Why can we spend hours playing video games while many of us get exhausted by much shorter video-conferences?
That is without doubt no bad question that the magazine Inverse asks. They turn to an anthropologist who has researched our relation to the internet for at least 15 years: Tom Boellstorff. In 2007 I wrote about his fieldwork in Second Life about the "virtually human": "Second Life is their only chance to participate in religious rituals".
Now he is part of the research project Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times that explores "how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction" according to the project website:
As many have noted, what we call “social distancing” is really physical distancing. Due to the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people have been socializing online, in new ways. Better understanding these new digital cultures will have consequences for COVID prevention: successful physical distancing will rely on new forms of social closeness online. It will also have consequences for everything from work and education to climate change.
Zoom and other video conference solutions (including open source alternatives as Jitsi Meet or Bigbluebutton) let us constantly stare at many faces that in turn also stare at us. This never happens in real-life conferences and causes what is now coined "Zoom fatigue".
The anthropologist says in the Inverse-interview:
"Whether it's a conference or a class... so much of what happens [socially] in these environments has to do with talking in the halls on the way to the bathroom [or] grabbing a cup of coffee. Zoom is almost like a phone call in that sense, where you miss all this other activity, and that's part of what can make it exhausting for people."
Boellstorff thinks that there's much to be learned from video games like World of Warcraft or Animal Crossing where you are constantly interacting with others in a "more emotionally and psychologically fruitful" way. Game-like video conference platforms, he thinks, are likely to become more popular.
Boellstorff himself has started teaching his courses in Second Life, as Wired explained in an earlier article:
Boellstorff custom-built Anteater [Island] to include an office, spaces for lectures and group projects, areas to hang out, and even a roller coaster. He uses the island in tandem with Zoom for classes, partially because Second Life doesn’t run well on older computers and can’t be accessed from a smartphone. So far, the setup is working well. Being in the same virtual space “does seem to have supported interactions that would not have happened if only using Zoom or a similar conference call program,” he says.
In an interview with University of California, Irvine News website he says:
“We need to get away from talking about the physical world as the real world. Online sociality is a set of cultures that can be just as real as what’s in the physical world.”