Sunday, October 3, 2010

How real is a game?

I sometimes get into minor arguments with people about whether games can be considered real or not. And most importantly, if an action in a game can count as a valid an action as in the non-virtual world. This question seems to pop up all the time so I just had to figure out - can games be said to be as real as reality?

The reason I ask this question is because it has annoyed me over my gaming years that people try to dismiss my gaming as a "waste of time". "Whatever you accomplish in a game won't be anything real anyway", they say. "Whomever you meet and whatever social interactions you might have aren't as real as seeing people face-to-face", they say. For example I had a dispute with a guildie on whether playing Guitar Hero was as real as playing a regular guitar. I thought it was, my guildie didn't think so. I have dozens of friends (and relatives) who question me spending hours in front of WoW when they spend hours in front of their TV. The point is - some people think that something being a game alone makes it less real, and therefore less important or valuable, than something that isn't a game.

Let's define reality, shall we?
Wow, I think I've bit of a nice chunk here, let's see if I can chew it. First of all we have to decide what "reality" is at all of course. Setting aside the fact that philosofers have debated over that one for 3000 years, and still not come up with a good answer, I'll still have a shot at it. Maybe we can agree that one definition of reality is that it has to be something, anything that we all can agree on so that we all can work with it, and in it, under the same conditions. Reality is a mutual agreement about what we experience. So for instance if I tell you I see a chair, it doesn't really matter if the chair is really there or not, what matters is you can agree with me that you see it, and that we both can interact with it. So in that sense, reality is what we collectively can experiene and therefor interact with.

Under that definition games are very much real. Any game requires the player, and any other player, to agree on the rules. The game doesn't copy "reality" exactly, but that isn't the point either. All we need for it to be real enough is for the players to be able to experience the same thing and act accordingly.

Going back to the arguments, I think both me and the ones arguing against would agree that under this definition a game could be as real as interacting in the non-virtual world. Now we come to the question about which action is more "valid". I won't even try to define the term "valid" because quite honestly, I don't really know what people mean when they use this term. As you can see above, I've often met people who think actions performed via the internet are less "valid" or "valuable" than actions performed face-to-face or just outside of a virtual setting (talking to someone on the phone is more valid than talking on team speak?). Because to some people this illucid "valid" equals "real".

People against make many arguments to undermine the validity of games being as "real" as the non-virtual world;

  1. You don't make any real actions in a game, it is the game making them.
  2. The players don't make their own decisions, they just follow the rules of the game, so no real actions are made.

My answers to these arguments are;
  1. Alot of actions are digital today. Everything created on a computer is digital, not just actions in a game. Besides, the player is still the one pushing the buttons. Without my deliberate action, nothing would happen on the screen. The computer is merely interpreting my input. Is a text written on a computer not real because the letters are produced by the computer? With the same argument we could say the actions of our bodies aren't real, because the brain is really the one making the action - the muscles just interpret the signals.
  2. There isn't a place in this universe where there aren't rules to follow. The way we write music, texts, live our daily lives is governed by different rules also. Deviating from these would work as well as deviating from the rules in a game - it's possible, but not if you want it to work with other people.

There seems to be a notion that virtuality puts a filter on our actions that somehow reduces their validity. Yes, it is my character that is dancing on the screen, not me. But I am the one who made it happen. I am the one who had the thought of displaying my character as dancing, and made it so.

But virtual interaction and face-to-face just aren't the same
There is no denying however that there is a difference between interacting with someone or something face-to-face, and virtually. As of yet I can't physically feel virtual things with my senses (this might change though) and I can't physically feel other people either. We're limited to visual and audible sensory input, and the tactile is hampered or removed all together (not counting touching the keyboard as tactile input from a game really). Other senses like smell and taste are pretty much removed as well. So there definitely is a difference.

Maybe we've stumbled upon something here. Maybe this is the filter people are talking about? If we remove some of the senses from our experiences, it will definitely make them less vivid. But will it also make them less real? Or less valid? Considering people can experience "reality" (aka the non-virtual world) without some senses, we could ask ourselves if their experiences are less real or valid. Is a person who can see a bird but not hear it experiencing something less real? Is his experience less valid? Yet again, they would be less vivid. We can't deny there is something missing. But I don't think they would be any less real, or any lessvalid. Besides, even someone with perfect senses would be missing alot of what really is going on around us. There are millions of colors and sounds (just to mention a fraction of things) that we can't experience. Yet what we experience is "real" even without these things.

In the 18/9-10 edition of NewScientist, one of their reporters actually went into the semi-game Second Life to explore parts of this question. The reporter was a therapist, and had heard that people had started therapy online. She wanted to find out if therapy online could be considered as real and valid as face-to-face ones. Her conclusion was, as I have mentioned too, that there definitely are some difference in virtual interaction with avatars and face-to-face interaction. It's difficult to say if these differences are good or bad, but they definitely affect us.

So, does the virtual setting change our behavior?
For instance, I wrote a paper on how ethics and moral is affected in virtual interactions. I noticed that because of the distance between people, it is often easier for people to act unethically and immoraly to eachother than if they had been face-to-face. Also people don't think of avatars as "real" people (and they're not) and because of this often forget that there is a real person behind the avatar. This was something the NS reporter also noticed. The distance removed some of our inhibition. This could be a good thing as well, especially in a therapeutic environment where alot of the point is to "let go". But it also affects our moral and ethical choices, as I have written about before.

This relationship - increased distance = lowered moral inhibition - isn't unique to the internets though. Anyone knows that not seeing the one you're affecting will make it easier to make immoral choices about them. It is way easier to hurt someone you don't see than someone you see. When there's a catastrophe people (or media anyway) always seem to think that the loss of 3 countrymen was infinitely more horrible than the loss of 10.000 other people. They are closer to us, so they are more real right? When bows where first introduced into wars this was one of the main issues. Shooting someone was morally easier than stabbing someone. The same with guns, and eventually wars didn't even mean you had to be on location anymore. Just send a missile.

Another thing that is lost is body language. This is part of what makes avatars seem unreal to us. Most of our virtual communication is text-based, something that differs greatly from face-to-face communication where some 70-90% of our communication is body language. Your facial expression, the way you hold your hands, your tone of voice are all some of the things that are lost in most virtual interaction (especially in WoW). We can use cams and microphones if we really want to, but fact is that most interaction over the internets (and in games especially) is made without it.

The NS reporter however (who's name I unfortunately forgot to remember), noted that when voice and body language was removed, text communication became way more ellaborate. We use signs and express ourselves more clearly to make our points. We explain our body language through text instead with *smiles*, *shrugs*, *waves* etc. This isn't the same as regular body language at all. Regular body language is mostly unconscious whereas virtual body language is very conscious. No one will know you're sad unless you make the decision to tell them so. And a sad smiley won't be as personal as your sad face is.

But that doesn't mean a sad face conveys a less real emotion. When someone say they're sad, or happy, or anything else, we can assume they really feel that way or that they're lying. It may be more difficult to hide your feelings face-to-face, but it is still possible. So when someone looks sad we have to assume they either really feel that way or that they're faking it (or that we've misunderstood their expression).

I think virtual interaction is something we will learn to do better and better. It is still something that is fairly new to us. I don't think virtual communication is doomed to be less effective, we just haven't mastered it yet (and tbh, people 15 years younger than me actually already seem to have).

Then what makes an action valid or not?
Maybe the validity of a an action shouldn't be based on what is done, but why it is done. Whatever we do we either do it avoid discomfort or provide comfort. They might sound like the same thing, but they're not. Avoiding discomfort is doing something you'd really rather wouldn't, but not doing it proves more discomforting than doing it. Providing comfort is an action we don't have to do but choose to do because we want to. In that sense, playing a game because we'd feel bad if we didn't (closing in on addictive behavior) is a less valid action than playing it simply because it amuses us. It is a tricky argument however, with many ifs and buts, and I hate to explain anything sounding like Freud. This would be completely based on subjective reports, but so is research on pain for instance. The point is, perhaps only you can tell whether what you do is a worthwhile, real and valuable action. When it comes to human behavior there probably never will be a definite solution though (although Asimov hoped for one) ^^.

This is a question that won't be easily solved, and that hasn't been the goal of this post either. I have tried to shed some light into this matter, thrown some points into thhe blender and maybe you've gotten a general idea about the problems. I'd like to conclude with the same words as the NS reporter as she concluded the differences between virtual interactions and face-to-face;

"The emotions are real. The rewards are real. Only the location is fake."

1 comment:

  1. Quasi-philosophy is right up my alley. I'll read an comment at the same time, so it might be that I prematurely bring up arguments you later use.
    The comment was to long to post in one post. In fact when copied into word it became 3 pages long.
    So... eh... I think I'll mail it to you instead.