Supplanting Reality

At first, I had a hard time telling my friends about my new puppies. I was genuinely excited when I picked them out of the litter, and I had a lot of fun trying to train them. Sure, puppies aren’t the most obedient things, but even when they’re disobeying you it’s hard not to smile. Despite the smiles, I was still reluctant to talk about them. It wasn’t because of the geeky names I’d chosen for them (my German Shepherd pup was named Peach, while I called my baby boxer Bowser), and it wasn’t because my friends were all cat people. Nor were they traumatized by wet puppy noses as children. It was, in fact, because my landlord didn’t allow dogs, because Peach and Bowser didn’t really exist, and because I didn’t want my friends to think I was crazy.

My pets, of course, lived in the world of Nintendogs, Nintendo’s surprise phenomenon “game” that gives everyone, even gamers who’ve had their attention spans chiseled away to nil, the chance to raise abbreviated dogs. You wouldn’t call Nintendogs a pet-raising simulator, because real puppies don’t leave the floor nice and clean if you ignore them for a few hours, real puppies don’t simply get more sleepy if you haven’t fed them for a few days, and real puppies don’t place first in a Frisbee championship after four hours of training. However, it does give you a taste of dog ownership.

It’s all these simplifications and accelerations when compared to real doggie life that make this an entertaining game and, to some degree, make it sound an awful lot like Bandai’s global sensation Tamagotchi pocket eggs, which enabled gamers to care for a fat, little, pixilated alien. However, the roots of this genre of game date back long before the first trendy digital devices, back before there were any digital devices at all – back to the first dolls.

Now, playing Nintendogs isn’t exactly the same as changing the diaper on a Baby Pee-Pee Pants doll, but the similarities are there. Both require a modicum of the same care and attention of the real thing, while neither delivers quite the same level of negative feedback should you slack off on your duties. Your doll certainly isn’t going to die on you, and neither are your digital puppies … in fact, they just run away if you aren’t holding up your end of the bargain. Most importantly, though, both deliver a small taste of the satisfaction and reward of raising the real thing.

But can you really get attached to a replica? Can you really fall in love with a puppy that exists only in polygons, or some other digital reinterpretation of something real? Earlier this year, when Mark Allen of the New York Times spent a few days at home with Nuvo, a funny little robot from Japan with little practical purpose beyond companionship, he found himself quite enamored with the little … guy? Doll? Toy? Gizmo? “When Nuvo’s four-day visit ended,” he said, “I felt oddly alone. I miss its weird, nonverbal companionship, the small ways it entertained me. Sometimes I look around the room, hoping to witness one of its mechanical flubs, so strangely reminiscent of a lover’s emotional outbursts.”

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If Mark’s feelings are anything to go by, yes, you certainly can get quite attached to something that isn’t alive. I myself found that while poking at Peach or Bowser with a stylus wasn’t nearly as rewarding as scratching the belly of a real puppy, it was satisfying in its own way, enough to make the pains of a forced dogless life at home a little more bearable. I was initially reluctant to buy the game, thinking it would only make me long for a real puppy more. However, Nintendogs created quite the opposite effect, more or less reducing the perceived need. I got a taste of dog ownership while suffering virtually none of the drawbacks; I could play with and train my pups whenever I got a chance, and if I needed to turn them off for a day or two, they were still happy to see me when I turned them back on and called their names.

So maybe digital avatars can give a sense of friendship or companionship, but what about more deep seated longings? Can games address those, too, and to some degree, assuage them? In Japan, at least, there’s compelling evidence that they can. Think of the incredible popularity of dating sims among Japanese gamers. There are hundreds of romantic video games there that feature nothing more explicit than a modest bathing suit or more titillating than a kiss on the cheek, yet they sell like hotcakes, and their success extends far beyond the games themselves. Players genuinely become attached to the characters they’re trying to digitally woo, spending their salaries on figurines and posters depicting them, even dressing up like them; trying to make them real. These games give some small outlet and feeling of connection for shy, reclusive gamers who otherwise would have none. Whether it’s a healthy connection is another topic altogether.

There are more materialistic desires that videogames can help to assuage as well. It’s often been said that it takes a large fortune to make a small one in motor racing, and while that hasn’t stopped many filthy rich people from pilfering away their future heirs’ inheritance on the track, not everyone has a large fortune to start with. Whether you like it light and easy like Polyphony’s GT4 or hard and raw like SimBin’s GTR, driving sims offer varying degrees of difficulty and realism to suit different levels of personal achievement – and do it at a ridiculously miniscule cost when compared to the real thing.

Online racing leagues take the realistic physics of driving sims and mix in the unpredictable behavior of humans, creating a surprisingly authentic-tasting cocktail of adrenaline and pressure. Screw up and crash into the leader and you can be sure you’ve ruined some real human being’s night. Get pushed into the wall, yourself, and the money you’ll need to fix the repairs won’t be real, but the feelings of frustration and disappointment will be. So, too, will be the feelings of exhilaration should you get the win.

So, at least in certain circumstances, virtual or otherwise non-living things can help to ease the longings to follow a dream one might suffer, thanks to a lack of money, a lack of charisma to attract a mate or simply a lack of time to do anything of substance. These replications can give you some sort of feeling of emotional connection, and while nobody would argue that these replica sensations come anywhere near the power of the real thing, these substitutes have one major advantage: They work on our schedule.

As civilization becomes more advanced and the idea of a nine-to-five work day becomes more and more quaint, people’s lives are beginning to happen in smaller increments. Someone who really wants to own and train a puppy to become a championship Frisbee-catcher would need to make a major commitment to the dog, teaching it everything from its name all the way up to exactly when to jump to make that leaping catch. This commitment of time and money would need to take priority over most other aspects of the owner’s life. Certainly, there are plenty of people for whom this model works, but for many of today’s young and even not-so-young professionals, that kind of thing just doesn’t jive.

So, is it better to make the full commitment, to spend the full time and money, to change your life so that you can reap the full rewards of your passion? Or, is it better to go the virtual route, to keep your crazy and hectic life, but to enjoy your irregularly scheduled moments of time with your virtual pup, cel-shaded girlfriend or digitized Ferrari? While their convenience and easy appeal is alluring, it’s all too easy to fall out of love with a mesh of polygons or circuitry when the next big thing comes along. But, some folks simply don’t have a choice in the matter. Ultimately, a real pup doesn’t have a power button but, when he puts his head on your lap while you’re typing away on your computer, you might just feel OK about putting the work aside for 30 minutes and going for a bit of a walk … for your dog’s sake, of course.

Tim Stevens is a freelance gaming journalist. His work can be seen online at Yahoo! Videogames and the Global Gaming League, in print in metro.pop and Phuze magazines, and on TV on G4’s X-Play.

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