Quest Updated: Mirrors And Portals
I was playing a certain indie game (unnamed to avoid spoilers), where I was offered a moral dilemma. I come upon a man who betrayed me, lying beaten almost to death on the ground. Do I pick him up, against all the odds, and carry him to safety while putting my own in serious jeopardy? Or do I leave him to brutally bleed to death on the broken ground? I don’t think I’ve ever sat like that and pondered on a decision in a game before.
What’s weird is this isn’t something with wonderful graphics, with facial expressions rendered from professional actors. It is a little artsy number, with characters completely stylized. And yet I felt an enormous burden of guilt at even the thought of abandoning this virtual man in a painted apocalyptic wasteland.
Phil Toledano (forgive this seeming digression) is a wonderful photographer. He’s taken some amazing photographs in numerous series. The one that caught my eye is simply titled ‘Gamers‘. The photographs are fascinating to look at. The portraits are of almost pure emotions — joy, triumph, frustration, aggression. As someone who is a complete media addict I have to say that some of the most emotionally engaging media texts are games. Not all of them, granted (more about this later).
The thing is, TV shows, books, movies all do the same thing. They show a character to us and we engage with his or her emotions, feeling them by proxy. It depends on a ton of factors as to how much we sympathise and empathise with the protagonist, and the supporting cast as well (even occasionally villains). Games, as I’m sure I’ve said before, place us in the middle of the plot. We make the choices, rather than others whom we are supposed to understand. And this is why games can have huge emotional impacts. Bioshock and Assassins Creed, as examples, make you question the rules of the game you have to play. You hunt down massive creatures (I think Big Daddies are creatures?) who have only one purpose and massacre them for your own ends. No matter how you rationalise it, no matter if you don’t harvest the Little Sisters, the blood (if they bleed, of course) of each Big Daddy is on your hands. Assassins Creed is similar. You slaughter your way through the city guards until you can take out the target. Yes, most of the targets tend to be total scumbags, but (for the first AC) you don’t know whether or not to trust the person who gives you your orders.
I think this at the heart (or at least in the veins) of the gaming-phobia mainstream media shows. It explains especially why there are so many misinformed rumours purported as fact about violent games like GTA. The fact that games can be so involving scares people. But it would be a complete mistake, and a sign of very poor understanding of how people use media in general, to assume that the way a game, or indeed, any art form or media text looks and what it seems to show is exactly what the people who consume it will take for themselves. I’ve played GTA. I wouldn’t even know which end to hold if you gave me a rifle. And I certainly haven’t felt the urge to pop caps into passing hookers, buy sniper rifles and start gang warfare.
I think this is the biggest challenge facing the way we think about games. Some people call it the “uncanny valley”, a crack between a representation of reality and the real thing. It is something that generally gets used to explain why things like the animation in The Polar Express is so bloody creepy. But I think the concept has some further implications. It explains why someone who isn’t a sociopath / psychopath can play GTA without actually feeling any desire at all to knock real hookers over with a real motorcycle. We are aware, in some cases, that what we are doing is completely unreal — that we are exploring an imagined space with its own rules. We also are aware that these worlds have their own conventions and patterns. We are certainly aware in these cases that what we are actually doing is making programming move a group of pixels shaped like a motorcycle and street-walker in such a way that it looks like a motor accident.
But at the same time, hell, games can be emotional. The triumph of proving GLADoS wrong. The heart-wrenching death of Aeris / Aerith in Final Fantasy VII. The shock of the end of Shadow of the Colossus. And the guilt at abandoning a former friend in above-mentioned indie game. What people (gamers included) need to be open about is that games, like pretty much any art form, are complex and we all respond uniquely. It’s a cliché that art holds a mirror up to life (and if you’re into post-modernism you’ll complain that it doesn’t). I want to say that games hold a portal gun up to life and open it up to alternatives. This isn’t something to fear, but something to embrace as another opening for new experiences we could never normally have. And (to get on my usual hobby-horse) to potentially understand people by inhabiting their bodies and minds for a moment.