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.