Have you ever wondered if the boundary between what we so easily call the real and what we call the virtual world is as clear-cut as it seems ? Now this might sound like an academic question at best, but, if you are an Second Life You-Know-Where addict like myself (and I presume you are, if you are reading this), I think you have been there. Usually, when someone confronts you with your own attitude and feelings towards the virtual world by wailing « But it’s just a game ! ». Remember how the tiny voice of ratio supplying « yes, it is » is drowned out by the roar that says « it isn’t! » ? I have been there. I have been called a psychotic loser for taking the virtual seriously at least once. And I have been arguing and wondering about it, interminently, for quite some time.
Even if you are not with me in this, humour me for a moment. Take recent discussions of an alleged case of SL Y-K-W rape on Virtually Blind for instance. In this matter, SL and RL oddly clash on the question of wether rape is possible at all in a virtual environment, of what should be defined as such, and of how it is to be reacted to in-world and / or out of world should it exist. I won’t delve into the matter itself (the jury is still out), but interestingly, the discussion as such is far from new. More interestingly even, others have come to conclusions which eerily echo what disorganized misgivings about the clear separation of the worlds I have.
Read the fascinating, if somewhat lengthy article first published in Village Voice in 1993 by Julian Dibbell. Dibbbell, then known as Dr. Bombay, recounts a series of events centered on a virtual universe called LambdaMOO. LambdaMOO was a text-only virtual world, an early internet geek playground oddly reminiscent of today’s SL Y-K-W, minus the graphical bells and whistles. Characteristically for the community and era it belongs to, Dibbell’s main focus is what impact the events had on the social fabric of that metaverse. To me, however, the applicability of his thoughts to today’s debate goes far beyond even the fact that, back in a time I was still at school, the question of virtual rape was a matter of debate already in the virtual community. Embedded in Dibbell’s narrative is a gem which I simply must quote here :
[W]hile the facts attached to any event born of a MUD’s [Multi-User Dimension, an early form of VR environment] strange, ethereal universe may march in straight, tandem lines separated neatly into the virtual and the real, its meaning lies always in that gap. You learn this axiom early in your life as a player, and it’s of no small relevance to the [discussed] case that you often learn it between the sheets, so to speak. Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex — however you name it, in real-life reality it’s nothing more than a 900-line encounter stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice. And yet, as many a wide-eyed newbie can tell you, it’s possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer. Amid flurries of even the most cursorily described caresses, sighs, or penetrations, the glands do engage, and often as throbbingly as they would in a real-life assignation — sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies. And if the virtual setting and the interplayer vibe are right, who knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh.
He goes on to state that « what happens inside a MUD-made world is neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but nonetheless profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true. ». Does that sound familiar ? To me, it certainly does. Has your pulse ever quickened at the laconic message telling you someone is online ? Has your heart ever fluttered at the sight of two rather cartoonish 3D renditions locked in embrace ? Has your breath ever caught at a line of text scrolling off your screen emoting love, hatred, or raw animal lust ? If it has, as it has for me, you should feel the truth of what Dibbell says.
Which eventually brings me to the cryptic title of my post. It alludes to a simple, yet complex idea along the lines of Dibbell’s thought : the idea that there might not be a single line separating the real and the virtual, RL and SL Y-K-W, and that all there is cannot necessarily be categorized as belonging to either the one or the other side. That we might have to accept that the two seemingly clear boundaries neither meet nor match perfectly, defining a space that is neither part of the one nor part of the other world. In this space, a reality emerges that belongs to both worlds it originates in, but is exclusive to neither, emotionally as true as it is physically non-existent. The truth, to paraphrase Dibbell, lies between the gaps ; what binds so many real persons to the virtual world might be the interstitial reality which they have discovered, often without being aware of it, or acknowledging it fully.
I intend to explore that reality. If you join me, mind the gap. Because the gap is what matters.