Today Programme Hat

Transcript, 23rd January, 2004.

Presenter John Humphrys [JH] discusses virtual worlds with Baroness Susan Greenfield [SG] and me [RB].

Start: 8:44 AM.

  • [JH] Millions of people spend a lot of their lives inhabiting a virtual world. The world of computer games, Sim City, Alphaville, simulated cities where nothing is real, it just "seems" to be. What happens if you get completely involved in these things, and many do, then you get kicked out? Your account is erased, and you can't play any more? Does happen, apparently, and some very serious people have been discussing this and the whole area of virtual reality. Baroness Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, has even written a book about how all this sort of stuff is changing us. She is on the line, so's Dr Richard Bartle, "Principal Fellow in Computer Game Design at Essex University". I didn't know there was such a fellowship, Dr Bartle?
  • [RB] (Nervous laughter) Er, it's a job title; it's not, er, so much a fellowship. The, er, the aim is to encourage people to, erm, learn about computer games but we can't do a lot of research because there aren't all that many journals that publish articles about them.
  • [JH] Right, er, should we be learning more about computer games, erm, Susan Greenfield?
  • [SG] I think so; I think increasingly it's going to be a part of our lives, and increasingly the cyber world is encroaching on the real world and soon the two might well merge.
  • [JH] How is it encroaching?
  • [SG] Well already you only have to see people on their mobiles as they're walking down the street, and often they'll both be on the phone, and ignoring each other and ignoring the outside world, and they're in some cyberspace - they're in some, "other world". You only have to see people glassy-eyed on the keyboards, staring into the screen, to again know that they're ignoring the press of the real world. Now I'm not -
  • [JH] Yes -
  • [SG] - saying that's a bad thing necessarily, but it's a fact of life -
  • [JH] But if they're on -
  • [SG] - and a fact of life that will happen.
  • [JH] But if they're on the phone and things then they're talking to real people, aren't they; that's slightly different isn't it?
  • [SG] No, the issue is more that they're ignoring the immediate input from their senses. They might be listening to music, erm, they might be, I don't know, listening to some answerphone. It's not the person, it's more the issue that their mind-set, their attention, their consciousness is not on the immediate world around them but somewhere else in a virtual world.
  • [JH] That bother you, Richard Bartle?
  • [RB] No, it quite encourages me, because, er, in a virtual world you can do things that you can't do in the real world. Erm, in virtual worlds you can take on other personalities, find out how they work, and, er, if you like them then you can bring them back into the real world and if you don't like them, well, at least none of your friends think that you're an idiot.
  • [JH] Er can, can you really do that? You, you can go into what I, deurgh urgh, I speak from ignorance here because I've never done it -
  • [RB] (Laughter)
  • [JH] - but you can go into one of these "virtual worlds", become someone else, and, and then be that other person in the real world?
  • [RB] Well, erm, it's not, it's not quite so simple as that. What happens is that you go into a virtual world and, erm, when you're there you take on the role of a, a, a character in the world. So you project yourself -
  • [JH] It might be a horrible character, mightn't it? It might be a murdering rapist -
  • [RB] Yes, it might be.
  • [JH] - or something.
  • [RB] Well, it might be, in which case you'll find out just how awful it is to be considered as a, erm, a rapist, in which case you wouldn't want to do that in the real world. It would educate you -
  • [JH] Well one would hope you wouldn't anyway, really, um?
  • [RB] Well, one, one would hope that you wouldn't really do it anyway but at least it's, (nervous laugh), it's, it's perhaps stopped you. Erm, this isn't the sort of thing that really happens a, a great deal, though. I mean, there've been a couple of cases where we've had, erm, this sort of thing occuring, but, er, frankly, if you've got a game with half a million players, you're going to get one or two psychopaths in there anyway.
  • [JH] Good lord!
  • [RB] Just by the statistics (nervous laughter).
  • [JH] What, what do you make of all that, Susan Greenfield?
  • [SG] Well, I think what's interesting is why people want to do this.
  • [JH] Ahh.
  • [SG] I'm not saying it's good or bad, but what does it say about the lives they're living nowadays? That they find it more interesting, and more stimulating, more "reassuring" in this other world. And if we are concerned about it, rather than just sacking people, or crying foul, or pulling the plug out, what we should be doing is exploring why it makes us unhappy, and how we can make real life better for people if -
  • [JH] But -
  • [SG] - indeed we find this a, this a problem.
  • [JH] What, what's the difference between moving into another virtual world in this sense, by pressing a few keys and, and, and all that, picking, or, and, and, and picking up a novel, and, and entering a fictional world?
  • [SG] Well, my own view is that when you read a book, erm, your internal imagination is hugely powerful, and people would traditionally say they prefer the book to the film, and when you see someone, let's say someone that you've heard on radio, you see them face to face, you always feel a bit let down because it doesn't matter -
  • [JH] Oh, not always, I hope.
  • [SG] (Laughter)
  • [JH] (Laughter)
  • [SG] Well you're an exception, of course. Erm, but er, you know, your, your, your real imagination somehow is more powerful. Now what I fear, erm, is that the cyber world, and when you have someone's second-hand imagination delivered to you, er, means that you're actually missing out on that fabulous, hugely powerful, personal imagination, erm, and that would be very sad if we lived in a world eternally, and, erm, whole-heartedly where we didn't ever pick up a book again and we couldn't again indulge our imaginations.
  • [JH] Well, we could indulge this conversation for a, an, at least an hour and it would be great fun, but we can't, unfortunately. To Susan Greenfield, Richard Bartle, thank you both very much indeed.
  • [SG] Thank you.
End: 8:48 AM.

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
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