This is heady stuff, to be sure, the domain of professional thinkers walled up in ivory towers. When it comes to the virtual, what Deleuze seems to be saying is that what we think of as "virtual" is in fact very real and important, accessed on a parallel dimension rife with meaning. He lifts the virtual up above the "actual," or the material manifestation of what we observe in meatspace. Deleuze's virtual is neither intrinsically inferior nor superior to the material, but it is on an incomparably different plane of existence.
This is a concept that would resonate with many World of Warcraft players. When we explore worlds online and connect with other players across vast physical distances, we do not become less real. Arguably, for those who have experienced this life, we feel more real - our physical masks pulled down, revealing the structure of ideas, passions and contemplations beneath.
Deleuze's interpretation of "virtual" is actually closer to its Latin origin: virtualis, "from essence." The same root gives us "virtue" and the Roman virtus, expressing a distillation of what was best in human behavior. Thanks to a general lack of social engineering, we typically think of neither term when considering online worlds, but what these words do express is our deep and ancient longing for idea-space, for understanding and for the manifestation of our deep potential.
So what's in a name? What's the big deal with "virtual," even if it has been spread around to so many different applications that it ceases to hold meaning? How big a deal can a word be?
The problem is scale. We know that online gaming is continuing to grow. Online gamers spend more time playing than console gamers - they're dedicated and increasing in number by the day. Second Life inhabitants continue to exchange millions of dollars every month to participate in their mind-space. In addition to online gaming, more people are investing time and companies investing dollars into online social tools that make consumer's lives more rounded and fulfilled.
With population grows complexity. Here in the West, when it comes to games, we know that the biggest difference between us and China, at the end of the day, is population. When you have hundreds of millions of people playing games online, as we will soon have, you have bigger challenges and broader limits of behavior. Fringe individuals will bring the crazy, and games will be in the crossfire.
Virtual, with apologies to the Greeks and Deleuze, is fatally weighed down with ambiguity and vagueness. Consider instead "online" - its roundness, its iambic grace.
If we make the transition from the flimsy and awkward "virtual world" to the more accurate "online world," we plant the ideological seeds of specificity and respect that turn our minds from lack of understanding to the pursuit of potential. "Online" is connection. "Online" is techno-prosperity. "Online" is the future.
It's time to burn the bridge.
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.