This conceit is reviewed and granted a new perspective with Vili Lehdonvirta's working paper, Virtual Worlds Don't Exist, presented at this year's Game Research Lab seminar, Breaking the Magic Circle.
Vini's Vili's premise is that there are inherent shortcomings in contrasting real world v. virtual world existences, especially in the MMO arena, as that focuses on a dichotomy between what is known, and what is believed; or, if you prefer, between real and make-believe. Instead, she he proposes an alternative worldview based on the work of Anselm Strauss.
Strauss posited that we naturally compartmentalize, and that our respective relations with social worlds are set "neither by territory nor formal membership but by the limits of effective communication." This so-called social world perspective encompasses interrelations with religious beliefs, the workplace, family dynamics, and all other interpersonal communications. Under that model, then, the virtual world of MMOs is at least as "real" as the physical world, if viewed from the dynamics of the social relationship.
I'll admit it: I'm a geek. I come from a strong academic and high-tech background, and this material is fascinating to me. I wish I had the space to do justice to this article; but, by the same token, I think each individual should approach any research -- let alone something this potentially controversial -- with as close to a clear mind as possible. That means, unfortunately, that it's time for me to shut up, and not to share all of my thoughts. Still, for anyone else who's interested in social dynamics and a chance to view an alternative take on the underpinnings of MMO dynamics, I strongly recommend
Vini's Vili's paper. Once you've read it, give us your take on the subject; or, if you have alternative suggestions for further discussion, share!