In Reality, Virtual: why videogames are real-real pt.1

For a while now, I’ve been picking apart the way I, and probably many of you, experience games. As anyone who follows this blog knows, I’ve read a ton of academic literature concerning games of all kinds, but my focus has been mostly on videogames. What I’ve found in these works is a frequent presupposition that videogames are virtual, and their virtuality somehow differentiates them from the “real” world.  This is problematic because virtual connotes fake, or if not fake, it’s at least conceptualized as an antonym to real. In fact, Thesaurus.com lists actual, authentic, and real as antonyms to virtual. So if we refer to video games as “virtual worlds,” we’re effectively separating and distinguishing them from the “real” world, and this is the point of departure that many academic analyses of videogames take, as has been summarized in Lehdonvirta (2010). I think this has hindered past analytical endeavors to varying degrees, and other scholars have written about the shortcomings of studying games with a frame of mind that presupposes a binary opposition between virtual and real. In this essay, I’ll demonstrate why the dichotomy of virtual and real leads to fallacious understandings and articulations of videogames, and I’ll do so by exposing the virtuality of the real world. This is the first of a 5-part essay, and in this section I will focus on how visual and aural stimuli allow us to create virtual models of the world in our minds

The presupposition that there is some distinction between “virtual” games and the “real” world stems from the belief that we know a real world. As self-reflexive beings, labeling certain aspects of our experience as “real” has served us as a provisional conceptualization that helps us comprehend the world around us, but this frame of mind can also limit our understanding of the world precisely because it allows us to make statements about truth and existence that rely on what’s “real” as evidence for their claims. For example, if I say grass is green, and I know this to be true because I can see it, and it looks green, I’m ignoring the arbitrariness of the word green; green is just a signifier we use to describe items that reflect light in a particular way. Also, because I’ve been conditioned to label certain items green, I ignore other possibly useful labels. For example, in the Japanese language, only artificial items can be green (midori), and what we would consider green plants actually fall under the label blue (ao). So, while labeling things based on what we consider real can be helpful, we’re actually limiting ourselves if we ignore the arbitrariness of our labels. I must admit, it’d be hard to imagine what civilization would be like if we didn’t assign signifiers to objects and had no concept of reality, but I think we can continue to rely on these provisional concepts so long as we keep in mind that they’re not real. Grass is not green; we just say it is.

This is all pretty far-fetched stuff, though some of you might find it extremely compelling, and still others may be familiar with these concepts because I’m borrowing and appropriating many concepts from post-modernist philosophy and epistemological dualism. “WTFudge are you talking about?” you might say. Well, allow me to clarify. If the world indeed exists (which I think it does), we can’t know it in the traditional sense of knowing because any and all stimuli are first received through imperfect senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc.,) and then must be interpreted by our brains/ minds.  By imperfect senses, I refer to sensory limitations, such as our eyes’ inability to see certain wavelengths, and our ears’ inability to hear certain frequencies. All of our senses provide us with drastically limited information when compared to how much stimuli the world actually provides. For example, if I could see infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths of light, the image of the world in my mind would look much different. If I could hear below frequencies of 12 Hz or over 20,000 Hz, the world would sound much different. So what does the “real” world actually look and sound like? We don’t know; we only know what our mental model of the world looks and sounds like. Mind you, there are many other factors that distort the way our senses receive stimuli, so our mental model must be quite different from the world that provides stimuli. It makes me wonder what the real world is really like.

When you add interpretation to the clusterfudge of sensory reception, the rift between our minds and the “real” world becomes a gorge. The process of interpretation allows us to make sense of the imperfect sensory information we’re receiving. While interpreting, we’re using socially constructed values and ideology (stuff that’s completely made up, such as the word green) as a guide or directions that inform the way we create our distorted mental models of the world. For example, as an American, I’m conditioned to value perfectly white, straight teeth as a sign of health and cleanliness; this is an attractive feature to me, but in different cultures (such as Japanese culture) crooked teeth are considered cute. This might seem like a subtle difference in the way we construct our models of the world, but when you consider all the other discrepancies in values and ideologies, the way two people from different cultures see the world must be drastically different. Moreover, even people from the same culture subscribe to different ideologies: consider the difference in ideologies between conservatives and liberals in America. Sometimes, in oder to get a better sense of how different my model must be from that of another person’s, I perform a little mental exercise that can be pretty mind blowing; it consists of making eye contact with someone while they’re talking to you, and focusing your imagination into recreating what they probably see when they look at you (I don’t inform the speaker that I’m doing this). When I perform this exercise, it makes me hyper-conscious of others’ viewpoints, of their realities and that helps me be a little self-centered.

In summary (TL;DR), an interrogation of how we know what we know at the level of reception and interpretation of sensory stimuli reveals that our “real” world is actually a virtual model that exists in our heads. No, this isn’t solipsism (a philosophy that states that all we can be sure of is the existence of our minds). The difference is that my view of reality concedes that there is an outside world that provides the stimuli we in turn interpret into a virtual model. Everyone experiences and interprets their world differently, and people themselves stimulate and alter each other’s mental models through the transmission of values and ideology. Our realities are all virtual and different. In a sense, we don’t know the world, but we know of the world.

So, 1000 words later, what does this have to do with videogames? Well, let’s take a look at how videogames stimulate our senses. Let’s start off with the obvious ones. There are visual and auditory stimuli involved with almost all videogames. When we play videogames, we see and interact with what happens on screen and we hear what comes out of the speakers. Both are critical sources of information that allow us to create a mental model of the game we’re playing. Remember, what you see in your head was first received by your eyes and interpreted by your mind, so although there is a real game on a real screen being played by a real person, we can’t ever truly know this “real” world because of our unreliable perceptions and subjective interpretations. All we can know is the virtual world in our head, which is informed by the stimuli that the real world provides. In this sense, the sights and sounds that make up our experience of playing a game are just as real as the television set that displays and produces them. The “real” world isn’t kept out of the game by the edges of the screen, nor is the game confined to these borders. Everything in and out of the screen is experienced the same way: as received and interpreted stimuli.

“Ok, but you can’t touch or taste videogames. Surely, this lowers their position in the hierarchy of realness.” I don’t actually think any of your are thinking this, but I suppose someone could make this sort of argument, even though it’s kind of silly because there are plenty of “real” things that we can’t taste or touch (e.g. Oxygen and X-rays), and this doesn’t make them any less real. More importantly, my argument is not that videogames are real because they stimulate our senses (although it builds off of this statement); my argument is that the way we experience videogames in the virtual, mental model of the world is the same as the way we experience the real world, and this renders any distinction between fake and real nonviable. In other words, we experience existence through virtual models. “Reality” is virtual; therefore, videogames are no less real than anything else.

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15 Responses to In Reality, Virtual: why videogames are real-real pt.1

  1. Mauro says:

    I have to disagree.

    While I do agree that calling them “virtual worlds” misses the point, the worlds of videogames are not real and do not follow the laws of physics. They are mathematical *models* that simulate physics, not necessarily very well (like how the ball in Brickout goes straight and speeds up instead of arcing and slowing down), and there is a whole layer of abstraction where the videogame worlds are made up of *information* encoded in particles rather than particles themselves. While they do give an illusion of reality, in the way that they engage sight and hearing, the worlds themselves are just information and are not physical in the sense that the tree outside my window, the white squirrels that climbs it, and that annoying piece of balloon string tangled in a branch are physical.

    What I think you can say is that the mind can adapt to the non-physicality of videogame worlds and internalize its rules in context, so that it has some intuition for how it works, memory for its locations and characters, etc. When I explore a level in a first-person shooter, for example, I’m remembering locations and developing a sense of direction, and by identifying with my avatar, I am interacting with that world. The interactions are real, but they happen on the level of information. I could say that shooting that orb causes a light field to appear, but I should say instead that “shooting” that “orb” causes a light field to appear, since it’s only a representation of a shot and a representation of an orb. The shooting, the orb, and the light field are simply mathematical objects and methods, but my mind understands how these constructs work within the game universe with an intuition mirroring that of the real world by the design of Nintendo (well, Retro, as a second party developer, but whatever). They should be *treated* like real objects, but they certainly aren’t real objects!

  2. Alphabet1 says:

    Thanks for the comment =]

    I actually agree with you, Mauro, on all but one thing; it seems as if you equate the word “real” with the word “physical” when it is not always the case that real thing are also physical. I agree with you that videogames are not physical, and they shouldn’t be treated as physical objects, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real. There are plenty of things that we consider to be real that aren’t physical, tangible objects. For example, the borders of countries, concepts such as society, love, our abstracted representation of time, etc. I have to go now, but I’ll come back soon and finish this reply.

  3. redgiant says:

    I maintain a large collection of memories from both video games and dreams. Places, people, things.

    The distinction between these thoughts and those formed of traditional reality continues to evade my grasp.

  4. Alphabet1 says:

    My point exactly, redgiant. The way we experience physical and digital (or computer generated) phenomena is the same. To label one type of phenomenon “real” is provisionally useful, but it’s ultimately a meaningless distinction.

    @ Mauro. Why do we privilege physical objects over digital objects when we experience both as sensory information. Any interaction with a physical object is experienced through electrical and chemical signals in the central and peripheral nervous systems. These electrical and chemical signals are data that our minds compile and run as a simulation of the world. We can see the parallels with computer programs. Moreover, We experience the output of computer programs as electrical and chemical signals. There’s no difference between physical and digital objects in the sense of experience. However, I concede that digital objects are not physical objects and should not be treated as such. You’re absolutely right about that. There is a difference, but to label one type of object “real” and the other “virtual” or “fake” is problematic.

    And like I said before, ideological phenomena are often considered real, even though they are even less material than videogames; they don’t exist at all. At least videogames exist albeit not as physical objects. (of course, the actual disk or cartridge could be considered the physical manifestation of a videogame, but I think we all know that we’re referring to the information that is stored in the disk or cartridge, executed by the system, and displayed on output devices.)

  5. Bryant says:

    I can get behind the idea that we experience video games in a way that is similar to how we experience the real or actual world, but I’m not sure I can get behind the statement “videogames are no less real than anything else.”

    Okay, so our senses are limited. We can’t hear low-frequency sounds and we’re not nocturnal. (I think this kind of goes back to perception, like I mentioned to you today at work.) However, I think someone could argue that a video game is less real. If I were to take off my shoes and walk on the grass barefoot, signals would go from my feet to my brain. If the grass is cool or warm, I would feel it. I would feel the sharpness of the tips of the leaves or the coarseness or the softness, depending on what type of grass I’m standing on. On the other hand, if my video game avatar walks out onto the grass barefoot, I’m relying on my memory of what grass feels like. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that there is one, or more likely, several degrees of separation between me and the actual sensation.

    There’s another problem with relying on our memories to recall sensations—our memories aren’t very reliable. We’ve all had moments were we revisit places from our youth and find that our memories are distorted (maybe something’s not as big as we remembered.) We’ve also recounted stories of our real life experiences to groups of people only have a friend who was there cut in to say “Hey, that’s not how it happened. What really happened was . . .” Our memories are constantly changing and fading. This can even go so far as to create false memories.
    Now, like we were talking about earlier today you could take something like The Matrix or Inception and just say that we simply don’t have the technology yet, and that someday these degrees of separation could potentially be completely dissolved.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of these. I do think you are onto something, although I’m not sure what it is yet. Who knows? You may end up winning me over with the next three posts. I think we still need to define “real” though. Are you saying that video games are “real” or are they the same as “real life?” (I’m pretty sure you mean the former, but I think a little clarification might help for a lot of your readers.)

    Keep ‘em coming!

  6. Alphabet1 says:

    Bryant, what you’re pointing out can be better distinguished by the adjective physical than the adjective real. For example, videogame grass is intangible, and it could be argued that this makes it less real, but what if I made grass out of plastic and decorated my garden with it. This is tangible grass, but it’s not “real” grass; it’s fake. Actually, I could say that it is real, plastic grass. And then someone could say, “well, it is not natural grass,” and I would agree. It isn’t natural, but that doesn’t make it not real.

    You’re comment also points out the undeserved priority that physical things have on the “hierarchy of realness,” but there are definitely things that we consider real but are intangible. In fact, they can’t be sensed by humans at all. Some of these things can be recorded through the use of technology (radio waves for example), and others are completely made up, like the borders of countries.

    When I say videogames are as real as anything else, I mean to point out that terms such as real and virtual are problematic because they’re so ambiguous and because they connote a dichotomy of real and fake. Videogames aren’t a fake reality, and physical reality isn’t real.

    • Bryant says:

      Again, I think the word “real” in the context we’re talking about it here needs to be defined. Yes, video games are real— they really exist and therefore they must be real. The fake grass is real, it exists, but is it “real grass?” Yes, it’s “real fake grass,” but if I define the term “real grass” as a living plant that absorbs sunlight and breathes CO2, then the “real fake grass” is not “real grass.”

      Further, a video game would have no need to recreate something intangible like a radio wave or an x-ray. A character in the game could flip a switch to an x-ray machine and I would experience the same thing I do in real life, sounds, but no physical, tangible sensation.

      What about a smell? Currently, there’s no game console that attempts to recreate actual smells like I experience every day. I can’t experience smell the lasagna a mob boss is eating or the smell of a dead, rotting alien carcass in a game. A character can comment on it, bringing it to my attention, but I don’t think I’d come close to actually smelling it, and if a character didn’t mention it, I’m not sure I would always associate a smell with the visual all the time (maybe not at all.) That’s something to think about, as smell is supposedly our strongest sense linked to memory. I have been on some theme park rides that attempt to recreate smells such as the orange grove scene in the Epcot ride (inside that giant golf ball thing), but all of those have been obviously artificial (not because I knew they were fake, but because the smell was not convincing to me.) Those were real smells, but they did not genuinely recreate something that already exists, which I think is where a lot of people, including myself are going to have a hard time jumping to your side of this discussion or even getting into that mind frame.

      It seems like video games continuously try to recreate things that already exist: trees, birds, buildings, sidewalks, people, sounds, light, physics. The whole idea of recreation by man through data is definitely going to impede my ability to call video games “real.” Is creating these worlds a way for some men to “play God?” Even if it’s something that doesn’t exist or maybe isn’t concretely proven to exist suc

      I think what Jonathan said today at work is pretty compelling. The difference between what we consider “real life” and games is actual mortality, the real loss of life and the fact that things that happen in the “real world” have effects and consequences on our mortality and physical health and bodies. Even something “made up” or man-made like money can effect us on a mortal , physical level. So, if you are trying to say that video games are real, in that they exist, yes. But, I don’t think that video games are “real life,” and the choices we make in them don’t have “real life” consequences.

      Also, is hierarchy of realness really undeserved? I’d much rather have Master Chief stabbed by an energy sword than myself by a knife.

      • redgiant says:

        “…the choices we make in them don’t have “real life” consequences”

        Games have a very real effect on our physical health and bodies. Stressors are stressors, whether they’re born in real combat situations or virtual ones.

        Haven’t you ever felt that sensation of falling in your stomach while playing an engaging video game?

  7. Pingback: In Reality, Virtual pt.1-2: Re-Modeling Reality | Gamer Babylon

  8. Alphabet1 says:

    right, right, right. Good points, but I have to insist that our senses can’t be the determining factor of whether or not things are real, and that what you call the real world is still and interpretation in your mind. For all we know, the world we live in is way offff from what we see in our heads. Epistemological dualism and pluralism make some really interesting claims in this regard.

  9. Aflu24 says:

    After reading your posts and the responses about “reality” in games, I instantly thought of the book Ender’s game. The following is an excerpt taken from wikipedia:

    “Ender’s “final exam” consists of a scenario where bugger ships outnumber Ender’s fleet a thousand to one near a planetary mass. Ender orders the use of a special weapon, the Molecular Disruption Device, against the planet itself, destroying the simulated planet and all ships in orbit. Ender makes this decision knowing that it is expressly against the respectable rules of the game, hoping that his teachers will find his ruthlessness unacceptable, remove him from command, and allow him to return home.

    Soon after Ender’s destruction of the “simulated” Formic fleet, Rackham tells him that all the simulations were real battles taking place with real fleets, and that he had killed all the queens on their home planet. After Ender realizes that he is responsible for the destruction of an entire species (as well as the “simulated” I.F. pilots he was careless at times with), the guilt of the xenocide sends him into depressive sleep. He also learns at this point that he had previously killed two humans, Bonzo Madrid and Stilson, which only adds to his depression.”

    I believe this example supports Bryant’s critique of “reality” in video games. It’s not that there are not real consequences from playing video games, like stress or a shift in our perception of reality. Instead, “real” is problematic for me when applied to video games because what we perceive to happen in video games is removed from reality in the physical world. Me rejoicing over 10 head shots in Halo makes me happy, but if I discovered I had killed 10 real finite physical bodies, ending definitively someones existence, I would be devastated.It’s not that video games do not have a real effect on me physically and emotionally, as well as on my perception of reality, but that what I perceive to happen in a video game does not equate to what happens on the physical plane which I equate with “IRL.” I like it that way, because it lets me play!

    I think what the blog is talking about is interesting, but I am not sure that distorted perception is enough to blur the lines between what is “real” and “virtual.” Although, I agree that we all experience reality subjectively and distorted; therefore, muddling what I am perceiving from what “is,” I am nevertheless still aware that punching someone in the face is going to hurt them and will resort in consequences that I cannot escape once I am beyond some established digital parameters. Nevertheless, very compelling stuff!

    • Alphabet1 says:

      “Me rejoicing over 10 head shots in Halo makes me happy, but if I discovered I had killed 10 real finite physical bodies, ending definitively someones existence, I would be devastated.” Right, but that’s because they are two different things. Look at your adjectives real, finite, and physical. If you removed real, what would the difference in the description be? I could say that you got 10 real head shots in Halo, and this would be accurate because head shots in Halo are real events even if they do no harm to finite, physical bodies.

      If we take our understanding of experience further, if you did kill 10 finite, physical bodies, you would experience it through the virtual model of the world that your mind creates. You actually killed 10 people, but the way you experience it is not “reality” in the traditional sense. You can’t know what it is really like to kill 10 people because your experience is based on flawed sensory information that is interpreted subjectively.

    • redgiant says:

      “…10 head shots in Halo…”

      All of us here accept that killing 10 finite physical bodies falls into a devastating area of our shared “reality”. What you’re referencing though, is little more than an elaborate system of rules. We are all born into these societal agreements, with little opportunity to come to alternative conclusions.

      Look at your hands. In another time, with a different set of circumstances, you’re more than capable of killing someone and feeling zero remorse.

      Do you think the mind interprets the world of Halo that differently from our own, simply because Halo’s set of rules are much less complex?

  10. Pingback: In Reality, Virtual pt.3; The Feel(s) of Videogames | Gamer Babylon

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