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The term "virtual world" in our modern context usually implies a number of things: online, multiplayer, interactive, and based in a generated 3D environment. Thinking about it from that perspective, books really don't have much in common with virtual worlds at all. But what if we examine books and virtual worlds from a broader perspective? What is a book? What is a virtual world?
A book can be defined in a number of ways: a combination of pages bound together, the distillation of an author's soul, a collection of associated characters and punctuation marks comprising no fewer than fifty thousand words. In essence, though, a book is a tool for directed focus. Whether we are reading fact or fiction, poetry or politics, the purpose of a book is to pull our minds away from whatever has filled our lives and thoughts up until that point and bring it to a new perspective--in some cases to sort through our own connected realities and in others, to forget about them. For the author, it means creating a new, separate space wherein one can experience and reflect on life in novel ways. The book is a finite, isolated construct of the author's mind into which others can enter voluntarily. To distill it down, books temporarily remove us from our own reality, immerse us in a constructed space (in this case composed primarily of words), and allow us to come to new perspectives on life, beauty, truth, and self.
Sounds to me a lot like a virtual worlds. Obviously there are some big differences, like the sociality of virtual worlds, but the core ideas--directed isolation, immersion, and thoughtful focus and interaction--are still all there. If we look at Moby Dick itself, it takes us into a completely different world than the one we're used to. It asks us to care about things like cetology and to think about big topics like unity, revenge, and grief, and ultimately, it does that by immersing us in a narrative that is rich and complicated and tragically beautiful. The novel becomes, in some sense, a virtual world wherein the reader lives for a time, interacting with different characters and learning about this humanity and life aboard the Pequod. It is about deliberate escape and deliberative focus. If we really think about it, even Ishmael's voyage fits in the same mold: he leaves to get away from his regular life, is immersed in an entirely different reality for a time, interacts with people whom he would have never otherwise met, and is able to learn a ton about himself and others. We seem really quick to condemn escapism in virtual worlds, but the reality is that we often escape to our own worlds--be it in books or baseball or whatever--and it helps us to function as normal human beings. I'm not saying that we need all take up residence in virtual worlds, but I don't think we should ignore their potential either.
Modernly, the word virtual has come to mean something akin to figmentary or imagined, but originally, it traces its roots to virtus, "excellence, potency, efficacy" and later, to virtualis, "influencing by physical virtues or capabilities." I don't wish to imply, by any means, that we ought to use this definition in coming to understand virtual words--it is clear that the terms have diverged--but thinking about virtual worlds in terms of this framework, as something that effectively does something, helps us to see what virtual worlds can and do accomplish. They, like video games, films, and books, fulfill real human desires, and maybe if we better understood what attracts people so readily to virtual worlds, we could figure out a little bit better how to make real life a little better--a little bit more interactive, more empowering, more beautiful.