In games, immersive worlds, forums, social networks, and in blogs we inhabit multiple selves. In most cases, theses virtual spaces are walled islands with little relation between them. Increasingly it’s becoming apparent that continuity is necessary to resolve these fractured selves and to open up the channels of communication between the diversity of online containers. This can be seen in the new wave of web 2.0 aggregators like FriendFeed and Plaxo that aim to collate our myriad profiles, friends and content streams into a single portal. Now, Technology Review reports that several companies are working to enable avatars to move between virtual worlds.
More and more, such affordances will move into virtual spaces. 2D content streams and communication pipelines will feed into and across immersive worlds. A WoW player should be able to call up a HUD console in the game and locate their friends across all of the virtual worlds they’re currently in. They should then be able to communicate with them through IM or VoIP and subsequently transport to join them in another world. GTA4 has announced a feature to allow users to call each other in-world using the game cell phone. Shouldn’t this extend across game worlds and out into real-world mobiles? API’s could evolve to mine user communications (Twitter in WoW?) and chart locations on world maps. In the age of digital society, findability is key.
The vast amounts of personal profiling we’re building up around ourselves in MySpace, Facebook, blogs, and other forums should be accessible through our avatars and from all places we inhabit, virtually and in reality. It should be present in our devices and our profiles. As avatars, it should follow us like a digital skin (secured and opt-in, of course) layered in transaction-appropriate trust profiles that fly-out on mouseover. My avatars should contain more information than just polygons and scripted motions. Social transactions are information exchanges. My LinkedIn profile should be accesible to anyone in 2D and 3D if I so desire.
The realness of immersive worlds should leverage the fundamental reality of our digital profiles and interests. If these platforms are going to become truly compelling, they must work to integrate the API’s, content streams, and communication channels of the web2.0 revolution. We’re in the midst of a completely unprecedented historical shift as all of our cultural and intellectual content is going digital, made manifest in searchable, findable, and persistent datalogs. The profiles we create around our virtual selves are growing larger and larger, and they are being recorded and left open for many eyes to see. Imagine the political candidates running 10 or 15 years from now. So much of their lives will be a matter of public record easily searchable and graphed out to show affiliations, donations, histories and contradictions. So much of who they are will live online like a shadow. SO much of who we all are.
Virtual worlds are poised to engage directly in this shift and draw culture and identity into their domain. Instead of closed platforms, worlds like Second Life must open up and grow to become contiguous spaces whose character arises from the types of people that choose to gather there by affiliation, interest, and intention. MMORPG’s like WoW will continue to offer highly crafted narratives, specialized social groups and hierarchies, and bleeding edge rendering tech but will acknowledge the tremendous personal content within each player distributed across their digital and analog lives.
Of course, if virtual platforms become more open, their business models will inevitably shift towards advertising. Space is space, whether 2D, 3D, or 4D, and eyes are eyes especially when they gather in great enough concentration. As in the real world, the exchange of goods and services will always be of great value in any domain, so the shift towards continuity will be a shift towards reality. Virtual worlds have the unique proposition of creating fantasy within the world of life. So the shift towards reality in the context of a realized fantasy brings both closer together. It is part of the alchemical formula of bringing spirit into matter. It is the power of gods to create in an unlimited universe. It is the movement of the ghost in the machine as our real selves grow more and more to include virtual, digital, non-local aspects of identity and presence. Who am I but the sum of my transactions with the world? These words I’m writing and posting on the global billboard become preserved bits of my self. Your interactions with them extend my identity into the virtual world. All my words are facets of my expanding digital identity. My self-reflection extends from my body, my deeds, my actions towards others around me, to include the ideas and statements I leave online, the avatars I inhabit, and the webs of disembodied people I associate with. In 100 years I may roll up in bits under some social anthropologist’s data-mining PhD nudging their graphs this way or that with my Tweets and posts.
Aggregation of social data serves a very practical role of making it easier for us to manage an increasingly vast amount of data, but it also serves a larger role of helping us defragment our sense of self as it fractures out across so many new digital domains rising and falling daily. If we’re to walk like new gods through worlds both real and virtual, shouldn’t we do so with as much wholeness as possible? In a world that’s made it so challenging to have a fully integrated psyche it’s really imperative that we lay down a strong foundation of holism and continuity as we move into the unfettered vastness of the digital noosphere. As strong cohesive selves we can better wear the masks of avatars and wield the power of virtual gods.