I really hate the term “in real life.” It’s commonly used to denote an activity or a relationship that occurs offline. But the term marginalizes we who enjoy online pursuits, as much as “girl gamer” makes an ordinary person with flaws and strengths into a circus freak. If a real person is doing it, then whatever he’s doing is happening in real life.

Sure, it’s just a phrase, one so commonly used as to be nearly devoid of meaning. But it still says something about our default mindset, our cultural expectations of online experiences, and the value the larger culture ascribes to our lives. What would happen on a subconscious level, on a wider cultural scale, if we said “physical” (as opposed to “real”) and “virtual” (as opposed to… well, the unspoken assumption that if it’s online, it’s not real)?

Would our pursuits, our friendships, our love affairs, our hobbies get more respect? Would we treat those online relationships more seriously? Would we stop being such fucking jacktards on message boards just because we were anonymous and slightly intoxicated?

Probably not, at least not entirely. But a low grade wave of civility wouldn’t be such a horrible thing, either.



  1. William Furr said,

    November 9, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    “Would we stop being such fucking jacktards on message boards just because we were anonymous and slightly intoxicated?”

    That would be nice, but the real issue is anonymity. It’s overrated and counterproductive. I’m sure you’ve seen the seminal work, The Impact of Anonymity on Disinhibitive Behavior Through Computer-Mediated Communication.

  2. sanyaweathers said,

    November 9, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Of course. But breaking the habit of anonymity (a habit highly advantageous to the individual) might be harder than breaking the habit of thinking of one’s online life as inferior to one’s physical life (a negative feeling). Community professionals always try to create options for people in which acting in their own self interest benefits the larger community.

  3. savagex said,

    November 9, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    I always liked Meatspace myself.

    I try not to misrepresent myself on my online persona, for that way lies madness.

    and assholery.

  4. Tateru Nino said,

    November 9, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    I remember when talking on the phone to someone wasn’t considered “real” interaction. Yet at the mall yesterday, virtually everyone I saw walking around was talking into a mobile phone.

    Try telling them that the interaction they’re having with the person on the other end is a fake and a sham, and they probably won’t even understand what you’re saying. Try telling it to your teenager.

    In the last couple of decades the communications medium of the phone has become relatively universal – we chat, we make friends, we make deals.

    Last week I negotiated a business deal in a meeting in a virtual world. I don’t think anyone felt that we weren’t having a real conversation, or that there was anything fake about the wrangling over costs and terms.

    The medium is *not* the message.

  5. Anonymous said,

    November 9, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    zOMG die IRL!

  6. bob said,

    November 9, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    Establishing a persistent identity and hence reputation is a necessary precondition to meaningful online interactions. Communities create strong incentives to maintain an identity, such as participation in high-end content and “mate’s rates”. Communities with the most to lose from betrayal become the most insular, eg the relevantly named WoW guild “Elitist Jerks”.

    Encouraging people to shed anonymity is equivalent to creating incentives to build community. Create sufficient incentives and the communities will both form and establish ways to protect themselves. In terms of code, phpBB does more to help than most games. MMOs need to provide multiple guild affiliation, cross-toon identity and more sophisticated permission mechanisms.

    BTW I would prefer ‘online’ and ‘offline’. My computer is physical, the people I’m interacting with are physical. Even my conversation is ‘physical’, insomuch as it ever is. Only the medium changes, not the quality of the interaction.

  7. downtreader said,

    November 9, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    i had a similar reaction when joining a guild at the insistence of a friend of mine. he told me, “just tell them you know me in real life and you’re in!”

    this statement set off a chain of thoughts starting with, “if i get to know these other guild members, do i consider them friends if i’ve never physically stood face to face with them, or even seen a picture of them?” and culminating in, “my friend has now moved several states away, and i only talk to him in game. do i not know him in real life anymore?”

    the “in real life” statement seems to create a paradox. it’s only really useful in a roleplay environment, but at the same time, is a suffix for statements that have no relevance there. i think people in general forget the fact that they are rarely actually hiding their identity behind an avatar, but playing a game and interacting with other players as themselves.

  8. Beck said,

    November 9, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    I’m reminded of an interview with William Gibson I read recently. URL:

    Totally ubiquitous computing. One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible. The distinction between cyberspace and that which isn’t cyberspace is going to be unimaginable. When I wrote Neuromancer in 1984, cyberspace already existed for some people, but they didn’t spend all their time there. So cyberspace was there, and we were here. Now cyberspace is here for a lot of us, and there has become any state of relative nonconnectivity. There is where they don’t have Wi-Fi.

    In a world of superubiquitous computing, you’re not gonna know when you’re on or when you’re off. You’re always going to be on, in some sort of blended-reality state. You only think about it when something goes wrong and it goes off. And then it’s a drag.

  9. Jason said,

    November 9, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    This same line of thought it why I dislike the use of the word “toon” to describe characters in a game. I feel it denigrates the act of playing games as childish. Avatar is a much better word.

  10. etali said,

    November 9, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Personally, I only use the term ‘in real life’ for the distinction between what I’m doing in game, and what I do in my physical life. Just because I play a doctor in a game, it doesn’t mean I know the first thing about how medicine really works.

    That’s what I see ‘in real life’ as meaning. It isn’t about interaction being less real just because it’s electronic – to me, it’s about distinguishing between the character and the player.

  11. Alacrity Fitzhugh said,

    November 9, 2007 at 9:19 pm

    What is this “Real Life” you speak of? What does it con? Does it drop phat lewt?

  12. Aoladari said,

    November 10, 2007 at 2:03 am

    When I say IRL.. or RL I mean people and things I do in the real world. Like my job (just got one!! Wheeeee) or my friends (we gather IRL on Saturdays to D&D) or that type of thing.

  13. Dartwick said,

    November 10, 2007 at 2:16 am

    Ummm…. roleplaying is NOT real life.

    I know the term is used in a variety of setting online, but the one I know it from is RPGs and forums concerning RPGs.

    The whole point of roleplaying is to pretend(I though that was obvious.)

  14. Cito said,

    November 10, 2007 at 2:54 am

    I tried RL but its way too expensive, the economics are gone to shit, the death penalty is way too harsh, and if you loot other people’s corpses you get in serious trouble 🙂
    pffft ill stick with online 🙂

  15. Arrakiv said,

    November 10, 2007 at 5:37 am

    Yay, I’m not alone!

    I almost exclusively use the term ‘offline’ and ‘online’. People still seem to get the point and I don’t feel like I’m trying to pretend that I’m talking to a bunch of AI in a roleplaying environment.

    (Although if I am in a roleplaying environment I will use ‘real life’ as appropriate.)

  16. nikka said,

    November 10, 2007 at 11:55 am

    i suspect that online won’t be considered “real” until we have another mode of communication that people consider even more fake – virtual reality, perhaps.

  17. Aoladari said,

    November 11, 2007 at 3:10 am

    Dart.. did ya read what I said.. we gather in real life. As in we all get offline, and drive our happy asses to one central location and then play D&D… I’m not saying that D&D = RL and if you inferred that you need to go back to school and learn how to read.

  18. ruby said,

    November 11, 2007 at 4:49 am

    Another similarly irritating expression is “it’s just a game,” which is used to excuse all manner of vile, selfish, and inappropriate behavior.

    Games are real. Our feelings, while playing them, run the gamut of human emotions. Those feelings are no less genuine because they are prompted by actions and events taking place on a computer screen.

    The friendships we form “in game” are often based on many, many hours of intense collaborative effort. In fact a strong argument can be made that it is easier to discover someone’s true self by playing an MMO with them, than by sitting with them in a bar or chatting in your office at work.

    No, obviously, you are not “really” an assassin/mage/cleric, and neither is your buddy. But it will become apparent very rapidly if one of you has a real anger management problem, or a real difficulty communicating, or a real sense of humor. Dismissing those discoveries simply because they weren’t made “irl” would be absurd — as is dismissing the strong bonds we form through our online communities simply because they do not involve a geographic proximity.

    It may be fashionable to disparage those ties for the moment, but our online friendships are as much a part of our real lives as any, and it is only a matter of time before that is as evident to the world at large as it is to those reading this blog.

  19. Jason C said,

    November 11, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    5 years ago playing Dark Ages of Camelot, i met a guy who i consider my best friend, when i tell people my best friend lives in denmark(and I in michigan) they are like….what? where’s denmark? And i kind of laugh at it, because some people try to belittle things done online, like it is some sort of past time that is only acceptable if you are playing pogo or some other quick game site heh. But i agree with this 100% sanya…good post:)

  20. Jeff H said,

    November 12, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    IRL = Indy Racing League

  21. Khan said,

    November 12, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    I agree, Ruby. As an officer in a Kinship (Guild) people stating in their apps that “it’s just a game” tend to send up warning flags to me. All kinds of asshattery has been justified because “it’s just a game.” It’s not an instant disqualifier, but I’ll be paying particular attention to that person’s attitudes towards other players.

    The whole distinction between “real life” and “not real life” always struck me as a bit odd. The In-character (IC) and out-of-character (OOC) designations seem more useful to me at least while playing MMORPGs. The use of the terms IC / OOC do however have connotations of being roleplay-specific. From a roleplayer’s point of view you can play in a virtual world and be OOC at the same time. That distinction too strikes me as odd. Does someone who is not looking for total immersion in a game sit at their PC and say “I could be doing something for the economy but instead, I’ll sit at my keyboard and tap buttons 1-4 until another cartoon boar dies”? I think everyone playing a game tries to identify at some level with the character they created.

    I guess that’s a long way of saying that, while flawed, the IC / OOC distinction is useful. Statements made identifying the speaker as the character in the game are IC, statements made identifying the speaker as the person sitting at a keyboard playing the character in the game are OOC. The agent of either interaction is sitting at a keyboard somewhere in the world.

  22. Dartwick said,

    November 13, 2007 at 4:44 am

    Aoladari – I dont mean to be rude – but wasnt addressing you. I was addressing Sanyas post.

  23. Aoladari said,

    November 13, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Well in that case, most people in online worlds don’t take the time to roleplay at all.. how is the term “70 Healadin LFG for BM, BF, Bot” any form of roleplaying? Sure there are some RP servers, but I’m sure even there, you can get plenty of regular conversations going minus thou’s, hast’s, and woulds’t(s).

  24. Khan said,

    November 13, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Aoladari, I only meant that the terms IC / OOC were useful, not that everyone had to roleplay. The terms IC / OOC are, as you show, somewhat loaded and come from roleplaying though I’m not necessarily using them as RP terms.

    And hardly any roleplayers use “thee speak.”

  25. Skeetarian said,

    November 14, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    I agree with Ruby and Khan –

    When I’m play a game, whether it be a card game with the neighbors or the folks I’ve come to call friends online, yet never met face to face, the game still has a basic ruleset that I’ve always tried to adhere to.

    I made a long post on VN a few weeks ago about the whole alternative ruleset environment, but basically, those people that use the online anonymity to justify something that they’d never try across the table at home playing Monopoly are just a waste of my time.

    My online and offline reputation could be separate and opposites, but that would require far too much mental gymnastics to keep straight…Trying to keep track of each toon’s ‘reputation’ is just additional juggling that sounds too much like work to me. So, I name most all of my toons Skeetar___ and anyone that sees me online knows what to expect.

  26. Inhibitor said,

    November 14, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    I agree completely. Some of my best friends on this planet are people I’ve never seen face-to-face.

    The guild I helped form in the City of Heroes beta (Alliance of Heroes) is still around…very few still actually play CoH (or any games together, for that matter), but the group is still together. Why? Because relationships formed online can be lasting, and are NOT dependent on the game you form them in.

    The Alliance of Heroes is living proof of that.

    So…the difference between the friendships I’ve formed and the ones that were formed at a local bar is what, exactly? (Aside from a lower tab)

  27. Bob the Barman said,

    November 14, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    The worst thing about RL, is meeting people with really bad ping.

  28. Dartwick said,

    November 15, 2007 at 1:11 am

    Well thank you for deciding how everyone else is playing Aoladari.

    Anyway for myself I played DAoC on an RP server. I played a rogue and made the extremely obnoxios version of myself. I didnt “thee” and “thou” but I was a character and I carried it over to the VN forums.

    But frequently I would have to say what I was IRL on forums because everyone knew me mostly as a knave.

    It was a lot of fun. Then eventually I killed off the persona because I wasnt really how I wanted to relate to people after I moved on from that game.

    I dont play that wayany more. I just decided its for the best. Im sarcastic still but I stopped trying to create a character.

  29. Aaron said,

    November 16, 2007 at 10:56 pm

    I used to use “in real life” as a way of distinguishing games from social communities, rather than distinguishing the internet from more physical environments. “Real life” was how I reminded my fellow players that I was in this MMO for the game, not for the chatroom. The online relationships were meaningful, but accidental. And if the more meaningful relationships from “real life” were trying to call me away from the game, the online relationships would have to be put on hold.

    These days, I’m trying to keep up the habit of using “online” and “offline”. Like Bob, I don’t think “physical” and “virtual” work as well.

  30. Michael said,

    January 24, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    I don’t think there is a problem with “IRL”. After all, most of us lead [at least] two distinct lives. One is the real life, where we can’t respawn, gank n00bs and carry weapons that are triple our own size. The other is a make-believe life, which allows us things that we normally can’t have.

    The problem with using “online” and “offine” is that the former does not necessarily involve our alternative reality of choice. For example, I am online right now, yet I am participating in an activity associated with my physical/legal persona, not my alter ego of Spectacles, a level 70 Gnome stripper.

    When I am Spectacles, I do feel the need to sometimes pass information on to others, while making it clear that I am talking about the non-virtual me. “IRL” lets me qualify it, and does not make me feel like a circus freak.


    P.S. – The name/race/class of my character has been altered to protect the innocent.

  31. lilytoes said,

    April 25, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    ruby – I like on occasion using the term “it’s just a game” against one that would typically use it in the way you’ve stated.

    I’m refering to the type of guy/gal suffering a God complex who can do no wrong but feels it’s his/her right to verbally thrash anyone who “get’s me killed” or “wipes the raid”.

    I’m not talking about a few sharp words. I knew a guy once who screamed so loud he made his headset mic vibrate and once he demonstrated his rage by smashing his mouse while pressing Ventrillo his Push to Talk button.

    I snicker and say “I’m puzzled. You sound like an adult – perhaps you should try acting like one. By the way… it’s just a game. Get over it.”

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