Friday, August 1, 2008

The Seduction of Red Pixels

Violence is fascinating. This is not merely an opinion, but an empirical truth, based on how much we as a species seem to enjoy visiting it upon others. Or watching it. Or, as the title of this post suggests, simulating it.

I for one am not afraid to admit that I love it. I derive great satisfaction out of walking into a room filled with balaclavaed bad guys as Max Payne, an Ingram in each hand and filling it with lead and red mist. I get a wonderful rush from engulfing US bases with nuclear fire in C&C Generals. In Master of Orion 2, I will happily engage in genocide if a species isn't productive enough, is particularly belligerent or is just plain ugly. Blowing up populated planets is like biting into a particularly classy brand of dark chocolate. Utterly sinful. Absolutely delicious.

Computer graphics being what they are these days, there's really not much left to the imagination. Really, what board game or CCG can give you that moment of bullet-time joy from a beautifully executed headshot? The sharp bark of the sniper rifle, the puff of red mist, the glaring red stain on the wall, all modelled in pixel-perfect detail...

It feels GOOD. We LIKE that feeling! Simulated life and death with the click of a mouse is one of the great inventions of our era! Relish it! Revel in it! To hell with lining up falling blocks and jumping on turtles! We want guns and bombs! Spear and sword! Mechs and death rays! But... do please remember where we draw the line.

I've been a gamer for quite a long time. Not very hardcore. A bit of a n00b, really. But I daresay I've been at it long enough to know well enough the mind of the gamer. Well, long enough to know what a n00b is, at any rate. And I know enough about gamers to say that almost all gamers draw a very sharp, dark line indeed between the game world and the real world.

Well, take Doom 3. What sticks in the mind of the gamer are things like the fact that it's an FPS, fairly old school, beautifully rendered and that Mars is really, really dark and in need of some duct tape. What we don't dwell on are the gribbly bits. No, really we don't. Mostly because the gribbly bits are really, really gribbly. Let me describe the opening minutes of one of the later levels...

The elevator stops and the doors hiss open, as sci-fi doors are wont to do. The elevator was pretty dim, but you're greeted with near-pitch black darkness, punctuated with the sharp flicker of semi-functional lights. What you can make out through the strobing and the thin smoke of dying fires are walls and floors of steel. Well, the floor's probably steel, judging from the sound your boots make as you pick your way through the gloom. You can't really see the floor because it's completely covered with blood. And fellow marines, mostly in smallish chunks. Judging from the splatter patterns on the walls, the corridor you're walking in was subject to a lot of very messy, very wet violence. Pleas for help are written in great red smears on the wall. Somehow the shotgun in your hands isn't quite so comforting anymore, so you pull out a bigger gun...

Now, if this were IRL*, it would be some seriously twisted stuff. Hell, I think I'd have to be treated for PTSD if I saw a marine in several pieces on the floor around me. But hey, it's all in happy little pixels on your screen so it's all good, right? Because, really, if you're thinking too much about what's all over the floor, you'll end up there pretty quickly yourself, coz Doom 3's that kinda game.

But the fact of the matter is that the line between gameworld and IRL is fiercely reinforced by the interface. No matter how perfectly modelled the graphics are or how high the quality of the speakers, the gamer is physically separated from gameworld, projecting only a small part of himself into it with mouse and keyboard. I've never fired a gun in my life, but I'm guessing the kick of an AK-47 is pretty far removed from the click of a mouse.

When I think about this, I can't help but feel a little afraid. As things are now, the interface is what stands between me as I am now and the angel of death I become in gameworld. The distinction is clear as day, if not clearer. Out here, I am me. In gameworld, I'm someone else. It's that simple. But what if the interface becomes more advanced, moving on towards a more immersive gaming experience?

Any dyed-in-the-wool gamer would want that. To feel with his own hands the heft of gun and sword. To know the exhilaration of battle without the consequences. Without the consequences. That's the issue isn't it?

I've been on the net long enough to know that the upper limits of human endeavour are always being pushed back. At the same time, I am often harshly reminded that the lower limits of human depravity are being pushed back just as hard, if not harder. Anyone familiar with 2 girls 1 cup would know that. Especially if they saw the responses and attempts to out-do 2 girls 1 cup**.

I'm not sure I want greater immersion. As a gamer, I want there to always be something between me and the monster I become in gameworld. I want to dismember a battalion of stormtroopers, knowing that if I close my eyes, I will feel a mouse under my hand, not a lightsaber. And when I open them again, I want to know I'm looking at a screen, not the blank eyes staring out of the severed head of my latest victim. I don't want the feeling of having taken lives without all of my senses firmly reminding me: This is not real.

But what is it I'm afraid of? Well, I wouldn't call this a fear of the unknown, exactly. What I'm afraid of is the blurring of the line. There's something truly abhorrent about people learning to take a human life without remorse. It's a phenomenon that I've read into a bit, dehumanization. Dehumanizing the victim, thinking of them as faceless bad guys or subhuman. Dehumanizing yourself, losing your sense of empathy or diverting responsibility to someone else.

With that in mind, I approve of video game violence as it is now. I think it throws reality into sharp relief. I like to get up after a session of meaningless carnage, and be reminded of the world around me and know, I am human. I want to be firm in the knowledge that I could not bring myself to bear a weapon in anger against another human IRL.

But that's just me.

*In Real Life.

** If you haven't seen 2 girls 1 cup, I will tell you now, you don't want to. Trust me on this. This isn't a reverse psychology thing. Just... don't.

1 comment:

Rambling Alcoholic said...

Dear readers. I have seen 2 girls 1 cup as mentioned by Cheng. For the sake of your health, keeping your dinner and overall mental well-being, please do not google for it.

*makes u wanna see whats it all about even more, right?*