I’ve been greatly enjoying a read through “The Best American Science Writing: 2009” and there’s a bit of research in Atul Gawande’s piece “The Itch” from The New Yorker (featured in the compendium) that got me thinking about the debate about virtual worlds vs. real ones. I’ve come to the conclusion that not much separates the two, though of course we like to make a big deal about how some folks are disappearing into a computer-created world, and how this is such a terrible thing.

It certainly SEEMS awful that some people would prefer a world other than the one that’s outside. In the wake of the reports of the people who are ‘depressed’ that Avatar’s Pandora (the planet on which all the gorgeous CG action occurs in the film) doesn’t exist, my environmentalist friends have shaken their collective head, pointing out that there’s a pretty beautiful world right outside if you’d just step away from the computer screen or exit the movie theatre. But Pandora is just the latest in a long line of created worlds.

Pandora has existed in James Cameron’s head since he was a kid, and he’s been working on the Avatar project for 15 years, obsessed enough (and powerful enough) to create a version of it that millions of people will see. Cameron’s longtime producer, Jon Landeau, told Wired that the project is “..not just a movie. It’s a world,” and purposefully so. Now I might be biased, having invented an imaginary world as a child (with a similar – but, ahem- much more creative name- mine was called Poentica) but the fact is that Pandora existed wholly formed and in great detail in Cameron’s head, just as my imaginary world existed in mine, and other virtual worlds have filled minds from Star Wars to Buffy and even before TV existed (Greek myths anyone?).

So made-up worlds have always been with us, but the reason I’m going to argue for the virtual is not because we have a history of otherworlds. It’s because the so-called real world isn’t as real as we think. Which means that maybe our virtual worlds, from Pandora to Second Life, and whatever comes next are just as important as this one, or could be.
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