Thursday, May 29, 2008

Virtual Worlds Are the New Poetry

Podcast. Found Quote: Laura (Riding) Jackson renounced, on grounds of linguistic principle, the writing of poetry: she had come to hold that "poetry obstructs general attainment of something better in our linguistic way-of-life than we have."

So. What would that "something better" be?

Video games. Virtual worlds. Poetry gets in the way of video games.
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I do not know a single person who has spent time in virtual worlds who does not secretly wish for a "Through the Looking Glass" experience in which they enter the world, but can't quite figure out how to get back. And why not love it? It has everything you might want --

As for me, well, in the early and mid-1990s, I avoided those types of computer games. I preferred games like Sim City or "serious games" that blended education and training. I did not like the early experiences in virtual worlds. They reminded me of first-person shooter games, but with unfair advantages, since they involved charms and magical processes, and a one-on-one fight to the death with whomever you encountered along the way. No thanks.

My son, Marshall, and all his friends were a different story. In 1997, when he was 13, he started playing Ultima Online, a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORG). His persona in that the virtual world game was a skeleton wearing a long gray wig and wearing a wedding dress.

“You’re Miss Havisham?” I asked.

“Whatever,” he said. He was in eighth grade, but they had not yet had to read Dickens’ Great Expectations.

“Why are you a skeleton bride?” I asked him.

“That’s my avatar,” he said.

“What’s an avatar?” I really did not know.

“It is a divine being that has come to earth in physical form for a special purpose.” He clicked on an icon on his computer screen. “Look. Read.”

It was the definition of an avatar, which seemed borrowed directly from the Bhagavad-gita. No wonder this was such heady stuff. Turn yourself into a divine being. Make your being do what you want, until, of course, it is killed in combat with a wilier opponent, or one who has a better controller.

“Glad you like it,” I said, retreating to the kitchen where I poured myself another cup of hazelnut coffee. I then grabbed the book I had been reading, Norman Cohn’s, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, and settled in for a nice round of reading about true believers and flagellants who thought that they could ward off plague, pestilence and moral turpitude by whipping the first layer of skin from their backs.



Did it work? Ask the Shiite devotees on the festival of Ashoura. My personal feeling is that it does work, but who wants to go through the pain? Mortification of the flesh is so darn uncomfortable. Why break ourselves down when we can be gods and goddesses (at least on a screen)?

At first, I ignored virtual worlds, except for the occasional excursion into it when I couldn’t avoid it for professional purposes. Breakthroughs would occur. I’d go in, customize an avatar for myself, try out the activities available, and the leave feeling rather annoyed. I could not help but wonder if the person behind the avatar I had just spent time inanely chatting up --“Hi, cool boots, where did you find them?” and “Where did you get your skin? Love the tats on your neck” -- was a 13-year-old like my son was when he first started spending 6 hours at a stretch in Ultima Online. I found out later that he had even set up one of my computers as a server for the game.

He was hooked. I was worried. He was not getting enough fresh air and exercise.

When he took up skateboarding, I was thrilled, even though it meant road rash, broken fingers, and a circle of friends that included delinquents and guys who drank liquids from a bottle in a brown paper bag. Yeah. But at least he was getting fresh air and was interacting with real people. That was real life. It was where your heart actually beats, where real liquid actually pumps in your veins.

He had not really lost interest in virtual worlds, but I did not understand how it worked. This was 1997 and he was a part of a nascent trend that involved popularizing social networks via the web. It was far beyond forums, discussion boards, listserves, and the alt.net newsgroups I was still involved in. was setting up complex networks of acquaintances, and relating to them in a fluid, interest-based way. He was learning negotiating skills and leadership. I did not see it, though. I just saw a 13-year-old spending a lot of time eating Pringles and drinking Jones soda.

Strangely, Marshall's heightened interest in the Real World coincided with my own surge of interest -- not in the Real World (too scary) -- but in virtual worlds. I was starting to not just see, but live, the potential. I tried to tell Marshall about it, but he was not interested. Instead, he showed me how high he could "ollie" on his skateboard.

One afternoon, while I trying to decorate an office space in a virtual world, Marshall came into my office.



“Mom. I think I need to see a doctor. I think I cracked my wrist.” Marshall proffered up his swollen wrist. His face was flushed with pain.

“Why is your back bleeding?” I tried to keep the alarm out of my voice.

“Uh, yeah. Well, we were doing some stuff with some whips and chains, and I accidentally hit myself. Justin had a couple of nunchuks, too.”

“What was the purpose of that? What were you trying to accomplish?” I heard my voice rising in alarm.

“Mom. It was fun. Don’t you know anything? They were cool. Justin told me where he got his stuff. I think they sell them at the Medieval Fair,” he said.

Marshall’s wrist was merely sprained. The injuries on his back did not amount to anything more than deep scratches. His face glowed. The twin forces of the need for Mom, and the need to forge an independent identity made his eyes sparkle even as he winced as the nurse applied antibiotic ointment.

“Can we go by Braum’s and get a Butterfinger shake?” he asked.

“You think you should be rewarded for this?” I asked, incredulous. He laughed.

That night, I heard Marshall laughing as he managed his avatar in world. “Hey, Mom. Justin’s here. I recognize him. His avatar is stupid. I’m going to trick him. Watch….”

I watched Marshall maneuver his avatar, all the while avoiding leaning back in his chair, where he might scrape his fresh injuries.

For the first time, I connected to what he was doing.

Poetry is supposed to make you feel immortal, in touch with the gods, filled with “divine afflatus.”

Poetry consists of words that are supposed to function as avatars on the page.

Hah. Good luck.

Reading and thinking are hard work, and sometimes my mind wants to be led by my eyes in a glorious, glittery world of seductive encounters, magical capes and gowns, and enough fairy dust to sprinkle around so that people fall in love with whatever they behold.

The written word has just too many hard edges.

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