I’m wondering what TN reader’s view is of the trajectory of the intersection of virtual worlds and what some term the political economy is. In short do we think that the practices associated virtual worlds are tending towards liberating us or are acting as just another way for dominant ideologies to be re-enforced?
It seems to me that in many ways virtual worlds are the ultimate expression of consumerism. Game worlds construct new needs which the use-value of virtual artefacts meet and new forms of labour are constructed to enable us to gain them.
Both game worlds and social worlds, in their different ways, can also act as a pure mechanism for symbolic-value exchange through the mechanism of virtual goods. For example: a virtual Gucci bag may have no use-value what so ever in a virtual world but it carries with it much of the symbolic value of the brand.
In general virtual worlds seem often to replicate structures of labour and production – they even support a class hierarchies based on geography, contextual knowledge, time in the given community etc.
At the same time virtual worlds offer the promise of liberating us. Not quite in the old utopian ideal of freeing us fully from pre-existing notions of self but at least opening up new opportunities for self-exploration. What’s more should you have access to a virtual world the barrier between roles of consumption and production seems to have been lowered such that both within the context of a virtual space e.g. as a crafter or builder in second life; or outside it, say as a fan fic creator, many can participate in a mixed traditional, amateur and / or gift economy.
We might also note that widespread fact of things like gift economies within virtual worlds stand as a challenge to the rigidity of exchange-values and all they stand for in respect of social relations.
A we can see how individuals have the power to subvert ideologies through playing with brands and taking stabs at ideologies – such as Dead in Iraq and others that work on the art / politics threshold.
Plus virtual worlds do give us pause for thought. They motivate discussions about the contingency of many things we see in the physical world around us – for example the nature of property and money. However I wonder if those that really engage in those discussions are largely an intellectual elite who would be talking about them anyway.
Lastly when we look at something like Second Life and There what we seem to see are endlessly reproduced norms of body type etc that look like the products of an internalisation and then self production of dominant types. While there are many ‘fake’ versions of brands, they are still versions of brands so still operate in the same world of assumed values. What’s more we can no longer gamble in Second Life the reason being because of US laws – hence many virtual worlds seem simply to act as a way of expanding US cultural and legal norms, even if the virtual world is not in-fact based in the US as it will probably have a tendency to norm towards its values. As virtual worlds come out of China I expect that we will see a spreading of its cultural assumptions too.
So I contend that virtual worlds hold the potential to liberate and the potential to reinforce and indeed spread the dominant ideologies of the time. What I’m interested in are people views of where things are now and where they seem to be headed.
I’m currently erring towards the pessimistic view of things – give me hope :)