My friend Eric Goldman (who I've mentioned before as skeptical of much of "virtual law" scholarship) posted recently about a presentation on Vacheland, a French simulation of virtual farm management. Eric says Vacheland was "initiated by a public agency to increase awareness of farm issues and to help address negative perceptions due to mad cow disease." Eric says that:
On one level, the project is a success, with 320,000 people tending a virtual farm and an active community developing to discuss the game and figure out how to optimize participation. However, on the more important level, the simulation failed to accomplish its goals. Many participants compartmentalized the experience, distinguishing between their virtual cow/farm and their attitudes towards real cows and farms.. This, of course, strikes at the heart of any arguments that virtual worlds are unique/special/different because they are "immersive." In Vacheland, despite the richness of the simulation, there was no blurring of reality and fantasy.
I've got mixed reactions to this. I'm aware that there's an element in scholarship about virtual worlds that goes for full Baudrillardian claim that the boundary between the real and the simulated has collapsed--real money is play money, Magritte was wrong and this is a pipe, etc. But as we've discussed here before, that road leads to madness -- or at least, a slew of shattered mailboxes.
The question here is what we mean by immersion. For me, the importance of immersion to legal regulation is a far cry from what Eric is suggesting. I suppose his claim would be something like: "I'm a completely delusional gamer and the law needs to respect that by calling virtual cows real." Indeed, that's awfully close to the claim of the anti-GTA crusaders, isn't it? "Gamers are obviously confusing virtual violence with real violence and the law needs to do something about that."
My version of the immersion claim is more along the lines of "I care deeply about this social practice, and its ideal structure, for me, is at odds with the ideal structure articulated by the law." Taking that approach, how much sense does the following paragraph make?
Virtual worlds maintain internal rules and structures to regulate play and organize competition. In virtual worlds law, the wider legal system impinges on this traditionally private sphere and subject the politics of the virtual worlds game to the politics of the law game. The result is a double drama as the deep human concern for play combines with the concern for social justice.
The paragraph is actually a paraphrase of pages 2-3 of John Barnes, Sports and the Law in Canada (1996). My only editorial change was to replace the word "sports" with the words "virtual worlds." I'm not suggesting, by any means, that the regulation of virtual worlds should be identical to the regulation of sports. Indeed, as Dan and I have pointed out in our Virtual Crime article, there are many important differences. But the notion of immersion as reflecting a "separate sphere" of regulation and motivating interests, seems more appealing to me than the embrace of Baudrillard's wonderfully fascinating, but deeply wacky, theoretical riffing.
Cf. Johan Huizanga speaking about the formal characteristics of play (emphasis added):
Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.