Friday, December 1, 2000

Uni Essays (1997-2000): "How is ESCAPISM in computer games different to traditional forms of storytelling?"

I found the old essays I wrote for my Arts Degree at Melbourne University (1997 - 2000), and decided to upload some for historical interest and general self-reflective purposes! 

"All forms of narrative allow people to momentarily escape the restrictions and limitations of their own lives by entering the world of fiction.  How does escapism in computer games work differently from traditional forms of story telling?"

Subject: Computer Games - Interactive Spectatorship

by Murray Lorden (2000)

In reality, you quickly get used to the fact that there are physical and social rules and boundaries, which have a very real influence over the limitations of your everyday life.  It is through the frames of entertainment forms that we experience a world outside the borders of our own lives, and are freed from the restrictions and strains of everyday life.  When you turn on a computer game, a whole new world of possibilities suddenly opens before you, allowing you to virtually transcend your own physical and social boundaries, and perform in one of these virtual dramas.  

All forms of narrative allow for this escape because you can become mentally and emotionally involved in the performance of a drama that occurs within a frame that excludes real life.  Everything outside the frame can be momentarily dismissed.  And these bordered worlds allow for narratives with closure, resolution and meaning; things which defy stability in real life, hence the allure of the frame.  

People yearn for something that will allow them to dismiss their life from their mind; to focus their attention on a sustained narrative that is alternate to their own lives.  Even oral traditions of storytelling have this attribute of inclusion and exclusion, even if there is no physical frame.  One such computer game narrative that I became heavily involved in was Half Life by Valve Software.  Half Life is a first person shooter (FPS) which takes its themes from a wide variety of genres, such as survival horror, action and war films.

Computer games allow for a special type of escapism that focuses on the user as both spectator and performer simultaneously.  Generic conventions have become so highly ritualised and formulaic, with an audience that is so familiar with them, that the conventions become the currency of pleasure in themselves.  The narrative conventions now make up the content of an interactive medium whereby the audience must trigger the next event themselves to forward the narrative, and their heroism is measured by their competency at performing within the conventions of the game world.  

These illusionistic realities appear at once related to real life, while at the same time being outside the sphere of reality.  In this process of the exclusion of your own worries and concerns, you are still associating things from your own life to the drama in the frame, but the frame allows you to sideline those real-life concerns by focusing in on the narrative event at hand.  For example, while playing Half Life, I would get deeply engrossed in the challenges of the game, thus “tuning out” of my real life concerns.

Such entertainment also offers a safety zone, in which the game’s entities and inhabitants can be depended on to make sense and remain consistent.  In the case of computer games, a whole environment and its inhabitants can be depended on to behave in a set way.  This allows the user to comprehend them completely, “master” them, and perfect their own performance in that environment.  Our real world lacks defined rules and boundaries.  In these games, you can attain a level of control and autonomy that is not possible in real life.  In Half Life, you become more and more familiar with the behaviour and movements of the enemy units, and with your own arsenal of weaponry, and after long enough you become an veritable master at controlling your avatar and manipulating the environment.

Games have not legitimised themselves institutionally in the way that other forms of artistic production have.  Perhaps this is because, instead of becoming immersed in the meaning of a book or a film, in computer games, the process of engagement is more often an engagement with the challenges set by the game, such as the challenges of mastering the controls, or of “unlocking” the narrative through puzzle solving.  Computer games have certainly never been very interested in searching for “higher meaning” in things, nor have they tried to philosophise on the human condition.  The kind of escape experienced when playing a computer game is certainly very different from other types, such as absorbing yourself in cinema or literature, which often have more abstract, philosophical and internal issues as their interests.

Games are often experienced in a more segmented form where the events of the plot are likely to be played out through missions, quests or recurring scenarios.  These scenarios do not usually carry any authorial comment, as the hand of the author is more likely to be concentrating on the gameplay itself than working on the deeper meaning of the narrative events.  The emphasis is placed on the player themselves to perform the narrative in an environment laden with “moments of narrative” that are set up by the game developers.  And so, in games, we are not just allowing ourselves to be absorbed in the events occurring in the frame as we do in a film or a book, but we must actively take control of an element that exists as our proxy within the game world and show that we can play along.

This makes the process of escape into a computer game quite different from other narrative-based media.  While a film or a book is generally experienced just for the length of time it takes from start to finish, games allow for the mind to be indefinitely distracted, so long as the simulation of the game world remains appealing.  It is much like a card game in that so long as the “rules of the game” keep you engaged, you can repeat the scenario over and over and over.  Because “games” are rule-based, the outcome is different each time.  Each experience is unique and you can engage with the text indefinitely.  A good example of this is the act of playing Half Life, where the rules that govern the environment are so enthralling that I have begun the game several different times, just to “live” the same narrative events over again in a new way.  Furthermore, by being able to play Half Life in multiplayer mode against other players online, you can engage yourself in the recurring scenarios indefinitely.

Speaking of how you focus your attention into a defined frame and exclude what is outside it, Britton says, “Entertainment…defines itself in opposition to labour, or, more generally, to the large category, ‘the rest of life’, as inhabitants of which we work for others, do not, in the vast majority of cases, enjoy our labour, and are subject to tensions and pressures that the world of entertainment excludes.”

Curiously enough, the experience of playing a computer game could so often be seen as labour.  Computer games are full of problems to overcome, puzzles to solve, objective to complete and tasks to manage.  In Half Life, your main goal is to navigate your way out of the Black Mesa Research Facility and get to the surface.  You are constantly having to evade enemies, restock your supplies, maintain your equipment, and solve puzzles.  In adventure and mystery games, it can get to the point of wandering around, hopelessly stuck and lost, or getting frustrated with attempt after attempt at a puzzle you can’t solve.  But this frustration itself can still satisfy the desire to escape into the frame.  At least in computer games, you know there is an answer, it just needs to be found.  Once you solve a difficult problem, the feeling of reward is all the greater.  And unlike real life, there is always just the possibility to give up completely without negative consequences.

Britton also says, “artefacts that tell us we are being entertained (the requisite feature of the kind of product I have in mind) also tell us that they are promoting ‘escape’, and this is the most significant thing about them.  They tell us that we are ‘off duty’, and that nothing is required of us but to sit back, relax and enjoy.”  Although games require more engagement than to sit back and relax, they certainly do allow you to allocate your time as ‘off duty’.  As the player becomes involved in the game, they in fact make a contract about being on duty inside the game environment.  The player’s sense of responsibility and connection to the events in the game encourage a deep sense of escape from real life as you focus in on the challenge of the virtual realm.

Games allow you to process a specific set of rules against which you can test yourself, setting goals and achieving them, getting satisfaction from how well you understand the conventions you are negotiating with.  Therefore it is a special form of escapism, perfectly suited to making the user feel rewarded and satisfyingly occupied.  It is a way to feel as though you have a mastery over the world as a whole by mastering a particular set of rules.  This is quite different from traditional forms of entertainment, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a synthesis of many different forms of entertainment, combining narrative-based entertainment with rule-based games.

In the case of reading novels, the reader’s perception of the environment and events are always different from the author’s due to the nature of the form.  You are not explicitly shown the environment or events, but rather, they are illustrated through the abstract medium of words.  The main means of immersion is through eagerly reading on to see how the narrative unfolds, and how resolution is reached.  The performance of these events is dictated by the author, and involves the reader by engaging their expectations and desires, and by the reader’s act of mentally processing and considering the implication of the text.  Similarly, in mainstream films, you are immersed in the performance of the events of the narrative, as explicitly recorded by the process of production.  All of the dead time is taken out, and the events of the story unfold quickly and neatly, with nothing left to do except receive the product. Again, the spectator mentally processes the text, but cannot influence the performance in any way.

Hypertextual fiction still involves almost purely authorial domination.  The reader can only put together pieces of predetermined, authored work.  The same could be said about computer games, seeing that all of the game content must be pre-authored by the developers, but in the case of hypertexts, the user does not have the opportunity to perform, only to choose.  In computer games the player is given a realtime simulation of an environment rich in narrative possibilities in which to perform quite freely.

In the case of computer games, the interactivity of the text is the centre-point of the medium, and the element which really sets it apart from other forms of story-based entertainment.  It is a form in which the exact performance can sometimes surprise even the developers of the game.  The medium is less expressive than traditional story based forms due to the lack of directorial control of the performance of each moment, yet can still be very atmospheric and dramatic.  And it is especially engaging in that it requires the player to exercise their agency for the narrative to progress.  Once you learn how to effectively exercise your agency, you can achieve a strong sense of control over your environment, domination over its inhabitants and mastery over your own behaviour and actions.   Rather than just follow the plot, you must navigate the performance space, filling the appropriate role in the game based on the conventions the game draws upon.

In games, you become a force within the narrative, usually as a character involved in the narrative, usually the protagonist, or maybe even a god or overseer.  What sort of role you will play in the game is usually very clear from the beginning.  Generic conventions are used to give you clear guidelines as to how you are expected to behave in order to be successful in the game world.  For the narrative of the game to reveal itself, you must negotiate a progression through the text by understanding your position within the narrative.  The type of role you will play is usually determined by clearly defining the style of gameplay in terms of existing genres, such as action films, adventure stories, or mysteries.  Your performance within the game world is then measured in terms of how well you live up to the conventions of the genre.  For example, when playing Quake, you must show proficiency as an action hero, much like Rambo.  In Half Life, you must be proficient as a “thinking” action hero, like Bond.  In a game like Powerslide or TOCA Touring Cars, you must have the skills of an accomplished racer, like those sportsmen you see at racing events or on television.

You can also play (or replay) a game in a different way each time, or with different objectives.  Depending on your desires, the contents of the game can change in proportions, where you may decide to avoid fighting and vie for stealth in an action title.  Half Life allows you to befriend some non-player characters (NPC’s) and team up with them, cooperating in your battle against the invading aliens.  Alternatively, you can just kill them on sight, or use them for bait to shift the attention of the enemy away from yourself.  Many contemporary games are now putting an emphasis on such a diversity in possibilities of gameplay styles in the one game.  For example, the advertising slogan for Deus Ex was, “Your goal is to save the world.  How you do it is up to you!”  Still, you know it will not be by organising charity events.  Rather, it will be through your choice of the available generic conventions, such as being a cyber-punk hacker, an action man, or a stealth master, or a fluid combination of all types.  This ability to fluidly move between different roles illustrates how liberally games play off the array of generic conventions.  There are plenty of optional “side-missions” which add to this feeling of player agency, making a real difference to what story ends up being told.  This is different from traditional storytelling, in that the performance is set in stone and exactly the same every time it is told.

Speaking of today’s audience having such a familiarity with entertainment conventions, Britton describes his experience of going to the opening of a film called Hell Night.  “It became obvious at a very early stage that every spectator knew exactly what the film was going to do at every point… The film’s total predictability did not create boredom or disappointment.  On the contrary, the predictability was clearly the main source of pleasure, and the only occasion for disappointment would have been a modulation of the formula, not the repetition of it.”  Just such an ability to pre-guess the events of the narrative are the joys of computer games, where it is often your ability to perform the formula that is the test of your abilities and the measure of your success in the game world.  It is because genres have built such strong conventions that spectators are literate enough to want to perform within the array of generic conventions themselves.  

This aspect of computer games is played out well in Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character keeps repeating the same tasks over and over, trying to improve his performance through practice and repetition.  He is just a sarcastic, bitter news reporter, but wants to turn the story into a romantic narrative by altering his behaviour over recurring versions of the one day to fit the role of the romantic male.  

Computer games cannot really afford to go a long way into breaking their own narrative ground due to their interactive natures, as the player would have no way to guess at how to exercise their agency.  Games must refer to mythic conventions and other narrative works so that the player has guidelines to understand their own possibilities of agency.

Britton says that, “[entertainment forms] are primarily engaged in referring to themselves and other movies, and related media products, and in flattering the spectator with his or her familiarity with the forms and keeping of a hermetic entertainment ‘world.’ ”  This is certainly true of computer games, where the possibilities inherent in the text itself are made up of what could be seen as a database of mythic possibilities.  The game developers lay out an interactive trail of narrative possibilities, made up of their game entities, each of these built from mythic principles and signifiers.

Soon we will see the first games which use Dynamic Mission Generators, which are basically databases of narrative nodes that employ AI formulas to keep track of and administer the state of the narrative world.  Such systems will be used in up and coming Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s) such as Freelancer and BigWorld.  These are the closest things yet to Janet Murray’s concept of the multiform plot.  Such a system allows for an ongoing storyline that emerges based on player agency, generating reactions to players’ actions based on the rules of cause and effect.  It is a different kind of storytelling, where the composition of the narrative is not pre-written in a script, but exists as a complex table of possibilities with formulae being used to administer and distribute events throughout the simulated theatre of possibilities.  

It will be very interesting to see what the future of narrative theory holds, considering that the new MMORPG’s allow for unpredictable and freeform combinations of the developers’ range of narrative possibilities.  The stories are many, crossing over one another, but are experienced linearly by each individual participating in the game.  What will be made of these multi-narrative worlds, based on complex formulae of narrative “nodes”?  Where will we look to find the meaning of the game?

Computer games allow for a brand of escapism that is unlike previous narrative media.  Traditional narrative forms do not allow a dynamic mingling between the author and the spectator, whereas computer games, with their use of formulae and rule-based storytelling, emphasise the spectator’s role in helping to perform the narrative.


  • Adams, E., “Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers”, Gamasutra, 27/12/99.
  • BigWorld - Interview with the developers:
  • Bolter, J. & Grusin, R., “The Remediated Self”, Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1999.
  • Bolter, J. & Grusin, R., “The Virtual Self”, Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1999.
  • Britton, A., “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment”, Movie, Winter, 1986.
  • Crang, M., “Public Space, Urban Space and Electronic Space: Would the Real City Please Stand Up?” Urban Studies, February, vol. 37, no. 2, 2000.
  • Featherstone, M., “The Flaneur, the City and Virtual Public Life”, Urban Studies, May, vol. 35, no. 5-6, 1998.
  • Hansen, M., “Early Cinema, Late Cinema: Transformations of the Public Sphere”, Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, ed. Linda Williams, Rutgers UP, New Brunswick, 1994.
  • Jenkins, H., “Opening Remarks”, Computer and Video Games Coming of Age, transcript of Conference at MIT, 10-11 February 2000.  (
  • Laurel, B., “The Nature of the Beast”, Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley Publications, Reading, 1991.
  • Mitchell, W., “Replacing Place”, The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, ed. Peter Lunenfeld, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1999.
  • Murray, J., “The Cyberbard and the Multiform Plot”, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1997.
  • Ndalianis, A., “Evil Will Walk Once More – Phantasmagoria: The Stalker Film as Interactive Movie?”, On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMS and the Promises of a New Technology, ed. Greg Smith, New York, New York University Press, 1999.
  • Poster, M., “Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere”, Internet Culture, ed. David Porter, Routledge, New York, 1997.
  • Rutsky, R. & Wyatt, J., “Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure and the Notion of Fun”, Cinema Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, Fall, 1990.

  • Bladerunner James Cameron        1982
  • eXistenZ David Cronenburg        1999
  • The Fifth Element          Luc Besson        1997
  • Groundhog Day Harold Ramis                         1993
  • Matrix, The Andy & Larry  Wachowski      1999
  • Wayne’s World Penelope Spheeris                1992

  • Blood 2 Monolith          1998
  • Carnivores 2 Wizardworks 1999
  • Commandos Pyro          1997
  • Deus Ex Ion Storm 2000
  • EverQuest Verant 1999
  • Flight Unlimited Looking Glass Studios 1996
  • Half Life Valve 1997
  • Kingpin Xatrix 1998
  • Powerslide Ratbag 1997
  • Quake Id Software 1995
  • Quake 2 Id Software 1997
  • Quake 3 Id Software 1999
  • Sims, The Maxis 1999
  • Soldier of Fortune          Rogue 1999
  • System Shock 2 Looking Glass Studios 1999
  • Thief 2 Looking Glass Studios 1999
  • TOCA 2 Codemasters 1997
  • Tomb Raider 2          Core                                        1997
  • Ultima Online          Origin 1998

Uni Essays (1997-2000): "Do virtual public spaces pose a threat to material public spaces?"

I found the old essays I wrote for my Arts Degree at Melbourne University (1997 - 2000), and decided to upload some for historical interest and general self-reflective purposes! 

“Do virtual public spaces pose a threat to material public spaces?”

Subject: Computer Games - Interactive Spectatorship

by Murray Lorden  (2000)

With the rise of the internet, we now find ourselves in a world where a large percentage of the developed world is connected together in a network of personal computers in the home.  This allows for easy communication in the form of emails, instantly delivered messages, and also allows people to enter shared virtual three-dimensional spaces.  As the software and hardware involved improves, and as the bandwidth between users increases, these virtual public spaces will offer richer experiences and perhaps even replace the need for some of our current material public spaces.  I don’t think that this should be considered a threat, as even when a material space becomes redundant, that material space would then be repurposed, and used in a different way.

While talking about virtual public spaces, I will concentrate on multi-user networked three-dimensional spaces, as experienced in online worlds, particularly games.  These virtual spaces are the most advanced, and most used, so they are a good case to study.  Overall, these virtual public spaces have offered the chance for users to enter virtual environments in which they can play and socialise, but have not replaced the need for material public space.  People meet for very specific activities, such as playing a particular game, or discussing a particular topic.  Users who enter these areas usually do so rather than reading a book, or watching television; activities which generally occur in private space.  It is an alternative leisure activity.  

Like the telephone made “more” private space, so these online worlds make “more” public space.  They offer a virtual alternative to material communication.  However, each niche area that virtual public spaces can be used for, such as chatting or gaming, could pose a threat to their material counterparts in that they may be used instead, thus eclipsing the material alternative.  But this is not quite how we have experienced virtuality so far.  The invention of the telephone has not stopped us from talking face to face, just as emailing people has not stopped us from using the phone.  Largely, these new technologies just allow for more communication.  Virtual spaces are just extensions of the material world, and rely on this world for their meaning.

Virtual public spaces are obviously not equal to material public spaces.  Users know that they are being remediated when in these spaces.  They know that there are many layers between themselves and other users when they meet in cyberspace.  So do these virtual spaces allow for a sense of community?  We have already seen that they do.  Friendships are made online all the time; in newsgroups, and on messageboards, and in game worlds.  I personally know a friend who has now moved to America to live with a woman he met on the internet.  They are now engaged.  Such stories are becoming more and more commonplace.  The sense of community that develops in these virtual spaces is born from people sharing their similarities and commonalities.  Just like in the material world, people with similar interests and aspirations come into contact with one another and develop relationships.

In what ways are these communities different from what we are used to in the material world?  Well, there are special conditions of entry into these spaces, such as needing to have the appropriate hardware, software and know-how, but this only reflects equivalent conditions that people usually have to fulfil to enter a social group, such as having knowledge of the particular area of interest that holds the people together, and having the correct manner to fit into the social niche.  This access-barrier will become a lower and lower hurdle in the future, as cheap consoles will allow for such connection to these spaces with minimal expense and know-how.  And so as these virtual public spaces become more and more commonplace, the purpose of material public spaces may well change in focus, or perhaps they will simply remain as the place where people really come together to “meet in the flesh”.  Besides, how do you meet for a coffee online?

Playing your favourite game online is much like going to your local disco or sports field, where you will meet strangers and familiar faces alike.  Depending on whether you go with friends, or alone will change the way you experience the space.  You can enter these material spaces alone, cooperating and competing with strangers, or you can enter with a group of friends or your own regular team.  You can likewise play online games on your own, with the intention of interacting with strangers, or just stick close to some friends or your regular “clan”.  However, there is one striking difference.  In the material world, it is very likely that you will recognise those people who you have met before, but in virtual spaces, where people’s appearance can easily change completely, it is not always easy (or even possible) to familiarise yourself with other people.  This is an important distinction, and I think it goes a long way to ensure that the material world will always be the most important realm.  It is the place in which you must really prove your worth and reliability to others in the community.  It is your physical body, even when your own dealings with others are virtual, that unifies all that you do.

Playing games has always helped prepare children for their adult life.  It gives them experience in communicating with their piers, organising events, and negotiating rules.  Now, some may argue that playing games online removes the “good old fashioned, face to face qualities” of traditional game playing.  But it seems appropriate that today, games are sometimes played online, seeing that the online realm is becoming more and more important in everyday life; in business, in communications, in paying your bills, in shopping, in so many areas of adult life.  And so it is fitting that this should be part of today’s youth growing up.  And today’s games are becoming quite complex social realms.

Ultima Online, the first graphical Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) currently has over 180,000 subscribers worldwide.  And these people all socially interact.  Some people have criticised such virtual spaces as being incapable of expressing a sense of community due to the rampant player-killing and lack of direction among players.  Almost all of these games include fighting as a fairly central feature.  But this aspect of conflict is not really a phenomenon that is limited to game worlds.  It stems from the celebration of competitiveness and domination in our capitalist, material society.  Conflict is an important part of social interaction, and cannot be avoided.  It is the other half of cooperation, and you cannot have one without the other.  In fact, each works to define the other.  Conflict stems from opposed objectives, which is an integral part of life, and the process of negotiating such conflict is an important experience to practice.

In these online game spaces, there are different currencies involved in the player interaction.  Sometimes, in games such as Quake 3, these currencies are limited to health and ammo.  The reason a player plays the game is because they want to compete with those currencies.  And the performance of that competition is where the tension and glory comes from.  Just as a person embraces the types of interaction that take place in a material space they enter, thus the rules of engagement are defined by the rules of the space.

Quake 3 – Narrowband society: just guns, frags and taunts.

Quake 3 is an online only game, where the only way to play is to compete against other players.  The player with the most “frags” (kills) when the set time limit is up wins.  You can’t even put your gun away, even if you wanted to (which would be suicide).  It is basically more like a sporting event, similar to when sports teams meet once a weekend to compete.  When a player connects, sometimes they will find a few familiar people online, and build up familiarity.  Usually players from the same geographical area will find each other due to their connection speed (or “ping”) being similar.  And hence, a community can grow, much like a sporting community.  Games like Quake 3 are based on what I call “the bully paradigm”.  There is no emphasis on constructive or cooperative social interaction; domination is the only goal.  In this sense it is much like many games played in the schoolyard, including the competition and conflict involved in the social hierarchy.  

In this sense, games like Quake 3 could be considered a threat to material public spaces such as sports fields, which could become redundant if all “sport” is played online.  Yet I don’t think this will happen.  Physically playing sport is a very different activity than playing computer games, and there will always be a desire for material spaces where people can exercise and meet face to face.  Physical mastery of your own body and sense of coordination will always be an important part of life.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are online virtual worlds like ActiveWorlds.  These environments portray themselves as not really being games, basically because there are no set objectives.  There are however, many set rules and guidelines, and a select group of possible actions and forms of interaction.  There is strictly no violence possible.  But as a result they often seem purposeless; limited by their own refusal to offer specific currencies with which to compete and interact with.

This mirrors the gameplay of many of the MMORPG’s that have sprung up in the last year or two.  To allow for the masses of players to all have something to do, there must be very little in the way of a defining narrative.  Each character is their own author, each trying to carve their own niche in the community.  Ernest Adams, a veteran game designer, explains that, “I won’t go so far as to say that interactivity and storytelling are mutually exclusive, but I do believe that they exist in an inverse relationship to one another.  The more you have of one, the less you’re going to have of the other.”  This maxim has certainly been a factor in the making of these games, where guidelines have been kept very vague to allow for maximum freedom.

The closest relative to ActiveWorlds in terms of Online Games is probably EverQuest.  Like ActiveWorlds, the purpose of existing there is not set in stone (to put it gently), which can sometimes leave a player feeling a bit lost.  

EverQuest – Taking MMORPG’s into 3D.

Like ActiveWorlds, or many other online virtual realities, you can choose to inhabit the body of all manner of creatures.  This brings up the issues of avatars.  In games such as this, you are asked the question, “Who do you want to be?”, and are then given the choice of a large range of cyber personas.  This presents the idea of the utopian avatar, where you have the chance to choose and become a sort of ideal alter ego.

This utopian ideal of the potential of avatars entertains the idea that you can have the body you wish you had and do whatever you want to do!  But are these possibilities really how we experience these virtual identities?  I would say that such possibilities are very real, but within game environments only.  It is not as though we experience such freedom with our virtual identities in our business dealings, for example.  This is another important distinction that needs to be made.  These fantastical virtual spaces are aimed more directly at game players, particularly children, while adults are more likely to use virtual spaces for practical reasons, such as email, or in the future, meetings and product visualisation presentations.  In such cases, virtual identity is most likely to as closely as possible represent your material identity.  The truth is, adults don’t have that much time to play games, and when they do, there is a clear distinction between such game playing and the material world that we all return to when the game is switched off.  

But for those who do have time to play in these persistent worlds, you can take on quests and continue to develop and improve your character indefinitely.  The aim of the game is self-betterment, much the same as real life.  The current aim of MMORPG’s is to provide a detailed, three-dimensional online environment with a lot of freedom.  The emphasis is on social interaction and character development.  The most important thing to the player is their own avatar, and the interactivity between avatars is slowly increasing with each game.  Perhaps these games will soon provide something of a reality for those with utopian views about virtual existence.

EverQuest Expansion Pack: Ruins Of Kunark – These online worlds can be added to indefinitely, with new “episodes” in the form of new lands to explore and new avatars to choose from.

But then there is the dystopian vision of what avatars could be, such as is seen in The Matrix.  Here we see the avatar as a potential prison cell that you are locked inside, unaware that it is not your real body.  In this film, a whole species is hooked up into a big VR run by the machines that the humans once built.  The film explores the fears of complete loss of control of your own life; a fear of not knowing what is real.  And even after finding out the truth about your delusions, some may wish to be seduced back into ignorance.  It raises the question, “What if virtual reality ends up being better than life, period?”  Yet ultimately, although the film shows VR as a potentially dangerous space, it also presents it as a fantastical space where you can do the impossible, if your mind is strong enough.

eXistenZ entertains similar fears, suggesting that game spaces can be both dangerous and exciting.  It again raises fears over losing control of reality, and confusing illusion for reality.  These two films are ultimately concerned with what will happen when you can’t tell the difference between virtual spaces and material spaces.  

Well, that certainly seems to be where games are trying to go.  But how far will they get?  Will they really try to simulate reality, or will they always maintain a distinct fantasy element to separate themselves from the real world?  I will look at a few of the latest games being developed in order to consider these possibilities.

Freelancer is a MMORPG where you are a freelance pilot in a large expanse of the galaxy, in a time of exploration and mass expansionism.  The purpose of the game is survival.  This really echoes the reality of our material world, yet it is experienced in an alternative, much more action packed and dramatic world.

Freelancer – A bar scene where you can pick up work and hear the latest news and gossip.

The game really depends on what the player wants to do.  You could play it safe and play as a ship merchant, shipping goods and supplies to various points in the galaxy for a tidy profit, living from bar to bar, keeping your eyes and ears open for more work.  Or you could join the military and take part in escort roles, simple patrol routes or attack sorties.  Or you could play as a bounty hunter, or an outright pirate.  Alternatively, you can freely swap between roles as it suits you.

Basically, whatever you choose to do, your profits get pumped back into your ship, improving and upgrading it, mainly for the purpose of ensuring your survival in the future.  

The mission generator is complex, offering missions based on the events throughout the galaxy.  For example, if pirates have raided a grain supply on a certain planet, relevant missions will be offered such as taking a cargo shipment of grain to the planet, or tracking down and capturing the pirates responsible.  The events of the game world thus depend on the actions of the players involved, and also on the AI involved in the game, where Non-Player Characters (NPC’s) will give you missions based on the events occurring elsewhere in the galaxy.  Just like the material world, the galaxy does not stop moving just because you are asleep.

Freelancer – You are just a spec in the galaxy.

Within this galaxy, there is plenty of potential for social interaction such as alliances, cooperation and diplomacy, as well as their opposites such as competitions and duals.  Freelancer appears to offer pretty much more of the same as other MMORPG’s, but with subtle innovations and more complexity.  It could certainly suck up a lot of someone’s time, perhaps keeping players away from their usual material haunts.  But again, it is probably largely going to be students who have enough time to play the game, and the time could well have previously only been spent watching TV, or enjoying other private leisure activities.

Another unreleased MMORPG is an Australian title called BigWorld: Citizen Zero.  It is set in a distant galaxy, in a city named Neo-Eden. Once a penal colony, Neo-Eden experienced a revolution some fifty years ago and is now a free and technically advanced society.  Despite the state of freedom, prisoners still arrive there through some means of teleportation, with their memories erased.  This process cannot be stopped.  As a player, it is now time for you to blend in with the rest of the world and live a successful existence.  The concept for the game was based partly on Australia’s history as a penal colony, which is an interesting crossover between virtuality and reality.

There is an emphasis on cooperative gameplay and social interaction.  There are going to be strict limits on violence and combat, not due to censorship, but intended to increase the potential of more dynamic gameplay.  The lead writer for the game, Camille Scaysbrook, states that she is determined to take the emphasis away from the paradigm where combat equals achievement.

BigWorld – An emphasis on cooperation and social interaction.

The Lead Designer of the game, Paul McInnes, is a cultural anthropologist.  I think this illustrates two points.  It shows that computer games and virtual public spaces are being taken much more seriously than they were in the past, thus attracting people from areas of academia into positions of development, not just criticism.  And it also points to the potential of the up and coming MMORPG’s, in that as the technology allows for more dynamic interaction, that is just what we will get.  These virtual public spaces are rising to their potential.  Social scientists becoming involved in the design and implementation of these environments is both heartening for concerned critics and encouraging to an audience who yearn for more from games than just bloodshed.  It gives these public spaces a much greater potential as a rich virtual space.  

BigWorld uses an innovative mission system to create individually customised missions for the characters, and an original system of active NPC organisations to create a living frontier society to explore and master.

The aim is that players will be able to leave their mark on the game world.  As the producer, Steve Wang says, “The game helps you become “someone” in the online community.  Character actions and reputations are taken seriously by the world at large.  This helps players create a sense of belonging to the world, or better still, of the world belonging to the players.  For example, a leader of a gang of the Cybrid Mafia becomes one of the “street scum” to a member of The Bureau, a dread enemy to all members of the Grey Collective, a potential assassin for hire for the less scrupulous Overarchs, a possible target for a bounty-hunter and a potentially interesting public figure to citizens at large.”  Ultimately the aim is to allow the player to make a difference and be remembered.  But the point is, who will remember you?  Who is the audience?  The audience is made up of the other players.  And each player is simultaneously actor and spectator.  Just like in reality…  

The ideal public space seems to be one where people can get together, and feel good while sharing a space, and even carry that positive feeling away with them when they leave.  And it seems as though this can be achieved in virtual public spaces as well as material ones.  And certainly, virtual spaces will become more popular in the future, but I don’t think that this will threaten material public spaces, but will just force them to alter their emphasis.  The bigger question here seems to be, “Does virtuality pose a threat to reality?”  And the answer must be, no, because virtuality is just another aspect of reality.  Ultimately, virtual public spaces are just more space, as much a part of our reality as the town square, or the coffee shop, each with their own specific purpose.  But it would seem that these virtual spaces are best suited for fun and games.


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