This last week saw a couple of interesting occurrances which, I think, have a couple of interesting similarities, which probably boil down to one underlying principle ... very close to the heart of online culture. First, the AMA began official undertakings to classify video game and MMOG addiction, including this remarkable statement: "....Current theory is that these individuals achieve more control of their social relationships and more success in social relationships in the virtual reality realm than in real relationships." Imagine my delight...
First, if you're reading this, you probably don't need much convincing to believe that online relationships are, indeed, very real, and even more, open new avenues for interaction previously not known: ie., rather than being some sort of abberant behavior that distracts us from being "really" alive, or social, these experiences expand our communicative, interactive, and experiential possibilities in amazing (and the realm is evolving and growing pretty much minute by minute) new ways, indeed, opening up new ways for interacting, exprimentaion, and growth. That's even alluded to by the comment about how individuals can be more successful in these relationships. And while some folks do get unhealthy in their gaming behavior - just as they do with many other much more clearly harmful things (drugs and gambling come to mind) I think it's much more fruitful, to say the least, to view these experiences as the chance to learn by exploring new roles, new social strategies, and new presentations of our identity, in circumstances that give us much more cultural freedom, and (usually) greatly reduced costs of failure. Ie., they're learning playgrounds, and we engage in them precisely because we get the chance (finally!) to play with questions of identity and socialization that are impossible - or at least far more demanding - to explore otherwise. We get to experiment, make mistakes, learn, grow... and, not surpizingly, it can take time (but it does happen). Thus, I think what we see far more of is positive personal growth via the chance to explore, experiment, and learn online. These are very real relationships, and the learnings taken from these experiences absolutely maps back in to the rest of our lives.
Next up, what this really is is another meta look at culture: this is one traditional authority figure, the AMA, trying to understand and create an "official" stance on this new cultural, phsychological, and human phenomenon. This is what culture does, in a very real sense, it's the web of interactions by which we collaboratively decide what our world is, how we should relate to it, and how we should organize and view our interactions with each other. This is the American culture taking a crucial step towards understanding this new stuff, and fulfilling its role as cultural interpreters for the rest of us... at least, from a certain conservative perspective.
And that's interesting - even the AMA now recognizes something interesting is going on in MMOGs, even from a very simple and rudimentary perspective (at least, thus far).
The second part of this, or one second part in this little matrix, is the recent appearance by danah boyd... in a panel at Cannes! As in the glamorous international film festival? Wild stuff - again, we're really seeing the culture recognize this online social stuff, and wanting to understand it.
I've been reading danah's master's thesis lately - it's brilliant. I think she tags the core dynamic here: that our previously established social identities now can be expressed in a digital format (or formats) and that this means a certain amount of translation and new forms of expression. Brilliant stuff! If I were going to write a master's thesis, I can't think of a more germaine topic to our current life, though I'd focus more on the ways that these experiences can be transformative: that the play is really all about learning... learning who we are, how to get along, how to be successful together. And that's really why we do it. Real? Almost more than that, in a certain sense, this is the opportunity to explore and grow at amazing rates that humanity's been wanting ... well, a long time.