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virtual morality
by gary baum

In 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."

The 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."

Feinnes' 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 artificial.

In 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 life counterpart.

Over 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.

It 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.

Virtual 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.

Videogames 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 of death.

In 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 contained therein.

Pesce's 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' suburban neighborhoods.

These 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.

The 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.

Now, 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.

They 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.

As 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.

In 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.

Grossman 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.

The 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.

As 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'.

"I 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 else.

In "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.

Salon 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?

As 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.

Each 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.

In 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.

However, 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.

This 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).

The 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.

The 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 itself.

Copyright © 2000 Gary Baum All Rights Reserved

Gary 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 .

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