When Virtual Becomes Reality

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    “You’ve got mail.” An alert that we receive everyday. What’s more, it wouldn’t occur to us to manage without it. We’re constantly torn between the reality of our office and the virtual world on our screens. Nowadays, we flirt on the Internet, we can hold business meetings and we chat to strangers who seem to understand us better than those close to us. In other words, we live an increasingly virtual world. But at what cost?

    Serge Minet, clinical therapist and scientific coordinator of the CHU Brugmann (teaching hospital) Games Clinic, sees a stream of people hooked on that other world, people who prefer to spend 10 hours in their bubble and to cut themselves off from reality. For 5 years, he has been coming to their aid.

    “CYBER-DEPENDENCY” IS ESCALATING

    To this therapist, the reason is simple, “The virtual world has become the new sanctuary, the new place to dream.” A place where the trials and tribulations of daily life are pushed aside. A human need but, for some who are “already psychologically fragile, virtual games, the Internet and chatting are becoming a drug in the same way as alcohol or tobacco.” A way “of forgetting their anxieties or depression.” In some extreme cases, the Internet surfer “can no longer distinguish between reality and imagination.” He is caught in his virtual character and gradually “shuts himself off from the rest of the world.”

    THE VIRTUAL WORLD, A DANGER?

    But Mr. Minet doesn’t see only disadvantages. Living another life in the evening helps us to forget our worries for a while. What’s more, our “imagination is stimulated by it and we train ourselves to be competent more quickly, to be more efficient.” The Internet is also a place to be “sociable, which is accessible twenty-four hours a day.” The world turns into a huge network in which it’s possible to speak directly to people far away, to obtain information in record time. As for violent games, they can have “a cathartic, liberating effect.” For example, “We can say to the other person things we couldn’t say in reality.” A way of letting off steam, of shrugging off our anxieties and fears.

    VIRTUAL THERAPISTS AS SAFEGUARD

    In a society of immediate gratification and excess, the virtual world meets our needs to the extent that it’s sometimes more tempting to live our virtual life than experience our real problems. So how can we avoid crossing the boundary between simple everyday relaxation and dependency? Serge Minet suggests “creating therapist characters,” as in the real world. These would, for example, be responsible for controlling the playing time of some players who are more vulnerable than others. With a game such as “Second Life” or “The Sims,” the virtual already seems so real! Why not go one step further?!