Thursday, 4 August 2011

Games as Art 4: Games as Mimesis 1

First off let me start by saying that there’s going to be some spoilers regarding games in this one. Here there be monsters, etc.

Mimesis is defined in one way as “art’s imitation of life” and going off this games in some ways have acted both as examples mimesis themselves, as well as progenitors for cultivating it from the communities that rise up around them.

There are a multitude of examples, but I think that it would be best to start with one of the ones that was interesting in concept, if not exactly perfect. I’m talking about the .HACK series in this case. These games were interesting because they played off the fact that the people in the world were playing a game, so there was a doubling of layers in terms of interpretations. While no one would say that the overarching story of the series, both through the games and other media that were used, was realistic, it did mirror some of the growing concerns about possible immersion into online games and the blurring of the line between what problems reside in the virtual and real worlds.

Although not nearly as dramatic as the events of .HACK, it was somewhat prophetic on the game’s part that it talked about the concept of infection spreading throughout systems and virtual worlds. The Corrupted Blood incident from World of Warcraft proved to be an uncanny if small scale replica and a somewhat troubling reminder of the damage that could unwittingly be caused in games whether intentional or not on the part of the players.

Just as the world of .HACK came under siege, so did the World of Warcraft in September 2005 when people discovered that a highly virulent debuff could be taken beyond the confines of where it was meant to be through certain methods that the game devs didn’t account for. What followed was an incident so strange and compelling that the CDC became interested in who the event played out - not to mention the US government in terms of the possible ideas regarding potential online terrorism - all of this from what most would dismiss as a harmless way to pass the time.

Another more recent incident I can think of games responding to real life events is only a couple of years old, stemming back to the end of 2009 with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The game was highly anticipated, but the inclusion of a level where the player could - if they so choose to - gun down innocent civilians during a mission. It should be noted that despite the multiple warnings given and the option to completely skip the content, the level still aroused a great deal of controversy. It does bare in mind that despite how atrocious the content might seem, that it was, is and will remain completely virtual within the context of the game itself. So why the backlash?

I believe that the reaction was so poor due to a number of factors, but motivated by one prime one: the fact that there was nothing that could be done in game to save the lives of those affected by the terrorism. There is something very psychologically unbalancing about not being able to take control in a situation within a realm where player control means everything. The choice not to render the scene in cinematics, but to leave the player in control but powerless to stop - or indeed motivated to “keep up cover” by shooting a few of the innocent people themselves - was one that was surely designed to create the maximum amount of impact, along with the fact that regardless of the actions of the player the character that he is controlling is known to be a plant and thus killed at the end of the level regardless.

I believe that this hit far to close to home for the peace of mind of a lot of people. The idea of powerlessness is nothing new in real life, but video games as I mentioned are “obliged” to offer escapism from that turmoil: you can be the hero, you can save everyone and look damn good while doing it. To have that subverted wasn’t breaking some scared trust, but it was akin to a bucket of cold water being dumped onto a thereto sleeping community.

Games not only are inspired by real life events though, they in turn also inspire those that play or are even just tangentially interested in them. That, however, is an article for tomorrow rather than today.

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