While surfing the net yesterday (keyboard firmly planted under my feet as wave after wave of ones and zeros washed over me) I came across a couple of articles written by Ian Shanahan about online gaming and the ethical questions it raises. They're pretty well written (better than anything I'm writing on this site); one's called "Bow, N****r" about what happens when racism enters the virtual gaming community, and another (which I think is a little more thoughtful) called "Posessing Barbie" about issues of age, gender, and intimacy in an online game. The links are there if you want to read the articles (which I recommend). He's got a lot more on his site that I haven't had time to read yet, though I think he's pretty literate for writing about videogames (which tends to be a rarity) so I'm sure I'll read some more in the future.
I've never played either of the games Shanahan mentions in his articles; I don't particularly want to. Yet I think the issues he raises are the natural outgrowth of existing in an increasingly virtual world. The short answer is obvious: "Racists are racists no matter what the forum" or "People manage online interactions the same way they do in real life." But I think that response is a little too easy; it doesn't really interrogate the issue very well. Because the distance (perceived or otherwise) of the virtual community allows people to interact online in ways they never would in real life. There's a freedom from constraint that somehow exists in the space between our fingers and our keyboards, as though accountability doesn't get converted to a digital image. We become free to write or say or do whatever we feel like, because anonymity provides protection from real consequences.
Of course there's a positive side to this as well. That same anonymity can allow people online to open up and interact with one another in ways that could be difficult in the flesh. (I think that's why there's a stereotype that all computer-playing people are overweight nerds with bad acne; the online world eliminates those kind ofphysical barriers that often keep us from getting to know one another). That's part of the reason I blog; I feel free to say whatever I feel like with the knowledge that not only my immediate friends will read it but that in reality anyone could conceivably read this. It both places constraints on and opens up my blogging in terms of content, tone, etc. Most of the time it's just an online journal, but it also becomes a community or a sort. And look at what happens. I know I get more hits than the five or six people who regularly comment on the blog, but even of that small group one of the people who reads this is someone I've never actually met, but the friend of a friend of a friend who probably stumbled upon my blog by accident (I'm looking in your direction Watergirl). Are we best friends through this interaction? Of course not, but we do have some sort of virtual friendship, or she wouldn't keep reading my blog and I wouldn't read hers. The point, not very coherently, is that the online world does provide new avenues to meet and get to know interesting and worthwhile people. It really can create a virtual community with no physical boundaries.
But that community formation demands that community members all continue to obey some sort of social contract of civility. I think it demands some accountability for one's actions, even if it is only to one's self. The freedom that comes with online participation is a good thing, but like all freedoms it requires self-regulation to fully enjoy it. Just because you can say or do something online and no one will know you said it doesn't mean you should.
This--to get back to another specific online community--is why I find myself approaching Xbox Live half-heartedly at best. When I first bought Live, I got on a few times and played match-up games with others on the system. I tend to be pretty quiet around people I don't know, even with the added anonymity of a computer server, but I also just wanted to sit back and see what this whole system was like. What I found wasn't particularly fun or impressive to me. It was a bunch of (mostly) guys who like to taunt each other, followed by the obligatory "good game" at the end of each round. Never mind that I'm not that good, I didn't find playing with strangers any more or less fun than playing with a computer. Strike that; I found it like playing with a computer, only with an added layer of rudeness.
On the other hand, I really enjoy my once weekly appointment to play Halo 2 with my college friends. Along with our blogs, I think it's a great way to stay in touch now that we're all spread around the country. For me, it's not the game playing that I enjoy all that much, it's the interaction, whether that's trash-talking (which we do when we're together in person anyway) or catching up on who's buying a house and how everyone's babies are doing or who's looking for a new job. I still consider them my close friends, and that's what makes playing online with them fun. The virtual community, for me, is an extension of every other community I'm a part of; it's not one I want to exist in under complete anonymity--no matter what freedom such anonymity may provide.
I realize I am probably part of a minority in this. I just don't particularly like competition enough to take great pleasure out of beating or losing to total strangers, whether in the real world or the digital world. But a lot of people do, and more power to them. I just wonder what kinds of ethics we're using to create these virtual worlds.