The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing.
These words, known to most who have ever encountered a course on Ethics, set the tone for HBO’s documentary Superheroes, which profiles individuals involved in the Real Life Superhero movement. Although there is truth to Einstein’s words—for failing to stop injustice can represent a form of evil—the question becomes one of perspective: in a simplified system that includes three perceived parties (victim, perpetrator, and savior), the solution seems rather obvious for we know what we should do, regardless of whether we actually intercede. But what happens when we situate the same concept in the context of a community or society? Vigilante justice leads to societal breakdown as we each enforce our own moral codes.
It is for this reason that I’m often suspect of these individuals who undoubtedly have good intentions. Although it is easy to judge and express disdain for grown adults who seem out of touch with society, the fringe often worry me. I’m not so much concerned that they do not look like I do or that they “dress up,” but rather worry because they do not play by my rules. And, ultimately, isn’t it just a short hop from there to a defining characteristic of a villain? Regardless of if the individual in question is a nuisance, helpful, or a menace, the fact that he or she has checked out of the system that you live in raises should raise some red flags.
The invocation of Kitty Genovese is also perhaps unsettling because it misses the forest for the trees. Again, on an individual level, the story is perhaps one that inspires you to action, but donning your gear does nothing to address the larger issue of apathy, the bystander effect, or the diffusion of responsibility (whatever you choose to call it).
And although it has not yet come to this, what if super villain groups formed in opposition to these real life superheroes? Not just gangs or the mafia, but groups of individuals who preferentially targeted those who would do good? The streets would devolve into a sort of war zone with casual citizens and public property caught in the crossfire. I suspect that these superheroes only survive because nobody is actively trying to hunt them.
This of course raises the notion of who should be a superhero.
I certainly get some of the impulse to become a superhero, transforming yourself into a powerful figure as you draw out the traits in yourself that you most admire. In many ways, I am all for that. And I also recognize the power and prestige that comes from donning a mask or a cape or a costume—these accouterments are symbols of your office and confer power, status, and meaning.
My constant struggle, however, is to walk the fine line between seeing the everyday as worthy of superhero status while fighting the impulse to disconnect from the system. In the best possible world, everyone is a superhero and everyone works together (using the particular talents that we each have) to contribute to a whole. In some ways, perhaps, similar to Communism (and we know how that went), but never with the expectation that you are going to necessarily get something for your efforts. You work because you believe in the system and because you place hope in your community.
And is this also just another symptom of a society that has become desensitized to extreme and spectacle? That we believe that, in order to be empowered, we have to become superheroes? Has the groundwork been laid by Stan Lee’s shows, which have “trained” real life superheroes? Where do we draw the line between a good citizen (one who is, perhaps, civically engaged!) and having to create a superhero persona? Ultimately, why can’t we integrate the actions that we would undertake as a superhero into our everyday sense of self?
The old questions that were first raised with virtual selves and MMORPGs continue to haunt me: are these people who are compensating for a feeling of powerlessness elsewhere in their lives? In some ways, their actions seem to be a direct response to the inefficiency of law enforcement but I suspect that it runs deeper than that. If you still believed in the system, wouldn’t you fight for reform instead of doing it on your own? Is there something just viscerally satisfying about putting yourself in potential danger that adds to the equation?
A profile piece in PC Gamer sparked a class discussion on the ethics of ramifications of virtual murder in EVE Online, causing me to wonder further about issues of ownership in MMORPGs. Given the situation described in the assigned reading, one might very well make the argument that much fuss was raised over Negroponte’s bits, essentially a meaningless commodity in and of itself. By all accounts, however, the sense of loss felt by victims of online theft seems very real. In order to better explain this phenomenon, I would suggest that what is lost is not just the item, but the representation of that item; badges, achievements, and trophies have become a method for us to gauge ourselves against one another and provide a palatable way for us to measure up. Status and identity have coalesced into (worthless if meaningful?) bytes, and the stealing of these items represents a loss in our sense of self. Can we ever go back to valuing what the badges are supposed to represent? Can we ever go back to an appreciation for having had an experience?
In a broader sense, the question of possession becomes increasingly relevant as we also seem to be moving toward a culture in which the lines of ownership have suddenly become much blurrier. We freely (if perhaps unknowingly) release personal data online, engage in a continual process of remix through sites like YouTube, and have begun to realize the power of crowdsourcing. Facebook owns the data that we upload and yet we bristle when the company chooses to use that information in a way that violates our assumptions regarding fair use. Where and why do we draw the line regarding ownership?
Going back to EVE Online as an example of an MMORPG, why is that we feel that anything in the game is ours in the first place? Put another way, all of the loot/drops/rares are the property of the game company—although we may have them temporarily in our inventories, we do not necessarily “own” them. Do we unavoidably apply the principles gleaned from real life (e.g., physically possessing an object means that we, in some way, own it) to the online realm? As we increasingly integrate virtual worlds into our lives, will we develop new rules and/or standards regarding the ownership of information as opposed to property? Is information in fact property and, if so, to what extent?
Issues of ethnicity, another important (and perhaps arguably fundamental) aspect of identity, do not solely manifest in online spaces and although their virtual presentation confers a set of challenges that remain unique to that environment, lessons from real life racial politics can still apply.
Before proceeding, it should be noted that I draw distinctions between the terms “ethnicity” and “race,” although they are often used interchangeably in literature and vernacular. A result of my background in Biology, I conceptualize race in terms of biologically derived aspects like skin color while I define ethnicity as comprising of cultural elements that include locale, religious practices, and/or traditions (i.e., the physical layer versus the social layer). Given this schema and their dependence on the presentation of physical traits, online issues of racial identity, then, might be different in MUDs/MOOs and MMORPGs, as the latter potentially possesses fewer graphical constraints. Defining oneself as “African American,” for example, has different consequences in the various constructs considering the available resources available to players to create such an identity—given a lack of appropriate visual cues, using “African American” in a MOO might be interpreted as racial or ethnic identity (or, more likely, as a confluence of both), presenting an ambiguity that a visualized avatar does not.
Yet, regardless of our individual definitions of “race” and “ethnicity,” we can examine some of the various real world strategies employed to mediate racial differences in order to obtain overarching lessons and warnings. Looking at metaphors for ethnic diversity in the real world, we often hear the term “colorblind,” indicating that a subject (e.g., a person, a group, or an institution) professes not to see the differences presented by various racial groups. Although a good-hearted gesture, “colorblind” and the related concept of “melting pot” ultimately serve to essentially erase the notion of race by subsuming all individuals into the dominant racial or ethnic group; we no longer see color because we are all the same color. A much more difficult model has been introduced and labeled as the “fruit salad,” which attempts to encapsulate the idea that each ethnicity brings something different to the mix and that the final product should celebrate these differences. Translating this to the online sphere, it seems only prudent to encourage individuals to understand their virtual ecology, respecting the various niches and roles that other users might fulfill or perform.