When Reality Bleeds

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Two ravers are discussing how ridiculous it is that videogames are blamed for inciting killing sprees. “Yeah,” one says to the other. “We grew up playing Pac-Man, and it’s not like we’re running around in the dark, popping pills, and listening to repetitive electronic music.”

Pac Man designer wants to make you cry.This internet joke is funny on one level, but vaguely unsettling on another. Have we been affected by videogames in ways we’re not even aware of? Obviously our culture has been affected by videogames, but do games have a lasting subliminal impact on an individual’s intellectual and emotional self?

Of course they do.



In a post on gamegirladvance.com, “Play=Life in GTA3,” the author describes how much playing Grand Theft Auto 3 (Rockstar Games, 2001) has affected the risks she takes while driving. The scores of “me too!” comments after the article is testament to how common the feeling is.

I was walking down the street and I noticed a store was selling silver jewellery. It occurred to me that I needed silver, but I couldn’t remember for what. Ah yes, to close the interdimensional rift. I had been playing Evil Dead: Fistful of Boomstick (THQ, 2003), and I’d learned that I needed to find silver to close the vortices to stop the hordes of zombies. If it had been a magic crystal, I probably wouldn’t have put it in the same memory slot — but as it was, “silver” was beside bus tickets, bread and orange juice in my mental shopping list.

Horrified yet?

A lot of gamers downplay the moments when their virtual worlds bleed into their reality. They realize it makes them sound Columbine. And even if they love games, they’re often a little freaked out by their own brains. That’s a shame, because if they looked at it closely they’d realize that there’s lots of things that are just as affecting.

When people talk about how affecting a movie is, they mean it as a compliment. “It changed the way I look at baseball,” says a sap leaving Field of Dreams. Fight Club was very good to boxing gyms. For a long time, I had the opinion that if a movie affected me it was ipso facto a good movie. Then I saw Bad Lieutenant.

On my way home after the movie, which features Harvey Keitel as a seedy police officer, I looked around at my fellow subway passengers with different eyes. Everyone seemed fallen, suspect, nauseating. Certainly the movie affected me powerfully, and I’m not going to argue whether that made it better art (that’s another discussion). I just know that I didn’t like it.

I had a similar experience when I was playing Hitman: Codename 47 (Eidos Interactive, 2000). You awake without memory, in a hospital. A disembodied voice trains you in the way of the knife and gun, and dispatches you to assassinate a variety of targets.

As a tall, bald westerner, you perhaps aren’t the best choice to silently murder the heads of two rival triad gangs, but that’s your mission. You garrotte the limo driver when he takes a piss in an alley and dress in his uniform to accomplish this. Your mission also states that you have to make it look like they killed each other — and that’s only the beginning of the disembodied voice’s plan. After a few levels of being his tool, I felt too greasy to go on.

While these “realistic” depictions of corrupt and venal killers are a justifiable reaction against the squeaky-clean action hero who always kills with moral backing, the question remains: how much grit can you stomach in your media diet? Continuing that metaphor, what appetite you have for a certain type of media is also reflective of you, not just of the medium that’s taking the heat.

But movies are passive and games are active, you say, there’s a big difference.

We’re used to the pitfalls of passive entertainment while interactivity still seems deadly and exotic. Everyone who isn’t addicted to television craves movies, and so there’s a consensus that staring at something for hours on end is normal. I think this difference between active and passive entertainment is like the difference between talking and listening: just doing one all the time gives you a skewed view of the world. It’s also important to note that the excitement around first-person shooters doesn’t come from nowhere — it owes a lot to the fact that you get to “be” the action hero from movies, a medium that’s nurtured the fascination with gunplay and power for so long that it goes nearly unnoticed nowadays.

The designer of Pac-Man(Midway, 1980), when he wasn’t secretly plotting the invention of the rave subculture, had pretty lofty ambitions when it came to the future of video games. In the wake of its popularity, Toru Iwatani was asked what he wanted to do next. He said that he’d like to make a game that makes people cry. When a videogame does affect mass culture in this subtle way, it will be a profound moment. One that will mirror the undocumented moment when, for the first time, sniffles were heard in the darkness of a movie theatre.

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4 Comments

  1. James Schellenberg on

    Jim —
    Great column, you raise some excellent points. I have another example of what you’re talking about, in a slightly different context. My 3 year old nephew loves playing Lego Racers, which is great game for kids (I kinda enjoy it myself!). But he also loves to crash into things and now he wants his mom to crash her minivan into other cars when they are on the road. I can claim as a grown-up that I can differentiate fantasy from reality (debatable, as you pointed out), but what about a kid?
    I don’t have an answer, and I’m not raising this to say that computer games are bad. But it’s made me take a closer look at what’s influencing me.

  2. As usual, I am inspired by your work. When I read, “the difference between talking and listening: just doing one all the time gives you a skewed view of the world,” I think of how much trouble I have recounting things to my wife and others. I’m pretty sure I think clearly, but shit if I can’t tell a story and have the feeling that the listener has any idea why I told it or what the fuck it meant.
    Ever since picking up Flyboy. . . on accident, I have rediscovered my need to read. Now for the next step–I must write more. I must learn to communicate clearly and effectively on a regular basis. Shit, I don’t even play video games anymore. . .THANKS JIM!!!

  3. animal crossing kind of bleeds into my life differently. because the game plays in real time with real timed events you can’t separate the game from your life unless you cheat and set the clock back. fortunately i’ve paid off my house and don’t have any more debt to pay off, but when i first got the game i’d run home from work early to turn the lighthouse on or get up early before 6 in the morning to do aerobics with my animal neighbors. i even skipped church before to buy turnips to sell later in the week. my friends thought i was insane, unless they owned animal crossing for themselves.

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