A Theory of Departure

This essay was first published as an article on Station's Newstand public and was then presented at "Prospectives Symposium: Digital Art and Activism" at Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities the  on July 8, 2022. It was subsequently turned into a video meta-essay.



Why leave? 


This question is the central focus of my research this semester. By “departure”, I mean specifically spending more time in digital realms than one does in physical ones. Note that this concept assumes the finiteness and scarcity of time. As we build an increasing number of augmented worlds, why do people migrate to these metaverses? Through this research, I explore a number of attraction and motivation factors that encourage presence in these alternative spaces.


In this paper, I posit that augmented worlds that provide users with a net social advantage, meaning a better social life understood as the sum of a network of relationships, romantic relationships and status, will overtime attract an increasing number of users. 




In her 2011 book “Alone Together”, Sherry Turkle ruminates on the impact of technology and socialization, i.e. the ways in which technology alters the way we interact with one another, and social expectations at large. In her exploration of social robots, she describes how “nurturance” in human-computer interaction is the “killer app”. She writes, “In the presence of a needy Tamagotchi, children become responsible parents.” This killer app is a first point of departure, a pull towards virtuality. This segment of her research can be summarized by the position that “nurturance” as a social dynamic is a strong vector for “departure”. Of course, these interactions are human-to-computer, meaning they are limited to the demands of a programmed machine. What then happens when the social robots become virtual humans?


This interrogation coupled with two fundamental assumptions compose the main position of this paper. The fundamental assumptions, borrowed from Eugene Wei, are that “people are status seeking” and “people seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital”. The migration to alternative realms can be understood as an equation whereby if the alternative realm provides the user with greater social status and economic outcomes than in the actual world they will become increasingly invested to the point of addiction.


The economic segment of the equation lies on the research of the economist John Hicks and coincidentally the arrival of web3 and crypto is facilitating the monetization of digital activities creating an increased weight on that part of the equation. The social segment (net social advantage) is anchored on attraction and motivation factors as described above. These factors are heightened in contemporary digital interactions hence the difference with previous media.


The equation can be visualized as this expansion of George J. Borjas equation from his 2000 paper “Economics of Migration”:


Suppose there is an alternative universe m, where one can interact in real-time with other human users. An individual is employed and socializes in i (the actual world) where they have a wage wi  and status si . In the metaverse, they can earn wm and their new status is sm. There is a U cost to moving to this alternate realm, it may be subscription fees, hardware upgrades as well as a dollar value of the “psychological toll” of migration. Additionally, the individual has a time-horizon T through which they make their decisions, this horizon varies based on an individual’s maturity, as demonstrated by Ayla Pour Mohammad and Aimee Drolet in their 2019 paper, younger individuals tend to have shorter time-horizons than older folks. and represent the respective weights for the two parts of the equation. Depending on culture, upbringing and current social trends, the weights can change as to which between capital and status matters most to the individual. Finally, both capital and status are discounted using r, the respective rates of discount for future cash flow and rate of discount for future status.


To leave, as is begged in this essay, the sum of the net economic advantage and the net social advantage must be greater than 0, in other words, there must be a positive advantage to the migration.


The economic portion of the equation is straightforward and can be calculated using income data. The social portion, my contribution to the equation, can be further broken down. In the “Reduction and Betrayal” chapter of “Alone Together”, Turkle interviews individuals whose “success in simulation tempers [their] sense of disappointment in [themselves]”. These accounts match the detailed research Nick Yee has conducted with players of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) in order to understand how these games can lead to addiction. Ultimately, what Yee uncovers is two sets of factors which can lead to addiction, which I use as a proxy for an extreme case of departure. “Attraction Factors” and “Motivation Factors” lead players to positive feedback loops that keep them returning to the game. 


The attraction factors, reward cycles, network of relationships and immersion, are the affordances of the game itself. Leveling up and developing “mastery”, as Turkle calls it, are the goals of most games and feed into reward cycles. Networks of relationships, essential to MMORPGs (the MM in the acronym), is what my project is centered around. My piece explores poetically and artistically how romantic relationships play a role in this equation and delves in the emotions that exist in virtual contexts. These networks are the main innovation of these games and this augmentation of gameplay is what makes it possible to accrue status in them. Without the network of relationship, no status can be accrued, and therefore the risk of departure or migration is extremely low, since the net social advantage portion of the equation will be negative. Lastly, immersion englobes the two others as it is the setting in which the reward cycles and networks of relationships occur. In this context, immersion is an augmentation of these factors and contributes to their power. Though immersion predates the digital age, for instance one can be immersed in a novel, immersion is augmented through digital technology. Moreover, the audio-visual component of the games play a role in how players feel immersed. Rudy, one of the young men interviewed by Turkle, describes, in his own words, immersion when speaking of which game he favors “I like the game best if you can get sucked in.” This state of immersion is akin to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” or being “ in the zone” as it is colloquially said.


The motivation factors are more broad. Yee names “low self-esteem”, “poor self-image”, “lack of control over one's life”, “trapped by circumstances”, “undervalued”, “making and sustaining relationships” and “stress and real-life problems” as examples of motivation factors. In terms of the equation, what they signal is a low status in the actual world, and this predisposes the players for increased participation in virtual worlds, given status is more efficiently accessible in the alternative environment where they are not dealing with these negative motivation factors. These coupled with the immersion can lead to a flow state where given the attention focused on the game the player forgets the outside world, “acts without self-consciousness” and therefore can omit the negativity which may exist when the game is off.


In short, migration can be understood as the weighted sum of net economic advantage and net social advantage. Net economic advantage is based on the wage differential, whilst social advantage is based on status. Status in games is conferred by networks of relationship and reward cycles (mastery in the game). These relationships can be friendships but can also be romantic.