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Differences Between Virtual and Real Worlds

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Technology
Wordcount: 2803 words Published: 5th Jul 2018

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The nearer the virtual world comes to replicating the ‘real’ world the more we will have to question what, if any, the difference continues to be. Discuss.


The concept of the virtual has been around for much longer than the technology which now makes the virtual part of our lives. In various forms, such as that put forward by Descartes, the concept of the virtual has long permeated the thoughts of scholars. However, it is only in very recent times that the concept of the virtual has really taken flight. For now, with emerging technologies and a world which is more unstable than ever, the world of the virtual has grown rapidly. Now, the virtual is getting closer and closer to reality, and soon we may not be able to distinguish these worlds from each other. Whilst it is clear that right now we have some idea of the difference between the real world and the virtual world, the differences between the two are much less than before.

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Traditionally, the difference between the virtual and the real worlds was the concept of identity or body – that in the virtual world your mind was separated from your body and therefore the difference between the virtual and the real was the physical form. However, this view is slowly being eroded away and there are many who now believe the virtual cannot be separated from the real in terms of body or physicality. This is a view that the researcher shares, and this concept shall be one of the main points of focus in the essay.

Another area which could measure the distinction between the virtual and the real is the concept of risk. Risk is still one of the few concepts which seems to differ in the virtual and the real worlds, at least in a number of cases. Although this difference is being reduced, currently it seems possible to distinguish the virtual and real worlds using the concept of risk.

The first part of this essay will look at the way in which the virtual has superseded many aspects of the real world in our lives, and how these areas can no longer be easily distinguished. These normal, everyday events are now both real and virtual simultaneously, and there is no discernible distinction. The second part of the essay will deal with the concept of physicality in the virtual world, and how the evidence now suggests that the virtual and real worlds cannot be distinguished through the identity of the physical body.

The final part of the essay will show that despite this convergence between the virtual and the real, there are some distinctions to be made. The way in which the virtual can be distinguished from the real comes down to the concept of risk, although this distinction is also being reduced and perhaps with the introduction of future technologies this distinguishing feature will also be completely eroded.

Information, branding and the virtual

One area of our lives that has seen a dramatic shift from the real to the virtual over the last ten years is information and branding. Information used to be stored predominantly in ‘real’ forms such as paper books. However, most information is now accessed in virtual form, through computers, radio and television and other digital media. Books and music are now accessed as digital facsimiles of the original, and our world in terms of information has shifted from real to virtual (Argyle and Shields, 1996). This process has come so far that there can be no real distinction between the real and virtual worlds of information. We see books and music in paper form in the same way we do digital e-books and mp3 music. They are perceptually very similar and contain the same information that we require. Our world has shifted from the real and local to the virtual and the global.

The shift from real to virtual has also occurred in terms of branding. Brand concepts for many real objects are now so strong that we no longer think of the real object itself but in fact associate the virtual brand as the key identity. For example, vacuum cleaners being called ‘Hoovers’, tissues being called ‘Kleenex’ and digital music players being called ‘Ipods’(Shields, 2003). The brand stands as a virtual representation of the actual real objects, but is virtually indistinguishable, particularly in linguistic terms. The virtual, as Shields puts it, has moved from being something simply transformative and vague to something banal and common. The virtual has permeated or even superseded the real in some aspects of life, and the virtual is now for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the real.

Whilst it could be argued that these virtual forms differ from their real counterparts by way of physical form (i.e. the virtual item has no physical tangible form, whereas the real form does), in the cases of information and branding this distinction of physicality is too small to be clear. For example, the virtual or digital form of a book does have physical form, in that the information can be printed out or used in a physical way just like the real paper book can. This is the same for branding, where the virtual brand names are so synonymous with the real physical objects that they cannot be separated. In these cases ,the virtual has superseded the real, and completely destroyed the boundaries between them. Therefore, this is an area where there cannot be said to be any real distinction between the virtual world and the real world.

Physical form, identity within the virtual world

The most commonly argued distinction between the real and virtual worlds is the concept of physical form and identity. It is argued by many that in the virtual world you do not have a complete physical identity and that your mind being removed from the physical body is the distinction between the real and virtual. In other words, in the virtual world you have no real identity or physical interaction, whereas in the real world you do.

Although it seems clear that the physical characteristics that identify our physical are not obviously visible in the virtual world, the physical self is not completely left behind and we do in fact experience physical manifestations within the virtual world.

As pointed out by Katie Argyle and Rob Shields (1996), who point out that ‘presence’ doesn’t simply vanish in the virtual world, and that the technology simply mediates our physical presence. With technology the way it is today, and the fact it is sure to improve in the future, we can now act holistically through our bodies within the virtual world. Although it might seem that our bodies are not part of the virtual, in truth we cannot actually escape our bodies. In other words, we do not lose our body within the virtual world, but rather experience and interact in the virtual world through our bodies.

Argyle points out that the emotions we feel whilst interacting in the virtual world are in fact real and are physical. She gives the example of her online presence ‘Kitty’, (Argyle and Shields, 1996, in Kolko, p66) where she says that the interactions she has with people, although in a virtual world the emotions and feeling are real and felt in her body. Argyle’s online interaction shows no separation from the body, and therefore is a suggestion that the physical body cannot be used as a distinguishing feature between real and virtual.

This view is supported by Ellen Ullman, who says how she fell in love via email. She only knew this person via the virtual world of email, and not through physical interaction, yet the virtual world elicited real and physical feelings within her. Ullman does differentiate her online body from her ‘real’ one by saying that the love she felt was through her ‘virtual’ body, but she does not separate these two bodies, and the physical form is still linked to the online body or persona (Ullman, 1996)

It seems that when interacting online, it is extremely difficult or nearly impossible to completely separate your online persona from your real and physical persona. For instance, in online games where people can send messages to each other within character, they may also ask about the person in ‘real life’, such as how old they are and where they have come from. People often get confused about which ‘life’ the other person is talking about, and so acronyms have been created to stop the confusion such as IC (in character) and IRL (in real life). This confusion is down to the fact that there will always be a part of our persona within the virtual that cannot be separated, and therefore the body cannot be a distinguishing feature between the virtual and the real.

Not only does the physical form remain within the virtual world by virtue of its interaction and emotions experienced in the virtual, but many of the laws and rights that govern the real are now also governing the virtual. Even if you want to make a distinction between the virtual body, such as an avatar or image, and the real physical body, many of the outcomes are the same. The laws and rights of the virtual are now mirroring the real, and blurring the lines further between the two worlds.

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For instance, take the rights of avatars in the virtual world. Whilst avatars cannot have the same basic right as real bodies, namely the right to life (they are not alive after all), they may feel many of the hazards and wish to have the same rights as their real counterparts. For instance, take the example of sexual harassment within the virtual world. Whilst the legal definitions for sexual assault and rape are generally not met by virtual encounters, much of the feelings of intrusion, fear or disgust can be the same. Take the example of Julien Dibbell’s account of Mr Bungle’s rape on the characters Legba and Starsinger in LambdaMOO (Dibbell, 1996). The ‘rape’ was virtual and involved an avatar seizing two other female avatars and graphically describing the actions performed. Whilst this may not constitute ‘real’ rape, the trauma for the two controllers of the female avatars was indeed real. This is because the body cannot be separated completely when in the virtual world, and even if the exact actions are not the same it cannot really be said that physicality is a distinguishing factor between the real and the virtual as the body affected similarly in both worlds.

The lack of risk within the virtual world

Whilst the traditionally held view of being able to distinguish the real and the virtual by the separation of the mind and the body has been shown to be flawed, there is definite promise in the concept of risk as a distinguishing feature. The reasons for this are that risk is something which can only truly be experienced through the physical without the mediating virtual world. Of course, certain risks such as financial risk and emotional risk are possible in the virtual world as these risks will have similar, if slightly dulled, consequences in the virtual world.

However, the notion of risk to the physical body or fear is a feature that separates the virtual and the real. For instance, creating virtual business that has real financial consequences may seem to have the same features as real business, but there are differences. Using the virtual world all products can be tested, mapped and made 100% safe before they are sold on. Experiments can be conducted without the potential risks to human life or to property. The concept of risk is in many ways eliminated from the design process, aside from some of the same financial concerns of design costs. Identities and properties can be re-used, re-hashed or completely changed in the virtual world, meaning there is less risk of catastrophic failure.

However, perhaps the biggest issue in terms of risk is the fact that fear of physical harm is almost completely removed in the virtual world. Emotions are still prevalent and part of our physicality remains in the virtual. However, the risks associated with physical damage or damage to property cannot be properly appreciated within the virtual world. There are no risks in this sense in the virtual world, whereas there are in the real world.

For instance, take the example of realistic computer games such as Forza Motorsport (Lockergnome, 2005). Developed as one of the most advanced driving games for console play, an experiment was conducted to see the difference in performance and reactions between the virtual and real worlds. Six performance cars were driven round the same Atlanta circuit by drivers on the game and on the real life circuit. The results were startling in that the performances between virtual and real worlds were extremely similar. The braking and turning points were extremely similar and the performances in each car were almost the same whether in virtual or real world (Lockergnome, 2005). However, the times in the real world were slower than on the game – much of this attributed to the risk involved in driving the car in the real world. In the game, the drivers could push their cars to the limit in the knowledge that if they crashed there would be no damage to the car. This removed the risk factor and allowed them to get better times. However, on the real track they had to be more careful, for crashing at 150mph in a high-powered car would be far too risky. This slowed them down, and showed despite all other factors being seemingly indistinguishable, the major difference between the real and the virtual was the risk factor.

It can also be seen in the prevalence of online dating and sexual play from people who would not normally engage in such activities in the real world. In the rapidly growing virtual world called Second Life (Linden Research Inc, 2007), there are many groups of various role-players who act out fantasies that they would not do in real life. This is not because it is impossible for them to do in real life (although perhaps some are), but because of the risk factors involved in real life. The feelings they receive from these interactions may be almost identical to the ones they would get in real life interaction, but the crucial difference is risk. Whilst for some interactions this will not affect the sensation, it does for others, such as those involved in fantasies of pain or domination. The risk factor is the one which can distinguish the virtual from the real world.


Whilst we are still living in a world where the real and the virtual seem in most cases to be separate, this is perhaps less true than we think. The real world of information has become indistinguishable from the virtual, and with new technologies the virtual world has become far more expansive and convincing. This change has meant that it is now impossible to separate all of our real physical identity from the virtual representation of ourselves in the virtual world. However, one factor that still lets us distinguish the virtual from the real is the concept of risk, which is not yet fully realised within the virtual world. However, if in future the technology of the virtual increases to the point where physical sensations can be experienced fully in the virtual world, then physical risk to the body and other items of value will be possible. If risk can be fully replicated in the virtual world, then it seems the two worlds would be very close to being completely indistinguishable.


Argyle, K., and Shields, R. (1996) Is there a body in the net?, Living Bodies Chapter 4, SAGE publications Ltd, London.

Dibbell, J. (1996) ( My Dinner With Catharine MacKinnon and Other Hazards of Theorizing Virtual Rape, available online at http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/mydinner.html

Kolko, B.E. We Are Not Just (Electronic) Words: Learning the Literacies of Culture, Body, and Politics. http://bethkolko.com/includes/pdfs/wearenotjustelectronicwords.pdf

Lévy, P. (2002) Cyberculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Shapiro, M.A., and McDonald, D.G. (1992) I’m Not a Real Doctor, but I Play One in Virtual Reality: Implications of Virtual Reality for Judgments about Reality Journal of Communication 42 (4), 94–114.

Shields, R. (2003) The Virtual, Cultures of internet, Virtual Spaces, Real Histories Chapter 2, Routledge, London.

Ullman, E. (1996) “Come in, CQ: The Body on the Wire.” Wired-Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Ed. Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Wiese. Seattle: Seal, 1996. 3-23. 


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