Agency and Fictional Truth in Virtual Worlds
Second Life in an online virtual world where users, called Residents, interact with each other through avatars, graphical representations of the user’s character or “alter ego”. An online participant in the virtual environment will typically attribute to himself the various actions that his Second Life avatar performs in the virtual world. He may say things such as I wielded the knife or I was late for class or I got married to Cindy even though he never leaves his office chair and his computer screen. A natural interpretation of such remarks is that they have the status of make-believe. According to this interpretation, the animated figures on the speaker’s computer screen are what Kendall Walton (1990) calls props in the context of pretend-play. However, in an article entitled “Bodies, Selves” (2008), J. David Velleman makes the surprising claim that we have good reason to take these avowals literally: “although the player’s actions in the virtual world are merely fictional, he is really performing them.” Velleman argues that the inhabitants of virtual worlds are chimerical creatures constituted of fictional bodies and real minds. This interpretation is in sharp contrast to the way we generally interpret the actions of actors or of children playing games of make-believe. When an actor reports ”In the last episode I had to stab Tony Soprano” or ”I commit suicide in Act V” it would be very odd to interpret what he says as literally true. Similarly, in pretend games, it would be very odd to understand a child’s utterance of I killed the pirate literally. So why should matters be different for virtual play? One consideration that Velleman adduces is that since players cannot make stipulative additions to the game, the virtual world manifests a relcalcitrance to the will that is characteristic of agency in real life. This recalcitrance is not present in ordinary games of make-believe where players can simply decide that they have slayed the dragon or found the treasure.
Although I think Velleman is right to point out that role-playing games in virtual worlds can be challenging and recalcitrant, there is a clear sense in which they are less recalcitrant than the real world. For example, in Second Life there are no recalcitrant beer bellies, green card hassles, or ingrown hairs. This disanalogy accounts for our suspicion that Second Life can a kind of escapism.
It’s not that the inhabitants of Second Life do not have problems: a world (whether real or virtual) without struggle would also be without interest. But the salient difference with the real world is that the inhabitants of Second Life have greater freedom to choose their problems. And in these circumstances the attribution of real rather than fictional agency seems somewhat unearned.
On the other hand, virtual worlds provide very real opportunities for betrayal and deception. Through a discussion of case of Ric Hoogestraat, a 53-year-old man who “married” another inhabitant of Second Life, I examine the sense in which some actions in Second Life cannot be written off as “merely fictional”. I argue that it is possible to be unfaithful to one’s (real life) partner with a Second Life paramour, and I explore the differences between creating a fictional character and inhabiting a virtual avatar. I argue that the conations of user and avatar bear a relationship to each other that is importantly different from those of an author and his characters.