This past weekend, I saw the film Coraline, which I found terrific in many respects. Among other things, I think it has a lot to say that applies very strongly to virtual worlds, about why though we may all complain about bad pick-up groups, griefers, loot farmers, Barrens chat, virtual worlds are not a demonstration that hell is other people. Quite the opposite: virtual worlds live (and sometimes die) on whether they infuse authentic sociality into everything we do within those worlds.
In Coraline (modest spoilers ahead), the title character is frustrated with her parents' quirks and lack of attentiveness to her. Drawn into a magical world that exists inside her new home, she is at first enchanted by her Other Parents, who have marvelous talents, live surrounded by wonder, and are utterly devoted to Coraline herself. I don't suppose I'm giving away much when I say that there's a big catch to all this, and the last portion of the film is about how wonder gives way to horror.
The only seeming clue that Coraline's Other Mother is anything but perfection is that her eyes (and the eyes of almost everything else in the magical world) are made from buttons. And yet there is another clue right from the outset, in some ways a much more unsettling sign of just how wrong this world is. Everyone and everything in it exists only for Coraline. They have no apparent interests of their own, no desires apart from hers, nothing to do but please and delight Coraline.
Virtual worlds occasionally toy with treating each player like Coraline. In World of Warcraft, my character is greeted with delight by guards and non-player characters who allude to his past adventures. This lasts only until I begin a new round of quests in a new zone, whereupon my famous achievements are forgotten and I am merely one more anonymous grunt. When my character seems to make momentous choices that should hang about him forever, those too disappear into the haze. I am torturer one moment, and the next a saint who seeks all across the world for a cure which will save the life of hero faced with enslavement to the Lich King. In my most important adventures, I exist inside wholly private instanced worlds with a small number of friends or allies. That world, too, exists only for me.
What keeps World of Warcraft or any other virtual world from being as ultimately empty and terrifying as Coraline's magical hideaway is that these worlds are full of people who do not exist for my own pleasure. They may be people I know and like, people I tolerate, people I find pathetic, people who infuriate or disgust me. But they mean that the world is not merely my mirror.
Now I think that virtual worlds themselves could function more that way: they could react to my actions (or the actions of many players together) in much more dynamic and autonomous ways. Reading Jim Rossignol describing the latest astonishing developments in the long-running war between BoB and Goonfleet in EVE Online makes that very clear. The underlying world in EVE does not exist in a one-to-one relationship to individual players, and its basic economic and politcial infrastructure transforms in relationship to collective action in some striking ways. A world which is itself a dynamic presence in play need not be as harsh or treacherous as EVE's world is, but the basic principle is an important one.
Until we have a fuller range of dynamic worlds, though, other people, acting in the most unmanaged and unfiltered ways possible, are the only thing that keep virtual worlds from total sterility. Sometimes we all feel like Coraline: we'd like a world which exists only to delight us, full of cheering throngs and valiant allies. But like Coraline, we'd be better off knowing from the first moment of that desire that we're really chasing something horrible rather than something pleasant.