16 May 2012

Virtual Ethics, Pt. 3: Defining Virtual Culture

Defining culture can be a daunting task for any individual. The word itself can conjure up a plethora of meanings and none of them are necessarily incorrect. For the purposes of this research, the accepted definition of culture used will be that which I have learned from my experience in the academic and professional worlds: the complete scope of learned human behavior. This definition is widely encompassing and includes all generally accepted cultures and subcultures as well as those that are a matter of debate. Virtual environments do embody a culture of their own and that culture, the collection of human behaviors learned and/or expressed solely in a particular virtual environment, is both specific to that environment and closely linked to similar virtual cultures.

In tune with my own regard of virtual culture, Boellstorff explains early in his monograph that virtual worlds are “places of human culture realized by computer programs through the internet” (Boellstorff 17). Reworded, virtual culture is simply human culture expressed in a different medium. In effect, virtual worlds are specific environments inhabited by persons and enabled by advanced technology. In this sense, they are not so different from other human environments that required advancements in technology to be habitable, such as those featuring extreme cold or lack of resources. After this view of virtual culture is accepted, the actuality of its existence as an equal and valid expression of human behavior can also be accepted. Likewise, just as one society’s culture should be regarded as separate from others and unique in its own right without being looked upon as inferior, the culture of virtual realities collectively and individually should be regarded no differently.

Culture is often viewed in terms of external expressions of human behavior, such as art, music, crafts, or religious ceremonies. While artistic expression of beliefs and customs surely exist in virtual environments, virtual culture as an extension, variation, or representation of human culture is not limited to merely external features. In his 2011 book on cognitive psychology, David DiSalvo, a writer on science and culture, posits that for role-playing of any kind to be successful, participants must feel empowered to assume a second, often far-removed identity. He states that the “appeal of living, in effect, another life, one that consumes the same cranial spaces as the one that requires breathing air and drinking water, cannot be separated” (DiSalvo 84-85). Furthermore, humans come fully equipped with a brain capable of housing multiple identities, complete with their own cultures of sort. For example, the way one behaves amongst friends and peers is markedly different from the way in which that same individual acts in the presence of parents and grandparents.

The culture of each environment dictates which identity is on display. There is no reason to believe that the virtual identities taken on by an individual should not influence behavior changes in the same fashion. Instead, the existence of a secondary identity in a virtual environment allows the brain to express behaviors that may only be acceptable in such an environment. While this is a separate culture, it is no less real than an actual world culture. While the human brain is an extraordinary organ, the near entirety of its evolution occurred during the millions of years before the invention of virtual technology and, thus, it cannot distinguish between virtual reality and actual reality. To the brain, either reality is as real as the other.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

DiSalvo, Daniel. 2011. What Makes the Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

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