Op-Ed

Op-Ed
Perfect Imperfect

Sean Sands | 30 May 2007 17:30
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Imagine you are in an urban combat zone. The heat of the pavement is distorting the air, the distance hazy with particulate debris, and somewhere nearby there is a deafening explosion, as anti-personnel mines detonate and someone begins to wail. You are under distressingly thin cover, exposed on three sides and pinned down. Your partner signals that he is going to lay suppressing fire and you are to make way toward the nearest building some 20 yards away, across a gnarled street with burning cars. He stands and fires one shot. His face implodes, and he wrinkles back and collapses dead. Now you alone are left, and there is the sound of gunshots ... and running footsteps.

Now imagine you're playing a videogame. It is not a videogame quite as you know it, because the detail of the visuals, the purity of the sound, the feel of the world itself, is hyper real. The only indications you are playing a game are perhaps a floating reticule centered in your vision and of course the notably absent pain, but what your other senses insist is virtual your eyes and ears demand is real.

So compelling is this game you lose yourself in it entirely while playing. Your limbic processes issue fight-or-flight responses while you engage entrenched enemies onscreen. There is the nagging hint of mortal fear. The sick thwack of bullets hitting kevlar or flesh is as gruesome as the keenly modeled physics of bodies going limp. You are at war.

The gameplay itself is designed to mimic battlefield conditions, the technology in place to allow the game to simulate real-time conditions with thousands of players competing for virtual space. The game is some kind of realization of the idea first composed by titles like World War II Online and the Battlefield series, where a virtual world hundreds of square miles wide soaks in the blood of thousands of soldiers. Death is grim, constant and disturbingly lifelike. The corpses of dead soldiers remain strewn across the conflict for hours, sometimes becoming makeshift camouflage and cover. And when you inevitably meet a mortal wound, there is a moment, just a moment, where all the combined virtual reality comes together to make the primal stump of your brain believe your death might be real, as well.

As I think about this game of some coming decade, I'm both tantalized by its concept and turned off by its realism. There is, for me, some line that might eventually be crossed where the effort to marry reality and virtual reality might be too real and by extension too disturbing. I love videogames for the separation from reality, and the closer games get to producing real-world situations and conditions, the more uncomfortable I become.

Game developers are inexorably seeking technology to create images that approach and mimic real life, and I wonder if there are some scenes, some images, I'm better off not seeing, virtual or otherwise. Or, at least, I only want to be exposed to these situations in some stylized, obviously virtual world with clear barriers from reality. Marry that to directional sound, and I anticipate and fear the incredible potential for complete immersion in the near future.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that as videogame violence becomes more real, somehow it will breed violence in our culture as many people already suggest. But, there is a difference between videogames and other forms of media entertainment by virtue of the participatory nature of gaming, and whether games run the risk of desensitizing me or not is irrelevant. There are some things I just don't want to experience or participate in. Watching a violent movie feels very different than playing a violent videogame; watching the movie, I'm a casual observer rather than a willing participant. It's one thing when the streets of, say, Liberty City are obviously artificial, but what if just by looking and listening I couldn't discern the pleas of a carjacked mother from a live image? Would I be so casual? Would I want to play?

No, probably not. I need the disbelief there so I can choose to suspend it.

We are seeing the first ethical questions of virtual reality raised. Is there moral ambiguity, for example, in recreating September 11 with Flight Simulator, or creating war games based on current conflicts, or releasing games or mods that involve violence in schools? Can gaming even address these topics in meaningful ways, or does participating in the actions themselves destroy the credibility?

These are questions for which I have no answers. What I do know is I feel compelled to distance myself from games that seem too real, and I'm troubled by an industry that seems infatuated with coming as close as possible to recreating real pain and real death.

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