Sunday, July 29, 2007

Virtual Unreality

Yesterday a former student with whom I correspond frequently sent me a link to a trailer for a game called Bioshock. It featured some pretty brutal treatment of a little girl (by her brother? I couldn’t quite figure it out) and her “rescue” by a machine-like creature after some grotesque activities that included injecting something into an arm that produced a swarm of bees, and the impaling of one of the characters by a device that looked like an over-sized drill bit. What prompted the student to send me the clip in the first place was his fondness for insects, and his message was accompanied by a rather ironic quip about what we really need to be spending our defense dollars on (bee-arms?). My response was something like “Who thinks up this crap?” to which he replied that, in all fairness, the game was actually about how far one would go to save one’s own life, even if it meant sacrificing one’s own humanity. To which my reply was “Yeah, but . . . .”

Because I teach in a school that offers a degree in animation, and thus know more gamers (including my son and daughter-in-law) than the casual observer, I’m quick to latch onto potential problems like a baby to a nipple (sweet image, that). Truth be told, however, I have never understood the attraction of games like Doom and Quake (which my son and his friends played, and even created additions to), I have no interest whatever in Second Life, and the only computer games that even mildly amuse me are puzzle-solving efforts like Myst or Qin or silly arcade candy like Luxor that involve nothing more violent than shooting down strings of brightly-colored scarabs to earn points and defeat Egyptian gods. I suppose that simulation games like Sims can be educational (although I once tried playing one that involved building space colonies and just got frustrated because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing), but what I’m really beginning to think is that all of the energy that’s going into developing games that explore our humanity could be better spent actually exploring our humanity.

Part of the problem is that I can’t get “into” virtual worlds. The idea of virtual reality actually goes back to the Middle Ages, according to Margaret Wertheim (see especially her book, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace). In situations where things are not going well, folks have a way of imagining something better--and the great Medieval cathedrals provide visible evidence that their builders and their communities were anticipating the kingdom of heaven. Not having the talent or energy to create the twenty-first century equivalent, however, I take refuge in books by people like William Morris who combined a tangible effort to better the physical world with a plethora of imaginary (“virtual”) worlds of his own. To top it off, even the most carefully-constructed of these games feature figures that move so unnaturally through their landscapes that I wonder, "why bother?" Why not just go to a damn movie, for crying out loud?

I used to think that I understood why people play video games. When Myst and its early sequels came out, I was truly fascinated by the surreality of the environments players entered. I loved the fact that they were about books, and that the creators had spent some serious time studying the history of architecture and technology. But they lost me when they put people in their “worlds” and made play too immediate for cranky old misanthropes like me. I have enough reality going on around me every day (maybe if I didn’t read the newspaper things would be better), that I don’t need to escape into some kind of “otherness” unless its one I make myself. So, when I want to "escape," I write.

I have begun to wonder what would happen if, instead of imagining grotesque, violence-ridden scenarios, game designers used their virtual worlds to set up real-life problems and enabled people to work through actual possibilities. I suppose Second Life has that potential, but from everything I’ve heard, it’s simply an extension of the MySpace mentality that I already find so repugnant (even though most of my students, many of my colleagues, and one of my own children are all devotees of the latter). I know that all this stuff is supposed to foster community, but what kind of community? Certainly not the face-to-face interaction imagined by Adam Smith and the other participants in the Scottish Enlightenment--and on which Smith’s notions of capitalism and moral sentiments were based. Certainly not the in-your-face experiences of our earliest ancestors, that eventually led to cooperative hunting and gathering and then agriculture on a larger, participatory scale (and, I have to admit, such other ramifications as conflict and war). Certainly not even the salons and conversations that produced the public intellectuals of the early twentieth century: the avant-garde in general, and specific movements like Cubism and Abstract Expressionism in particular. The fundamental difference seems to lie in the fact that many of today’s children find the real world too “boring” or too disturbing to deal with, and playing through the games provides a kind of power missing from actuality.

I know that this treatment of the problem is superficial, and that it needs a lengthy, careful, phenomenological analysis in order for it to make real sense. It’s just that watching the trailer for yet another violent, disturbing, angry game made me long for the days when one could “walk” through a virtual world, uncovering clues and solving puzzles, until one reached a satisfactory conclusion. Maybe we didn’t save the world, but we didn’t slather it with blood and guts, either. It’s not that I want everything to be pink and peachy; it’s just that there ought to be room for thinking about our humanity, and working through our problems that doesn’t include unspeakable acts of violence that--let’s face it--have more to do with adolescent notions of power and sexuality than with creating a better alternative to the problems of the modern world.


Alex said...

A bit of background may be needed...

The game takes place inside an underwater city called Rapture, which has basically gone to ruin due to genetic manipulation run wild. The key to this happening is a substance called Adam, which was discovered in harvestable form on the ocean floor. Adam basically lets a person rewrite their genetic code on the fly, giving them new abilities, such as the bee arm in the video.

The little girl in the video is called a Little Sister, and is the result of genetic experimentation. The Little Sisters are basically walking Adam refineries. They extract inert Adam from biological material (i.e. corpses) with a syringe-like device, and recycle this material inside their own bodies. In the game, they are the ONLY source of Adam. So, if you're going to go through the game shooting bees out of your arms or whatnot, you are going to need to harvest them.

The big guy with the drill on his arm is a Big Daddy, another genetic construct. They protect the Little Sisters from harm. They don't attack the player unless the player attacks them, or gets too close to a Little Sister. They are also very, very hard to kill.

Now, if you successfully kill a Big Daddy, the Little Sister will run over to its corpse and sort of cry over it. At this point, you have two options - you can either "cure" the Little Sister and turn her back into a normal little girl (through a process that hasn't been elaborated on yet), or you can harvest her for Adam. The latter mainly takes place offscreen, but from what I've read it's done in such a way that you really don't feel good about having done it.

The developers wanted to fill the game with these sorts of choices. Are you going to play through like a bastard and harvest all the Adam you can to give you special powers, or are you going to tough it out sans bee arm and rescue all the Little Sisters? The choice is left up to the player. The ending of the game and how other characters react to you is supposed to be impacted by the choices made during play.

As to why everything is so twisted and gory, some of that has to do with the history of the series. Bioshock is a spiritual successor to a couple of games called System Shock 1&2, both of which had an element of horror to them (insane AI takes over a station and hunts you, the only survivor, down). Both those games were well received, and had plenty of moments that left players pretty spooked. If the devs of the game were to turn Bioshock into a point and click, they'd have a lot of upset fans on their hands.

Why do games have to have gore in them at all? I think it really depends on the genre of game and what the gamers are expecting out of it. I do think there are a lot of games that are just adding blood for the sake of driving sales, and when it's tacked on like that it annoys me more than anything else, because it's usually pretty transparent. For certain genres, though, such as survival horror games, the gore goes along with the theme. The player can't be threatened with a grisly end if there isn't any gristle flying around.

Owlfarmer said...

Alex: I truly appreciate the thoughtful (and thorough) response. The game certainly makes more sense to me now, and I am even more amazed at the imaginative abilities at work out there among programmers and designers. I think my basic concern is fundamentally tied to what Ursula LeGuin referred to in her book, Always Coming Home as technology's moral danger. Any time we develop a new technology, or add to its uses, we really must consider the consequences: ethical, cultural, psychological, etc. Although many of these games seem to have a moral component (posing the kinds of questions you talk about), the danger lies in the inability of many players to do the heavy thinking required. All too many young gamers get into the thrill of it (especially when the graphics are as compelling as this game's are) and just don't think about it. It's a game, after all.

But he problem is further compounded by the frequent lack of parental involvement, the isolation of individual play, the hyper-realism of the gore (and the possible de-sensitization to violence in general). I don't think that all games have to be pretty pink kitty happy silliness; but why aren't there beautiful, thoughtful, non-violent games that explore other important issues?

I was looking through the shelves at Best Buy this weekend for just such a game--something that could engage a player without appealing to baser instincts. But there were none. Why can't all that imagination out there be put to work on something really compelling but less morally problematic? People like me have to settle for arcade games, or go back to early versions of Myst. Or just pick up a book. Perhaps, however, that's not such a bad idea.