An interesting discussion yesterday on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about video games combined with some insightful comments by students on Cronenberg’s eXistenZ have me thinking about video games, reality and the relationship between them. A common complaint I hear about games is that they “replace reality,” or that they become the only reality for the players. Indeed, we have heard stories about people spending 16 hours a day on Everquest, losing their jobs, and sacrificing RL friendships, which most would agree is not good, but are these people’s realities any less real than nongamers? Most people do not fall into the extreme category, but many of us play games. In eXistenZ, those who argue against games, the aptly-named realists, charge that the immersive virtual reality games in the movie distort reality, and game makers need to be punished. These people seem silly and mechanical, knee-jerking at the idea of a reality that takes place via a game that interfaces with the nervous system. The counterpoint, given by the main character Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is that by not gaming, people are denying themselves access to new forms of reality, a “cage of [their] own making”. Granted, this character does turn out to be a realist in the outermost layer of the film, once it is revealed that what we took for reality was another game, but even then she seems, like the others, to be a shallow reactionist.
All of this begs the question of what is reality? When people claim that gamers are missing out on reality by immersing themselves in electronically produced worlds, what, exactly, do they mean? How is playing a game any less real than driving a car, sleeping, watching tv, making love, or talking on the phone? I am still doing someting, whether twitching my fingers on a gamepad, listening to music, or thinking about the day. I still exist. In what ways and to what extent is all of our existence virtual? When I email a friend or check myspace for recent activity, am I missing out on reality because I am not face-to-face? When I play The Sims, am I doing something less real than when I teach a class?
And what about networked, massively multiplayer online games? The cable guy told me he met his wife on Everquest. As strange as it sounds, how is that not real life? He moved from Texas to Michigan and got a job as a cable guy because of his gameplaying. When the worlds are virtual, but collaboratively built, the notion of “reality” changes. When virtual worlds are malleable enough that users’ desires shape the economy, topography and society of the game, they become more and more like this thing we call real life. I think that is what is so scary to some, why eXistenZ, with its all-encompassing sensory input and the undecidability regarding what, ultimately, is real becomes something people fear. My question is: what is so important and special about non-digitally mediated reality that we want to preserve it at all costs? And is this even possible?