Real-life happens online, especially during a pandemic

We guard ourselves in person only to reveal our true selves online. When the virus passes we will be that much more connected to our interface.

The people have all gone inside. We have gathered what we could and taken to our homes to wait out something that has no clear timeline. Our environment has become smaller. Where it had been the world it is now just our homes. But there are universes inside. There are more online communities than there are real-world ones. Perhaps none of those communities are more elaborate and consuming than persistent-world massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

Life inside these gaming platforms already feels real, and as we all go inside, the life we love online will be embraced even more as our own reality. Players who play EVE, one of these massive multiplayer games, spend hours executing "comms"— talking live in-game— plotting out plans as a corp, what teams are called in-game. I was visiting a friend who plays, and while we were sitting in her living room drinking wine, an activity that seemed so normal and now seems so distant, she had to dash to her PC to do something in-game for a player in her corp.

“When I first started playing,” she texted me recently, “I was very surprised when I would be on comms, and I would discover that one or two of the people I was talking to were not even logged into the game, one of them wasn’t even home and near his computer.”

“That's when I realized that this game was definitely serving as some sort of social outlet at a fascinating and maybe slightly disturbing level,” she wrote, her three dots on my screen turning to text, “although I've since come to believe that if a person's virtual reality so to speak such as this is fulfilling, what actually makes it better than real reality?”

It neither is better than reality or worse, because it is reality. We turn inward and create whole worlds, we people them together, from our increasing social distance. We’ve been watching this happen with growing concern, seeing ourselves and our children disengage from the natural world and turn to the digital one. Now we find, as we are pushed inside, that this new world is ready for us to inhabit as fully as we are able.

EVE is a hugely multifaceted game. There are players around the world, and everything in the game was basically built by players. In fact, blueprints for how to build stuff are highly valuable. There are blueprints that are so rare there are only a few copies left anywhere in the game. And as of last week, there are even less of those. A guy with the username Lactose Intolerant was ganked by pirates while traveling through insecure space with an entire cargo of super rare blueprints. Lactose couldn’t sleep for days, and felt isolated by other game players in his corp who thought he was stupid for attempting to move his cache of blueprints, assembled during 16 years of game play, using such a slow ship.

Lactose knows it was dumb. And after playing EVE for so long, he should have known better. EVE is a game that contains its own universe. It’s a space game, and it is constantly in the process of being created by players. Ships and bases and the rest of it are all painstakingly made by users, and the currency of the game is internal to the game, ISK, but it has real world value in playtime it takes to earn it and what it can earn.

If EVE sounds more complicated than you like your games to be, it’s important to realize that the universe inside a game like EVE is now far more accessible than our own. Our lives online just got all the more expansive, and because, for the time being, and for no one knows how long, we cannot commune with each other in our beautiful cafes and public spaces, by office water coolers or bellying up to our favourite bars, there is no shame or judgement to be made against us throwing near all of our social energy into the vastly expanding world within our screens.

EVE, World is Warcraft, multiplayer Minecraft, even the parental nightmare that is Roblox, offer portals of escape from our quarantine. While we shelter in place we can travel out into the vast player-created worlds that orbit distant suns in our digital universes. And social media, too, is one of those universes. These are the places where reality will be created, and because we engage these worlds devoid of our physical bodies, because our bodies are the interface between us and our computers, be they massively impressively PCs like the one my friend has that can run EVE, or this phone in my hand that I type on unable to sleep in the middle of the night, we can be whoever we want, we can be who we are not.

We live in our online worlds so deeply that in many ways they are the equivalent in meaning to our physical lives. The way we interact with each other has changed, will morph further. This is how we lose the relevancy of our bodies in regard to how others perceive us. When we don’t physically interact with others we can’t be judged based on our external characteristics, positively or negatively. Who we are online is who we say we are. Our avatar is what we look like, whether perfected selfie or cute anime icon.

This virus makes us do everything we cultural naysayers had been cautioning against. It makes us distance ourselves from one another instead of coming together. It makes us turn and go inside our homes instead of experiencing nature. It makes us look to our relationships online, and for those who do not share a home with families or friends, we become all the more locked into life online. It makes us eschew touch.

We all have the people who we’re friends with online but who we haven’t met or barely see in real-life. We spill our guts to our screens trusting the unseen friend to hold safe our emotions for us. And these are not fake friends, these are real-friends. Sometimes they know us better than the friends we see more frequently. We guard ourselves in person with fake smiles and stock responses only to reveal our true selves online. Real-life happens on screen. When the virus passes, we may again turn outward, but we will be that much more connected to our interface.