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Video games typically operate along slightly different rules than our own lives. It’s what makes them fun and a welcomed escape from reality. As consoles become more powerful and gaming becomes more inventive, the gap closes between video games and what we might consider, true realism. It’s not all the way there yet, but do we really want it to be? Even so, it makes for some interesting comparisons…
By the way, there is a point to all of this; this is not just a mindless thought dump.
Whether you’re in a loving relationship, hitting the dating scene, in between or an asexual yeast cell budding off progeny as you see fit, relationships are a lot more straightforward in video games. RPGs have particularly interesting approaches to courtship.
Take Dragon Age: Origins – my favourite example of this. Players can prostitute themselves in exchange for cool perks or to just secure their loyalty to you later in the game. Yet, still have a meaningful stake in a relationship. Who ever heard of a STI in Fantasy Middle Earth anyway? All you need to do is find a particular item of sentimental value to them and you’ll open a dialogue option to invite them back to your tent. Men, women, everyone’s game. But let the other member of your party find out about your shameless promiscuity and you’ll have real life’s drama to deal with.
This is simpler still in Skyrim. Travel to the Temple of Mara in The Rift and speak to the priest to get yourself one of his patented amulets. Let all the single guys and gals, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Argonians, Khajiit and human alike know that you’re single and ready to mingle. They’re not fussy. In these times of conflict and uncertainty, citizens of Skyrim just don’t want to be alone. Perhaps this is how Mr. T thought the world worked and was just trying to find the right amulet.
Our lives are far from fantasy. Let’s consider a game where relationship dynamics hit closer to home. Grand Theft Auto. Do I steal jets from military bases? No. Do I initiate turf wars only to take to the skies in a jetpack and rain down fire from above with akimbo Uzis? Only after a few. But I do use my mobile phone to ring my shorty (showt-ay-ee if you’re T-Pain). First introduced in San Andreas, by taking your shorty on a number of dates, the relationship blossoms. Each girl even has their own tastes and respond accordingly. You can even meet girls on dating websites. A melding of real and virtual worlds. Besides the odd entertaining interactions, like Dragon Age, there are a number of in-game benefits too.
Cowering From Conflict, Behind a Corner or in a Haystack
Tough boss battle. Blind corner. Hit it, quit it and hope their health doesn’t regenerate. Stealth is a key element in a lot of games. Sometimes we can push this in unusual directions by devising our own strategies to remain unseen, even if the game never intended you to play it that way. That’s the strategy I like to call the cowardly rogue. And it’s gotten me through a lot of tough situations that probably wouldn’t work as well in life.
You’re probably familiar with AI behaviour in stealth situations. They see you, they go on high alert and when they get bored they carry on as if nothing happened. I mean, really? You just saw, with your own eyes, an enemy who is a considerable threat to your entire operation and you just assume he was just, I don’t know, lost and went home?
I think this system is a little more believable in Assassin’s Creed. Hiding around a corner or in a haystack only works if the enemy doesn’t see you go there. Much better.
Nevertheless, while AI behaviour in video games is certainly different from our own unpredictability (or predictability if you’re Derren Brown) the end result would be the same. Foolish guards and short-term memory loss lets James forever lurk in shadows. Not in real life though, I tried. Not that I sneak around like a weirdo, I just love hide and seek. With people I know.
Oh That? That’s Just Where My Neck Stopped That Draugr’s Waraxe
Players are stronger than most enemies. I can accept that. However, if you think about it, players aren’t only stronger but have skin impervious to blades, bullets and fire. Even when things go haywire, you can usually scoff down a potion or any number of restorative herbs and foods in an instant. Me? I don’t think I could fight on a stomach full of Diet Coke and sweet roll.
I was lucky enough to win a couple of tickets to the PlayStation Access Presents: The Last of Us event back last May. It was held in Shoreditch in what looked like a post-apocalypse era warehouse. There were plenty of opportunities to get hands-on with the game, not to mention food and drink were included! [Oh man the burgers…] They had an exclusive presentation of the game presentation followed by a live Q&A. The most memorable moment being one of the developers dying as he played through the level.
Naughty Dog, and also Irrational Games, put a lot of work into developing novel companions for The Last of Us and BioShock: Infinite. They felt freshly dynamic. By that, I mean these companions are not just blindly following wherever you go. They interact with the environment in the same way as the human player. It’s almost like they’re discovering this virtual world as much as you are. Except that it is real to them.
Then you have companions whom absent-mindedly stand between your sword and the enemy. And then they complain about it!
However, the most absorbing video game companionship that most closely resembles reality is co-op. None more spellbinding Beyond: Two Souls. One player assumes the role of Jodie as the drama skips back and forth between various significant points in her life. The other takes the role of an inexplicable spirit, Aiden, bound to her since birth. The decisions Jodie and Aiden make are completely independent in co-op driven by both our own ethical beliefs and our relationship with the other player. Seeing your friend, vulnerable and nervous, being bullied at their first party stirs up different emotions in different people. It provoke a spectrum of responses. Your connection to the person you’re playing with dictates how you react; how you play the game. Nervously, harshly, supportively. Multiple endings throughout provide consequences dependent on these decisions and reactions. It makes the world of Beyond seem more real.
Queues = Loading Screens
This one’s a quick thought. Chew on this: loading screens are like when we queue for stuff.
We’ve all done it. Trying to climb into weird places in a video game by spamming the jump button, when walking around it would be so much simpler. But inevitably, you become stuck and end up swimming through the floor. In a real situation you could simply raise your right leg and walk over the object you’re stuck behind or somehow fused onto (or fall down the cliff you’ve defied the laws of physics to climb). I know I shouldn’t do it and yet every time it happens I’m like…
The good thing is we can exploit these bugs. That’s cheating?! Well, if securing the left analogue stick in the down position with a rubber band so you sneak backwards into a wall of a cave where a blind man sits while you sleep for ten hours is too exploitative and ruins the fun, then call me Wolmanatix, the Daedric Prince of cheating and exploitation.
The interesting thing is, that glitches sort of exist in real life too. There are bugs in the way people behave and the processes by which things are done that can be exploited. Con artists, like Frank Abagnale, are good at exploiting life’s glitches. But in a more relatable sense, this sort of thing happens all the time with people. We all have our ticks. Something woven into the fibre of our being that causes us to behave in sometimes bizarre ways. Whether it be a ritual, a pet peeve or an uncontrollable ‘knee-jerk’ type reaction.
“Dude, can I have your stereo when you die?” A humorous jibe between two mates – one of whom is about to do something stupid and/or dangerous. If they do bite the dust, are you actually going loot their corpse? Maybe not. A treacherous idea in society; practically mandatory in games. But arguably sort of fun in both?
Looting has never been more addictive and rewarding as it is exemplified in Borderlands.
RPGs contort this concept even more. Bethesda, for example, (who I love by the way as you can probably tell) seem to subscribe to the principle that it’s even okay to roam around in somebody’s pocket as much as you like. ‘ave a good old nose. Just don’t take anything or you’ll be in trouble. I don’t know if I’d like that to be true of real life, but it might help in a “okay, which one of you guys took my pen?” type situation.
Levelling and Reward Systems
If you have the right perspective, life is pretty similar to levelling up in a video game. We can control which attributes we’d like most to customise and level up by improving the relevant skills. In fact, Razeware LLC has made this a digital reality by crossing life with levelling, with their app, ‘Level Me Up’. It might not be the same addiction of fighting zombies and assigning attribute points to strength and intelligence. But it gives you the same sense of achieving something as you XP grind in various tasks. It provides visibility over the progress of skill progression.
The sad truth can be that in life, we sometimes can’t see if we are getting any better at something because there is no progress or XP bar. Nobody to unequivocally say, “You’re 95% there, keep going!” A lot of the time, we can be a mere iota from reaching the next level. But we give up because we’ve fought so hard to get to where we are, only to bear no reward nor end in sight.
On occasion, video games can be so engrossing compared to our own lives because the reality is, games are fairer than life. We *always* get rewarded for completing a quest in a video game and doing something positive, even if it’s only small. It’s a matter of incentives. Only life’s incentives are more unpredictable. Sometimes they are just; sometimes none at all. Sometimes they are more than we could ever hope for.
So, What’s Your Point?
So besides being a (fun) thought experiment, what’s the point? It’s not to showcase how much I have been playing Skyrim recently. These laboured parallels between video games and our lives have implications for how realism in gaming might change in the future, to mirror life more accurately. Not by making consequences of say, grave robbing, more severe, but by stirring up a more emotional response and connect more deeply with the player’s own views. This would let morality to bear a more powerful influence over every decision a player would make.
Some would argue that the story is the most important aspect of a game. Stories stir up emotions after all. Take COD: Ghosts’ single player storyline, written by Hollywood writer, Stephen Gaghan. A tale of two brothers and a man’s best friend. It’s insane and inventive. But it’s the emotional story of the two brothers that truly shapes the player’s experience. And having a strong, raw and emotional investment in a game and its characters, it feels deeply personal.
What’s more, video games have the ability to invoke emotion from a whole different perspective than cinema ever could. In a game, you are the main character and they are you. Spectators watch decisions; players make them.
We have actually seen this concept evolve over time. Nobody ever felt bad for jumping on and killing a Goomba. But take games like Fallout where the decisions you make have consequences for the story. And these decisions are often directed by your moral alignment. Okay, comparing a modern RPG to a classic platformer is clumsy and stupid, but consequential gameplay centred on a morality is definitely transforming.
Since beginning this post, I have had a rethink of my opening paragraph. Video games aren’t catching up to reality, they are beyond reality. And that is what makes them so fun.