The Power of Virtual Place
Many have written about the power of place, that is, how location–physical space and the physical environment–anchor our sense of ourselves and our lives. The experience of returning home to a familiar landscape after traveling to foreign terrains evokes a feeling of comfort, of being “all right” with one’s world. This power of place is rooted in the geography as well as in the built environment. Significant changes to these environments can result in a feeling of dislocation: recall the scene in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey experiences his home community, Bedford Falls, as it would have looked had he not been born. His anxiety mounts as he frantically looks for familiar landmarks and either fails to find them, or finds them significantly changed.
I know all of this as a social worker, as someone who understands the importance of understanding people within their environments. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of the disruption of place in a virtual world.
There was a time when I spent a good deal of time exploring Second Life, the 3D virtual world where users create the world and all that lies within it. Second Life is primarily a space where people interact and connect. Yet unlike the socializing that occurs in many other virtual spaces, e.g, Facebook, Instant Messaging, chat rooms, etc., those interactions take place within very specific places. As in “real life” (the physical world) connecting with people in Second Life can occur while sitting on a beach, walking in a forest, drinking coffee in a cafe, or dancing to live music. Over time, one typically develops favorite places, in fact, Second Life allows you to highlight those places on your profile. And as you get to know people you develop favorite places to frequent together.
Last night I spent some time back in Second Life exploring some new places. After doing this, it then occurred to me that it would be nice to see some of my favorite places again. I wasn’t prepared for the sinking feeling in my stomach as I called up the address for some of those places and saw the words “unknown region” instead. There was a moment of disbelief and disorientation. And then sadness. And then a bit of that frantic feeling expressed by George Bailey as his world made no sense. I wondered if I had any photos of those places. And I felt a strong urge to gather up those photos and look them over, in the same way I’ve done when someone I know has died.
These feelings reminded me vividly of one of the most important things that my experience in Second Life taught me: that our reactions to 3D spaces and the digital images within them are very real, suggesting that reality is more an internal experience than an external physical state.