The race for greater technology and capabilities during the console wars between the two monoliths Sony and Microsoft, one of the only things from the video games industry that made enough of a racket to reach many people outside of the confines of the normal gaming community, was seen by many as what the industry was (and is) about. The public saw, outside of the always present din declaring video games either something poisoning children or promoting widespread laziness in the college to forty-somethings age rage, a race to reality. Many people respected the capabilities that some games have shown in technical specifications or detail, but few outside of the industry and the player base have realized that the real story was not happening between Sony and Microsoft, nor should that have ever been the real story. I want to dispel a common misconception, right here and right now: Microsoft and Sony do not make video games. They have divisions that make video games, but Microsoft and Sony make tools. They make rather amazing tools, especially with the Kinect being right at home in many engineering labs, but they make tools. It is frankly almost ridiculous that these companies are the face of the industry, almost as if Nikon and Canon were in the news because of their cameras more than the Oscars and their participants, or if Gutenberg overshadowed the spread of the English Bible. I am certainly not necessarily comparing any video game to the Bible or even an Oscar-deserving movie, but film and written word are not themselves different than video games.
I believe this is where I have lost some of you. Very few see video games as an Art Form or as a Sport, though it is the first medium where being both has even been as much of a possibility. They are both, however, or at least art; they have to be. Though there are some examples that I could make to argue either point, it is not these that can prove either opinion as a possibility; The real argument I can make is what is possible, what can be done in this new universe of possibility that could never have been accomplished in film or in literature. Art has evaded definition at every turn, but it is usually accepted that something that can make you feel so incredibly deeply about something that it confirms what you already knew about life, or something that you desperately needed to know, is worth the title. When you can be a part of something, when there is no need for a surrogate character for the audience because the audience has a place in the story, there is a level of investment that the observer effect of other media never allowed them to reach. A powerful reality, one that is real in a way completely independent from graphical fidelity, can connect the artist and the player in an incredible way. Further than that, even, the ability to create inside of a game, as shown with Project Spark and other efforts that turn game engines into playgrounds, opens up the possibility of a persistent two way conversation that does not need to be a creation-reaction model. Many argue that the amount of time so many sink into video games makes it not worth the experience, but thousand page novels like Stephen King's The Stand have stolen thousands of wonderful hours from their readers. Past that, video games have huge ranges of length compared to film especially. Whereas Studio Ghibli and their minimum two full hour movies (barely longer than most blockbuster movies) are difficult for many to enjoy because they 'take to long to get going', video games range from a few fun hours to a forty or fifty hour story filled with the possibility for deep investment. Either way, I will not address the 'Video Games as a Sport' debate here because, as I have said previously, this is already a sizable enough topic (and post) dealing only with the subject of 'Video Games as Art'. I want to step back then, and return to the idea of 'Real Life'.
The real reason I have a problem with the definitions that I saw for the word virtual was that it makes the case that a virtual reality has to look exactly like ours. In almost every virtual world there is truth and reality, no matter how far removed in appearance they are from ours, and this is what I really wanted to get at. Every time we see some functioning member of society trying to pull another person out of their video games or their books and movies, it is always with the explanation' You need to spend a little more time in Real Life,' as if this is some be-all end-all argument. No one can answer having to return to paying taxes and taking the garbage that comes inevitably along with your lease here on Earth, but what does that even mean?
In Real Life we are lumps of cognitive tissue sitting in a dark sealed chamber called a skull, trying to interpret all of the electric signals that we constantly receive. The world outside of that may be 'real,' and constant despite how it appears to us, but does it really matter? We don't even all see it the same way, with the same colors! The world that each of us really cares about and lives in is the dark one in which we can think and feel, and we desperately want to know that every other dark world is filled with at least some of the same thoughts and emotions. We spend large portions of our lives trying to reach out and brush up against these other worlds, making things that contain the best simulation we can make of the thoughts and emotions that matter to us so that someone else can see them and know that we felt them, too. We have been making virtual realities since the genesis of our species as bridges to each other; the Biblical chasm that sin and the world is supposed to be does not even have to be metaphorical, because we are very literally separated from each other all the time by at least a centimeter of bone. It is no wonder that the emotional lows of many books and movies are from miscommunication or misunderstanding; we are, on an essential level, afraid of how little we might actually know about what each other person might think or might react to our actions. This post in itself is one of those simulations, something that I have tried to make as real to me as possible so that it might be the same to you; this meta joke right here is also a part of the package, a wink in the case that you enjoy that kind of stuff as much as I do. Virtual worlds that we share and inhabit are often just alternate routes for our minds to take to substitute our observable, Real one. (Or for us to explore new ideas or ways of thinking, in the case of Science Fiction in general and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, respectively. (HPMOR, coincidentally, is possibly the most interesting take on J.K. Rowling's universe that I have yet seen, while also holding the pedigree of being perhaps more well written in an academic sense than the original novels and being a good deal funnier. (Though it still can't replace the original series' place in my heart or in my childhood. (Read it anyways, though. (Okay, I'm done.)))) Not all of these worlds are worth spending a lot of time in, but video games have their serialized Call of Duty's just like movies have their serialized horror films and constant Transformers-esque blockbusters. We have only recently had the chance to effect the worlds others create for us in ways that we can decide, and that really should be an exciting frontier.
The last element of this communication, though, is the supply and demand of creation. Some consume almost exclusively, diving into everyone else's stories and worlds and experiencing all that they can through the secondary description of someone else; They use the bridges to others as substitutes for their own life experience, rather than experiencing their own emotions fully and in all their bright intensity before searching out others with the same experience. I am probably the most guilty of this, especially when I am impatient at the thought of waiting and living long enough for those moments that we find to feel truly deeply. Others create all their lives, many times sacrificing the possibility of losing themselves in someone else's creation or knowing that they are understood by a person a world away for the hope that someone, somewhere will know that they are not alone - even in their dark little box. We all need both; we all have an unimaginably huge world inside of us, and we don't have the time to share even selected pieces if we spend all of our time trying to make it through the maze of the billions of bridges already out there. Never having any time for that massive collection of the Human Experience is even worse because that leaves us alone, only an observer of the rest of Humanity.
Essentially, the time we spend away from 'Real Life' is not necessarily time spent away from living; it can be time spent understanding why we are living and that we are not the only ones doing it. When someone can create a virtual reality powerful enough to make you feel something you love to feel or desperately want to, it can make real reality feel unreal for just a second, and that is something that is worth all of the shortcomings of living here, in a little dark box, pretending to walk around and trying to figure out what the hell is really going on.