In June 2007, Mother Jones published an article by Dave Gilson entitled "Even Better Than the Real Thing." More a point-by-point listing of interesting and potentially disturbing facts related to virtual worlds than a coherent article, this piece makes one thing very clear — regardless of how you feel or what you think about virtual worlds, they have an increasingly commanding, real-world presence. The populations of these virtual worlds are experiencing exponential growth, as are their very real economies.
In Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future, Jack Myers writes about virtual worlds as a passionate supporter. He is neither a dispassionate observer of the "explosive impact that the proliferation of Virtual Worlds is having on culture, society, and business today," nor, as I am, a curious but cautiously ambivalent one. In Virtual Worlds, Myers argues that "Virtual worlds and enhanced social networks allow us to explore new universes, expand our emotional range and depth, change the nature of communication and create different identities for ourselves."
Indeed, he is optimistic that virtual worlds will positively transform humanity. He compares our entrance into virtual worlds to "an amphibian taking its first tentative steps out of water and discovering how to breathe" and sees in them "the potential to radically alter the emotional code of the human race," demoting "the brain from its position of dictatorial power over our emotional well-being" and evolving the emotional DNA of new generations to "empower the heart and the gut to manage and control actions and decisions with the advice of the brain but not necessarily its consent."
Jack Myers is editor and publisher of the Jack Myers Media Business Report, and of MediaVillage.com. He has been involved in media business since the late 1970s, first as a sales executive for CBS-TV, then as a consultant and advisor for various media companies, agencies, and advertisers. Since 1999, Myers has become immersed in new media technologies with industry-wide forums on interactive television development, annual surveys on media sales organization and performance, and emotional connection studies. Myers is a board member of the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, serves on the Dean's Advisory Board for the Steinhardt School at New York University, and is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Having already disclosed that I am curious about the effects the proliferation and expansion of virtual worlds will have on society, but also cautious and ambivalent, I must say that Virtual Worlds was a frustrating read. The topic is very fascinating, and there is much to be studied, discussed, and debated in cultural studies and media courses at high schools, colleges, and universities around the world, as also around the dinner table. And because it is so pervasive, demands so much of young people's attention and time, and because it has the potential for a significant impact on our societies, cultures, and economies, it deserves, indeed demands, to be approached from a distance, from within, and from different angles. That is one of the frustrations of this book, namely that it is more a promotion and celebration of virtual worlds than serious study or discussion. Readers who have already decided that virtual worlds are not only fun and great, but that their impact will be wonderful and positive, will love this book.
Another frustration relates to sources and citations. The first three chapters are almost devoid of them, despite the fact that psychologists, scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists are invoked to make various claims. Myers writes that "[p]sychologists report a child's virtual self often reflects more about their core self-image than the self they display in their day-to-day behavior." He also writes that "[s]cientists, sociologists and anthropologists suggest that active social participation and involvement in online virtual worlds is a more constructive and healthy human experience than passively watching television, reading a book, or being in an unhappy job or relationship." I want to know which psychologists are reporting such things and what studies they conducted to arrive at their conclusions. Or which scientists (a very generic term), sociologists, and anthropologists made the suggestion that involvement in online virtual worlds is more constructive and healthy than the other activities referenced, and how this diverse group of experts came to their conclusions. Myers not only fails to provide any information on the studies behind these conclusions, but does not even provide us with the names of the experts involved so we can do our own follow-up reading.