I am continually amazed by how differently people experience the virtual world.

I don’t just mean the surface things like what types of activities and styles people enjoy, whether or not they like to roleplay, or their level of interest in relationships. I am speaking of fundamental differences in the way people perceive the virtual world, and what they value about it. The differences can be so striking that two people may be left staring at each other agape with incomprehension.

I recall the first time I encountered this divergence, when I mentioned my admiration of the builder Painter Meriman’s Craftsman style bungalow, his painstaking attention to the authentic details of the style and his skill with textures and composition. He had displayed it in a street scene, complete with lawn and sprinkler, sidewalk, driveway, fire hydrant, period automobile, and other subtle touches. “It feels so real!” I gushed. “You think you are in a 1920’s suburban neighborhood.” My friend’s face fell. “Oh,” she said. “I’m not interested in things that feel real. That is so boring.” I was very surprised. Her reaction woke me up to the fact that not everyone values what I value.

Recently, another dear friend illustrated the vast differences in our experience of the virtual world when he thought it would be fun to decorate an ancient Roman plaza with a big net that dropped poppable colored balloons all over the ground. I had worked hard to fine-tune the color palette of the plaza so that everything blended harmoniously, and had focused on building within the authenticity of the style. The beauty of the finished product gave me great pleasure, and to me that was worth the work. But the addition of colored balloons completely drained away any joy I felt in the scene, both because they were inauthentic (I can’t be certain but I suspect ancient Romans didn’t go in for balloon drops) and thus made it impossible for my imagination to immerse in the scene, and because the bright colors conflicted in every way with the color palette I had so carefully designed. It was as if I had painted a painting in pastels, and someone thought it would be fun to throw a vat of tomato sauce onto it. Not that I have anything against tomato sauce, but it would kind of ruin the painting, right?

And yet, the same situation looks very different through my friend’s eyes. He is all about fun and play. He loves fantasy and pretending. My friend is an iconoclast, and gets a charge out of turning things upside down just to see what happens. If we both were standing in front of a row of buttons, I would methodically press one at a time to see what each one does—but he would press all of them at once, and if it blew up as a result, it would delight him. For him, my careful attention to authenticity and color feels unpleasantly confining. He does not understand why beauty and style are important to me. He hates it. He yearns to break free of the chains of style, and splatter balloons and paint everywhere. That, for him, is a source of pleasure. The balloons that made my joy evaporate were the balloons that made his joy possible.

Although I found this incident unsettling, it was a good education for me. In the virtual world I have always been drawn to designers and artists. Because, like most people, I tend to hang out with people who are like me, it is easy to forget that not everyone is like me. When encountering someone whose perceptions and values are very different from mine, I go through a kind of progression of understanding, starting with “I don’t get that at all,” then advancing to “I guess I get where he’s coming from, but it’s not for me.”

The danger against which I must constantly guard is that I might be tempted to continue that progression too far, and end up saying, “His point of view is different, and it is wrong / of no value / inferior.” There may be a few things in this life about which such an absolute statement could have merit. But I don’t think that any of them apply in the way we experience the virtual world. There is a difference between saying that you don’t like something, and saying that it is intrinsically bad. Is one way better than another? Is one way right, or wrong? I doubt it. Even if I don’t like them, I do find the differences intriguing.

Have you ever encountered someone who sees the virtual world in a fundamentally different way? How did you react?

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