One of the major uses for VR has been the development of social spaces. There are many hundreds of them now and they are developing their own societies.

Social aspects of multi-user virtual worlds.

by Miriam English

People have been socialising in virtual worlds now for more than half a decade. Are there any conclusions to be drawn from how people interact in virtual spaces? In VR nobody can physically harm you. Your physical appearance doesn't matter. You can leave your shyness behind and adopt the persona you wish for. It would seem to be a world without consequences... or is it? If you annoy the crap out of everybody they can just ignore you so that you become a virtual ghost, unable to talk with anyone. Does this mean that for the first time in history the meek have the power that the ferocious have normally held? What does it mean for those that enjoy stepping outside the bounds of social norms in ways that may be harmless and even healthy, but confronting to some people. Your best friends may be people you have never actually seen. Instead of being alone in your locality you may flock together with dozens of people around the planet that share your particular passion.

Because multi-user virtual worlds are actually less about technology than about the people inhabiting in them, it is interesting and often surprising to see how people socialise there.

On the third of November 1999 AWABA was launched. It is a free multi-user virtual world, 2km x 2km in size, designed to help Australian kids feel at home on the net and in VR. It is, more than anything, a social space where kids go to hang out and create buildings. AWABA is funded by the Australian Government with idea that if kids can be made to feel at home in a virtual world now then they will have the natural grounding to start the next generation of VR businesses.

The more than 1000 citizens of AWABA are mostly very young, largely teens -- the youngest I know of is 5. I was told by many people that dealing with lots of kids in there would be a major headache, but I have actually had a very easy time of it. There have only been about half a dozen kids who have been a hassle. Most of those either don't come back or return under a different name and become interested citizens. I think there may be two main reasons for this:

As creator of the world I have ultimate power in there, but I am very mindful of the danger inherent in such power, feeling that if someone wants power then they are exactly the wrong kind of person to be given it. I am very uncomfortable wielding any power over others. Accordingly  I try to play down my role in the world by referring to myself as the janitor -- after all, I clean up unwanted objects and help people. The kids seem to respond well to that too.

Many worlds have peacekeepers that solve disputes and prevent people being obnoxious. AWABA has a number of people who have decided to help, but dispute resolution has fallen largely to me. When faced with objectionable behaviour, rather than threatening people or telling them what to do, I try to reason with them or attract them into using the world positively. This almost always has the desired effect. On the rare occasion that this doesn't work and I need to resort to ejecting them from the world for five minutes, it doesn't take long for them to realise that such behaviour is uncool, and that they can get much more out of the experience by creating something of their own instead of the immature gratification of hassling people. I have found that the language used in such situations is very important. Objectionable behaviour must be referred to as uncool. And rather than saying that they are acting immaturely, I try to accurately guess their age out loud. They are often appalled to find that everybody either knows their real age or underestimates their real age.

One of the nice things about VR is that somebody who acts offensively can return in another guise to be a more reasonable person. One young kid that I had a lot of trouble with did not respond well at all, and I had to eject them 3 times over about fifteen minutes. However they ended up returning under another name and actually became interested while I was explaining to a delighted girl how easy it is to build. I have not had any further trouble from him. Another person was playing a joke, which the first few times was quite funny: he would put flame objects inside other people's buildings. However the joke wore quite thin after a while, when Morgan (the other person helping with world maintenance) and I would spend hours deleting the flames. He actually built up many enemies in the world. We have heard nothing of him for some time now... I suspect he tired of the silly game and is now a helpful citizen of AWABA. This aspect is very interesting and could present a lesson we could learn from in the outside world. A friend of mine who calls herself Shmeg (in honour of the the Science Fiction comedy Red Dwarf) is the manager of GalaxyWorlds, another universe. One thing she is very proud of is that a lot of the most helpful people in her universe are kids who have been banned from other universes.

Related to this point that people can enter the world somewhat incognito is the fact that some kids have revealed themselves as gay, which would be extremely difficult, and sometimes dangerous in real life. As the rate of suicide is terrifyingly high among gay youth, this may show some promise as a way of boosting their feelings of self-worth, and perhaps saving a few lives.

I have been surprised at the extremely low incidence of flirting in AWABA. I kind of expected that it would be, to some extent a sea of simmering hormones, but it has been a very cerebral place. While there is some joking about sexuality there seems to be little of the overt sexuality you find in real-life groups of kids. I guess they don't feel the need to prove themselves in a virtual space.

Lastly, something very unexpected has resulted from a bug in the world. The world normally uses a device called the object registry to prevent people building on top of another person's structures. This is was not working properly in AWABA, but has given rise to a couple of unforseen effects:

Most importantly is that many people have worked in loose cooperation on projects, which normally would require them to share something called a privelege password. Many people don't understand what a privelege password is and if the registry was working properly many of these projects probably would not have happened.

Another result is that kids have had to learn how to resolve disputes themselves. As nobody can hurt another in VR, the worst that has happened is that minor sign wars have cropped up where someone would create a sign over someone else's doorway, and another would respond with a sign over that other person's doorway. When you consider that this is the worst, it is not very bad. The best that has happened is that people have apologised for misunderstandings and have happily resolved their differences and become friends. This is very cool and not something which happens very much in real life. It is almost normal in AWABA.

The astonishing thing about online VR communities is that they exist largely in spite of the need to earn their owners an income. There have been a number of extraordinary universes which have imploded under the pressure of finance (OzVirtual, OnliveTraveller, the early AlphaWorld, are three prominent examples). The simple fact is that most virtual worlds are not run by large faceless corporations, but by small groups of visionaries who love to meet and socialize with people, and sculpt 3D artforms.


Ramifications of VR on society

Using VR to see the unseeable is bound to make some large impacts in research at some points in the future. Things which have always been impossible to visualise will become open to understanding in new ways. Nobody can forsee what this will illuminate. It could finally lead to an understanding of protein folding, or how the brain organizes itself, or how room-temperature superconductivity might be achieved. It could open new windows onto understanding the weather, or the operation of the immune system. It is conceivable it could spark whole new industries. Few things have this kind of potential.

Most air pollution is produced by the common motor car, usually driven by one person to and from work each day. Virtual reality holds out the prospect that many people may be able avoid this costly waste of time and money each day. This would free up the roads for those who still need them, making them less dangerous as well as less frustrating. At the moment it is not unusual for people to spend 3 or 4 hours each day just travelling to and from work! The cost of petrol and wear and tear on vehicles must be an incredible weight on the economy, not even mentioning the tragedy of death and injury from road accidents. Funds currently spent building giant arterial roads would find other uses too.

National borders will become immaterial when interacting with other people. It won't matter if the people in your conference room are from the same city as yourself or whether they're talking with you from points scattered all over the Earth; it is all the same to someone in VR. The familiarity with other cultures that this brings will make it very difficult to support the insanity that is racism, and will help to heal the intolerance that springs from xenophobia.

Epidemics spread extremely easily through any large society where there is a lot of personal contact. The telephone has begun the technological trend to facilitate interpersonal communication without requiring physical contact. VR can only enhance this. Human contact is a necessary part of society and will never be replaced by VR, but unwanted or unnecessary contact is a waste of time and as the threat of new infections grows, it may become an avoidable risk.

Most disabled people are as capable of performing work inside VR as anybody else. This makes possible the integration of a very marginalised group into the mainstream of productive society. For people whose ability to move is severely restricted, new work on getting signals direct from the brain offers the prospect of minimising their dependence on other people and enhancing their lifestyle. For people who have one or more senses missing or severely diminished there is hope of receiving direct input to their brains -- replacing or augmenting those senses. If you find this a gruesome thought, consider how you would feel if you fell tomorrow and broke your neck, or if you lost your sight due to glaucoma as do thousands of people every year.  If you were offered the ability to resume your social and working life, through use of a computer in this way instead of being reliant on somebody else for much of the rest of your life, would you consider it perverse? ...or liberating?

The structure of cities will undergo some change as most office work will take place at home instead of in the city. People will go to the city specifically to meet people and for entertainment. The cities will become more service-industry-based. Manufacturing will change later when telepresence becomes common. After that people will be able to control factory machines from home.

Some of us will always be the pioneers, with a desperate need to search for new horizons, but as the planet comes more and more under the influence of civilization, what little that remains of wilderness becomes too valuable to intrude upon. As space travel recedes ever further into the future, where can the pioneers go? VR offers an infinite multitude of universes.

The down-side

Every technology has its down side and the use of VR by the military is one sad note. But VR is no good as a place to do the actual fighting -- you can't hurt anybody in VR. In fact, that is one of the aspects which makes it so useful for the military; real-world training exercises can be very dangerous and there are often casualties. It has to be noted that one by-product of that work is the commercial aeroplane flight training simulator, which has made air travel so much safer for all the rest of us. But the Military are no longer the greatest source of funding for VR. Entertainment and tourism have become the biggest money-spinners in the world and now drive VR research and development. I expect that as the possibilities for communication via VR become more widely appreciated that the communications industries will become more involved too.

For many people, their only exposure to VR is the shooting and racing games in game parlours. My only answer to critics of VR who point to the violent nature of these games, is to ask if they condemn all books for a few which glorify battle. Do they dismiss the value of film and theatre because of the many violent shows? Most VR is as distant from these parlour games as Rambo is from Fantasia.

There is the problem that only a minority of people in the world have access to this wonderful new technology -- the information-rich. But if previous technologies are anything to go by, this is something which will change fairly rapidly as VR shows its usefulness and as the equipment becomes more affordable. Currently the speed and power of computers roughly doubles about every 18 months while the price halves. "Old" computers, unwanted in the information rich worlds, find their way to developing nations giving them low-cost access.

There has been some criticism of the Kyoko Date project to create a virtual pop star. (see the links at the end of this document) The worry seems to be that people will be misled by an idealized humanoid. Leaving aside the fact that the Kyoko Date project never tried to palm their creation off as real ('date' is Japanese for 'fake' or 'for show'), such concerns seem to underestimate people's good sense and need for complex, real humans. Kyoko created a sensation for a few weeks in Japan, then people just lost interest in it. We won't have to worry about virtual humans till computers manage to pass the Turing Test, and then our main worry is going to be how to extend our definitions of human rights, and citizenship to include them... but that will be decades, perhaps even centuries off yet.

The criticism of such creations as Kyoko could be extended to include avatars such as Summer: the argument being that a veneer of beauty hides the true nature of the human flaws underneath and makes people more intolerant of physical defects. But I would argue exactly the opposite. We already have an incredibly powerful culture of physical beauty which marginalizes, and is terribly oppressive of, those of us who don't "measure up". Using avatars as trojan horses we are able to meet people and befriend them before revealing our physical nature. This forces people to admit to themselves that people with different skin colours, different dress styles, different levels of capability (deaf, wheelchair-bound, blind, etc.) are worthwhile human beings. You can try to reason with someone who is racist or bigoted until you are blue in the face, but the only way to actually convince them is to have one of "the despised" become their friend. VR manages this in a way few other media have. True, it would be much better if we could simply have more public images of good and worthwhile ugly people, brilliant people in wheelchairs, great people of all races -- and I believe that day is coming... gradually. But in the meantime we have to work around our petty human failings any way we can.

Why haven't I mentioned the problem of children becoming "hooked" on VR and losing touch with reality? Because I don't see it as a problem. I don't think VR will be realistic enough to be much of an escape for perhaps another few decades at least -- perhaps never -- reality is just so very much better! In fact using VR always makes me realize how incredible the real world is. My appreciation of everyday things is magnified: small weeds growing through cracks in the concrete, the dust motes in a sunbeam from the window, a bird outside my window feeding on nectar from a flower. And computer generated VR just pales in comparison to the escape value of a good book. (I chuckle when I remember being warned by some people when I was a child that I spent too much time reading books.) Books are the ultimate in VR! Films, stage plays, and computer VR experiences have great difficulty conveying what a person thinks and feels, or what their motivation is. These are easily, economically conveyed through the printed word. With a good book you are able to omnisciently feel the emotions of perhaps several characters and understand what drives them.