
seems that a virtual world, such as Ultima Online's
fictional land of Britannia, can be deemed the most
realistic when the users themselves actually have
a similar moral obligation against evil and for
good that they would have in the real world. Indeed,
the virtual morality of a user could most likely
be used as a direct barometer for how realistic
any artificial environment may be.
reality and artificial intelligence have come a
long way from the literature of Huxley and Bradbury
in the '30s and '40s to the cinema of Kubrick and
Spielberg in the '60s and '70s to the videogames
of Atari and Nintendo in the '80s and '90s.
themselves have advanced immeasurably from Atari's
"Pong" and "Pacman" of the '80s, Nintendo's "Mario
Brothers" of the early '90s, and even the first-person
shooters of the late '90s (such as "Tombraider,"
"Unreal," and "Quake"). Games such as Id's "Wolfenstein
3D" used what today would be considered primitive
graphics and fantastical premises (such as dungeons
and jungles) to create diversions for the player.
More recently, Id's latest flagship first-person
shooter, Quake, has utilized a more advanced graphic
engine to imbue the game with a more realistic sense
a Feed magazine essay published February
3, 2000, the chairman of the interactive media program
at USC's School of Cinema-Television, Mark Pesce,
explained that "it's not the gore...that troubles,
but the specific way Quake detaches that violence
from the usual moral universe that surrounds it
-- an ironic trait for a product that so prides
itself on verisimilitude." Pesce seems to support
the claim that the user's virtual morality in the
game lags far behind the visual fireworks that are
analysis that in Quake "there are few limits and
no consequences" to killing and that a player "can
blast apart as easily as [he or she can] regenerate"
is further proof that, no matter what kind of dazzling
graphics the game may have, it is still only a diversion
(in an admittedly dark way) and not any kind of
realistic simulation which questions a person's
values system (not that its creators had any intention
of making it so). However, new realistic role-playing
games have been largely successful in utilizing
computer technologies to create the complex virtual
worlds of Ultima Online's Britannia and The Sims'
more advanced life 'simulations' are not supposed
to be 'played' as much as 'experienced' over long
periods of time and, most likely, with other real
people via the Internet.
purpose of these new environments is not just to
shoot enemies, find treasure, or save hostages,
but rather to create a synthetic version of real
life, where people go about their mundane digital
tasks of bartering crossbows (in medieval Britannia)
and making dinner (in modern-day Simland). By doing
these things the characters, who themselves are
simply pixelated representations of real people,
take an active part in their respective communities
by engaging in trade and other social interactions.
the graphics in these new, advanced virtual simulations
are not anywhere close to the visually stunning
first-person narratives of games such as Tomb Raider
and the aforementioned Quake and are in a completely
different league than the fully-immersive, five
sense-utilizing realism of the brain wave transmitters
in Strange Days. However, these simulations'
admittedly limited complex worlds, which include
things such as sunrises and sunsets, an actual economy,
a working digestive system in the humans, and other
'real life'-type situations, endear themselves highly
to the subscribers and buyers of each simulation.
are far enough along to allow the users to begin
to see their own human, real life morality come
into play in their actions in the game.
opposed to a shooter game, players of such simulations
as EverQuest actively coexist with each other in
a digital realm. They do this because, quite possibly
for the first time, they have felt an actual need
not to hurt other players. This is because the player
understands that the users are people too and would
be, at least to a certain degree, well, hurt, if
they were wrongly killed or punished after having
worked honestly and methodically at buying property,
working boring jobs, and being an active, helpful
member of their virtual society. This right to coexist
is very similar to the real world.
February, Village Voice writer Lev Grossman
explained that a sizable chunk of Ultima Online's
success is due in large part to its realism. In
fact, according to Grossman, the game's fictional
land of Britannia is so complex that it "has even
given rise to something that only fully developed
social environments have: crime." Grossman wrote
that anyone can create a virtual heaven like Myst
or hell like Quake but "what makes Ultima revolutionary
is that it's neither heaven nor hell, but mirrors
the moral ambiguity of life itself." In Britannia,
players have the ability not only to kill 'evil'
people but also can slay innocent ones as well.
points out "it can be profitable to kill, but there
are also consequences to doing so," such as quite
literally being branded a 'player killer'. "It's
the act of weighing these consequences against the
rewards that gives Ultima an ethical dimension not
found in other games," he said.
ethos Grossman describes players feeling are further
support to the claim that virtual worlds, including
graphically-deficient ones such as Ultima Online,
are beginning to create an actual moral universe
in their artificial environments.
Grossman said, there is definitely evil in these
virtual worlds. According to his Village Voice
piece, 10 percent of the population of Britannia
does not work a legitimate job but rather participates
in such negative activities as stealing, fraud,
and killing other players (known as 'PKing'). Now,
whether the ratio of malevolent people in the virtual
world of Britannia and the 'real world' parallel
in any tangible way can be debated. However, it
is readily apparent that many people who take part
in these simulations still have a completely separate
sense of morality in their virtual and real life
environments. Some players who might be active and
helpful citizens in their real life communities
can and do take pleasure in hurting others in the
virtual void of places like Britannia. Grossman
himself found one such person in a player who called
himself 'Evil Galad'.
was making a fortune compared to what I used to
get as an 'honorable' player. It didn't take me
long to figure out that playing an evil character
gives you a huge advantage over the good players,"
said the Britannia resident and offline teacher.
Evil Galad's justification for his virtual misdeeds
are more closely aligned with the Mafia than anything
"The Sims" people can quite literally devise virtual
versions of their own lives by creating a family
identical to their own, complete with similar physical
characteristics, mental behavior, names, and house
floor plan. By doing this, people can hypothetically
simulate what would happen to their own family unit
if one member was killed, another was sent to military
school, and a third decided to sleep with the milk
man. The user can also torture their Sims if they
like and, if those avatars are created in the image
of a real person the user knows, can act as a sort
of high-tech voodoo doll which can be virtually
punished in effigy.
technology writer Janelle Brown said The Sims "is
the kind of game that makes you question the workings
of your own psyche." The fact that users can and
do build "healthy, balanced, happy individuals...or
torture them," depending on their whims, allows
many people to use their Sims "to fulfill their
twisted fantasies about human relationships," be
it with adultery, child neglect, or murder. The
fact that players can be omnipotent figures in the
lives of artificial beings presents yet another
interesting perspective on users' virtual morality
since they can quite literally act as God with their
own digital doll house to play with. And, of course,
who would want it to be normal?
any discussion of the future requires an obligatory
reference to Star Trek, let us consider the
'holodeck' device that was first used in the Next
Generation spin-off of the original series.
crew member used a different holodeck as a refuge
from their work-related stress. These holodecks,
which were in fact virtual reality simulations,
included such mundane places as a baseball field
or Earthly beach -- whatever might be most helpful
to relax and gratify the user. In the future there
very well might be technology available for the
full-body, five-sense immersion that was found in
Star Trek's holodeck and Strange Days'
brain wave transmitter and, at that point, the virtual
world could easily be as real as the 'real world'
itself -- at least to the user.
fact, the only difference for the user between the
virtual and real environments they would inhabit
might be that they would have bigger muscles, a
skinnier body, a different gender, or just be able
to drive a cool car. Also, the user may also want
to go to extremes in their artificial environments
by having the Strange Days -inspired adrenaline
rush associated with robbing a liquor store. That
experience will not only be available but will definitely
affect his or her real life morality as well.
the question does not lie as much in each virtual
world itself as in how the two will intermingle
in a person's consciousness. At some point virtual
environments will become as real to the user as
'real life' itself. And at that time either the
user's real life morality (which is probably a positive
one) will shine through in the artificial world
or the user will not be able to distinguish between
the evil they are allowed to commit in the virtual
world and what they are not supposed to do in the
real world. If the latter proves correct, the videogame
violence theory concerning the Columbine killers
and others would indeed ring true, since, at least
right now, the two realities are still easily distinguishable
from one another.
may not be the case in the future. Now, there are
two intrinsically different paths that are currently
being followed in the area of artificial environments
that have so far been discussed. First there is
the 'pure' form, which includes the Strange Days
brain wave transmitter and the mundane lifestyle
of The Sims. The pure form would be defined as a
virtual environment where the user is the only real
thing in it. That is, everything else is artificial.
Second, the 'hybrid' form, which will probably end
up being much more common, especially with the communication
advances of the Internet, include Ultima Online,
EverQuest, and Star Trek's holodeck. The
hybrid form would be defined as an artificial environment
where the user is not the only real thing in it.
In other words, in the hybrid form the user interacts
with other real people (or things).
difference between the pure and hybrid forms is
that the latter is a polluted artificial experience.
This is because at least some of the variables of
that virtual environment (such as, for instance,
other 'real' people) already have their own morality
which they themselves bring into the simulation.
On the other hand, in the pure form the user's morality
in the virtual world is undiluted by other 'real'
things and is therefore a more accurate barometer
of an artificial environment's realism. The difference
between these two forms in important because the
'realness' quotient of a simulator is magnified
when other 'real' people populate that particular
virtual environment. This is because the user knows,
as in Evil Galad's relationship with his fellow
players in Britannia, that he or she can either
help or hurt the other real people. In other words,
the fact that the other people contain 'real' emotions
affects the user's own experience; therefore, all
of the pure virtual worlds are at a disadvantage
in comparison to the hybrids because, in a certain
way, the latter cheats at the user's virtual experience.
fact of the matter is that realism in any virtual
world can only truly be measured by the user's own
pure morality and its effect on the artificial environment
© 2000 Gary Baum All Rights Reserved
Baum is 16 years old and currently attends Calabasas
High School in Southern California. He writes a
weekly manifesto http://www.aphrodigitaliac.com/mm
on media, politics, and culture on the Internet
and is currently the Editor-In-Chief of his high
school newspaper, the Calabasas Courier .