Ancient Virtual Worlds
In our modern and inevitably more crowded world, the urge to seek solitude is increasingly compelling, and increasingly found in smaller, more portable technologies: headphones on a packed subway car, cell phone web-browsing in line at the grocery store, etc. All of these create virtual worlds - retreats for the human mind.
Historically, this kind of "virtual world" has been critical to human survival under horrendous duress. Viktor Frankl famously quoted Nietzsche regarding his time and survival in three Nazi concentration camps: "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." By creating a world within his mind, Frankl was able to conquer and survive an assault on his body and spirit of the worst imaginable sort. And he observed that those who did not have this mind-life succumbed to a fatal despair.
What is missing from the modern definition of "virtual" is this transcendent element by which we create power and triumph and clarity - all of which are evidenced and emphasized in modern popular online worlds - in these spaces within our minds. How incredible, how transformative, to share this island of order and heroism previously private to ourselves with another human being! Yet this practice is currently relegated to "not real," "like but not" - "virtual."
The Deleuze Solution
There is an alternative to dumping "virtual" entirely, but its road is considerably more winding.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze is a spring chicken in the history of philosophy, living and working from 1925 to 1995. Yet his influence has surged in the last 20 years, vying today with the most prominent philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries. He established a different definition of "virtual" that speaks to games and online experience in particular:
The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: "Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract"; and symbolic without being fictional. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the object - as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension." - Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
Deleuze opposed essentialism, that is, the notion that existences, such as human beings, could be distilled into a single common identity. Instead, he saw existence in terms of multiplicity in all its forms - that, for instance, we as human beings are not single selves but multiple selves spread out in time, that life itself exists in a continuum and state of alchemical flow and information exchange.