Contrary to popular belief I don’t think print is dead. I’m compelled to believe this because I read a lot of print. The tactile feedback of a decent page, the smell of fresh paper, and that little bit of ink you occasionally get on your hands, doesn’t compare in my mind to the ease of use that digital offerings allow us to have. But I will say one thing about print, there’s too many ads. I as a writer I appreciate good articles, but I hate it when good articles are sandwiched between the endless padding of promotional material. Although on the off chance ads can bring you something interesting, like the other day when I received my issue of [s]GameInformer[/s] a popular gaming magazine.
It was an ad for Battlefield 4, nothing too impressive, but a good looking two-page ad. However I did notice something odd, this little bit of text protruding out of the fine print like a candy bar desperate to escape the pocket of a pair of spandex shorts. The statement read:
“The depiction of any weapon or vehicle in this game does not indicate affiliation, sponsorship or endorsement by any weapon or vehicle manufacturer.”
I thought about this. Endorsement, I get it, DICE isn’t telling you to go out and buy Tanks and Tank manufactures aren’t telling you to go buy Battlefield. Sponsorship, that makes total sense considering the box doesn’t say Remington’s Battlefield 4 on the cover. But affiliation, that doesn’t make total sense. I understand that DICE and Battlefield aren’t readily invested with a weapons manufacturer, but they certainly are affiliated. They have the designs and names of weapons and vehicles, which they had to license and affiliate themselves with and in-turn, the creators of those weapons and vehicles. That is a form of affiliation.
Before I continue, I don’t own any guns, I don’t use guns, and I don’t have any problems with guns. But what I do feel about guns, I feel very strongly. I think they are tools, no less. They are interesting devices that good people can use for the wrong reasons and bad people can use for even worse ones. But I also feel that in violent media, you can never truly divorce yourself from violence and the tools people use for violence. Now I’m sure as we all know firing a “real” gun is different than pulling a plastic trigger or left-clicking. But are the guns that you are firing in-game “real” guns? Let’s think about what defines “real”.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines real as “1. Existing as a thing or occurring as a fact, not imaginary. 2. Genuine, natural, not imitation. 3. True, complete, worthy of the name.”
Firstly, in-game guns are rendered and have use in a 3D environment. They are also accurate visual replicas to “real” guns. Existing as a thing, check. Considering that most guns in games are licensed replicas of ones that you can use here in real life, they are considered genuine by their creators and not imitation, check. Often, developers get in-touch with gun manufacturers to make sure that the digital version lives up to the standard of the real thing. Worthy of a name, check. Even if the guns you use in a game may be totally fake, and highly depending on which game you play, the bullets ejected by said fake gun may have extremely real ballistics simulation. But then again, they are also very imaginary, so that detracts from their overall “realness”.
So as far as we as humans define “real” in the English language, for all intents and purposes, in-game guns are technically real. They look real, preform realistically, and have realistically accurate bullets. Sure you can’t take a 3D rendered gun and shoot someone with it, but purely in definition they could be considered real. And for that matter, is anything else in a game “real”?
The creativity exhibited by Minecraft players is real creativity. The relationships garnered from the hundreds of hours of playing an MMO are real relationships. But those are both things that we can accomplish without games, things we have an analog for in real life. Do we have an analog for guns in real life too? Obviously yes, but when you think about it a lot of people don’t. In countries where guns are legal there are hundreds if not thousands of people that have never touched a gun, let alone shoot one. In large parts of the world guns are illegal, and most people that live in those areas will never use one, especially the military-grade kinds found in games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. These people are so far removed from the experience of a gun the only understanding they have of it comes from games and movies.
It’s about this time that I began to think, “What kind of things in real life do most of us not have an analog for, but are easily available in games?” Immediately it hit me: Surgeon Simulator. Most of us can farm if we wanted to, could learn how to fly, and possibly conduct a train, but out of all the simulated practices available to gamers, the art of Surgery seems to stick out like a sore thumb. It something that has an extremely high barrier of entry - you can’t be squeamish, you have to go through medical school and become a Doctor, then you have to specialize two-to-three times over depending on what kind of surgery you want to perform. That’s not even including the time spent in clinicals, or simply being cut out for the job like having the steady hands of a good surgeon. But in Surgeon Simulator, you can start trying to preform medicine in a relatively instant amount of time – albeit with the precision of a meth addled chimpanzee.
Games like Kerbal Space Program are doing exactly the same thing, taking an experience that requires a lifetime of expertise and planning and condensing it into a 30-minute to hour session. With Kerbal Space Program you can become an Astronautics Engineer in the time it takes to download the game and play a tutorial. Most of us will never design and fly a “real” spacecraft, but according to the physics model inside of Kerbal, we are. As far as we, and the game knows, that spacecraft is real, as well as the space-faring Kerbals inside. The actions we take are real, the design decisions are real, even the outcome of a poorly planned launch is technically real.
Games with “real” ways to play them usually have a low state of failure, with no real risk associated with their reality. For example, I, in real life, can perform surgery and drop every utensil I use into the chest cavity of a patient. I can also do that in Surgeon Simulator. But the difference between the hilarity of doing it the simulator and the horrifying malpractice that would occur in real life is immense. Just like in the same way that a Space Shuttle crash in real life is horrifying and terrible, but the same event in Kerbal Space Program is just another part of the learning process. But are there games that fully embrace their realism, not allowing the player to fall-back on the tropes of a game? Yup. DayZ, SimCity, Civilization, are just a few that come to mind. These games all force the player to deal with the real-life consequences of their actions. Death in DayZ means you lose all your character’s progress and items, making the respawn all the more vulnerable. Poor planning in a SimCity could lead to years of pollution, a bad economy, and very unhappy citizens. Even the best games of Civilization have gone on for months ultimately climaxing in full nuclear war.
Maybe that’s the point of games, to explore elements of the human experience and extrapolate that into a palatable and playable experience. To allow us to create an understanding of another person’s reality and life experiences. The common cliche of video games transporting us to another world can be actually true if we allow it. If we share the good with the bad, and allow ourselves to not only enjoy the reality of simulation but the potentially horrible consequences of that simulation, couldn’t we further understand the world around us and how it operates in a safe and accurate manner? With the coming generations crafting new ways to interface with the world around us and augmented reality becoming more of a tangible and accessible thing, could the future of games be unflinchingly “real”. I certainly hope so.