Read Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline Online

Authors: Simon Parkin

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Popular Culture, #Social Science

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline (12 page)

Video games replicate this heady recipe for anyone with a controller and the necessary hardware. From familiar building blocks (quite literally, in the case of
Minecraft
’s brick-like construction) they create unfamiliar places with unfamiliar vistas that are, nevertheless, somehow real. It’s telling that the latest video-game consoles have the built-in ability to take and share in-game photographs, an acknowledgement that visitors will want to capture a scene or a moment for posterity, to make their discoveries public and shared. Today, virtual places rival our world for beauty and diversity. There are the whispering deserts of
Red Dead Redemption
and the icy plains of
Super Mario 64
. There’s Majula, a numinous clifftop homestead in
Dark Souls II
, a location seemingly chiselled from the rock over centuries by a ceaseless virtual wind. There’s
Mass Effect
’s citadel, a colossal deep-space station as memorable as any city centre, and there are the buckshot islands of the Caribbean, exquisitely rendered as if from
Treasure Island
’s descriptive pages in
Assassins’ Creed: Black Flag
.

All of these places can be visited without the drag of real-world travel: the cumbersome luggage, the unreliable trains, the rude public, the sore feet. These vivid places have been compacted onto discs and hard drives, facilitating a kind of tourism and exploration that are convenient and danger-free. Can virtual discovery match the thrill of real-world exploration? As with success, the imitation is powerful, compelling and, crucially, cheaper and more accessible.

In the Taiwanese café, Rong-Yu may not have been drawn back to
League of Legends
by the promise of discovering some new virtual vista. After all, Summoner’s Rift was a place he had visited many times before. But, like the traveller returning to a beloved locale, he would have grown to know the place, its contours, its plains and bushels, and, like the places we frequent in our daily existence, it would have become reassuringly familiar.

Perhaps this is the crucial point. The human urge to travel and to discover new places is almost universal. But behind that urge is a deeper need to arrive and, once there, discover a place that we can call our own and a place in which we belong.

5
BELONGING

The 1999 Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, a video-game conference held in Los Angeles, was a typically lavish, if bawdy, affair. Here, for three days, the world’s video-game publishers gathered to show off their forthcoming titles to press and to purchasers in an overstimulating marketing circus. David Bowie performed at one of the conference’s orbiting parties that week, and Bill Goldberg and some other glistening-skinned wrestlers grappled with one another in a custom-built ring on the publisher EA’s gargantuan booth. Away from the action of its main stage, EA had stationed a humble area advertising
The Sims
, an ambitious social-simulation project in which almost nobody outside of its development team believed.

For the publisher, one of America’s longest-running makers and distributors of video games,
The Sims
was a legacy project, inherited when the company purchased the development studio, Maxis.
The Sims
had been in stammering development since 1993, when Will Wright, the celebrated designer of 1989’s city-planning game
SimCity
, first had the idea for a simulation that would model human behaviour, not from the bird’s-eye viewpoint of his earlier game (in which players could design, build, and run a virtual city) but from the ground zero of domesticity.

But replicating the mundane dramas of the living room in game form had proved to be a challenge:
The Sims
was almost abandoned numerous times.

‘We all knew that if we couldn’t generate any interest at E3 that year, then the game would be cancelled for good,’ Patrick J. Barrett III, one of the game’s programmers, told me. ‘EA did nothing to help us. They hid us away. The game wasn’t even displayed on the large screen with the other title’s trailers.’

But, within hours, an unplanned kiss made
The Sims
the talk of the show.

Some video games offer us the chance to become other people or, at the very least, to experience something of the lives of others, be it that of the motorsport driver who must negotiate Nürburgring’s lingering corners in
Gran Turismo
, the intergalactic diplomat-cum-Marine in
Mass Effect
, or the border-checkpoint clerk in
Papers, Please
. Here we are able to experience some of the challenges other people face, or the systems in which they operate, which differ from those of our own daily experience.

Others, like
The Sims
, offer us the chance to play as ourselves, or approximations of ourselves. In these games we are able to examine or rehearse our own lives, to take on the challenges that we face on this side of the screen, everything from paying off a mortgage to finding someone we care about with whom we want to spend the rest of our life.

In these video games (in which we are often given the opportunity to recreate our likeness on screen), it’s important that our avatars closely reflect everything from our beliefs and values to our height and the colour of our hair. These games are not trying to generate empathy with another person so much as provide a space in which we might replicate ourselves on screen (albeit within the game’s chosen parameters). In
Oblivion
or
Dark Souls
, we can tweak the height of our avatar’s eyebrows, the jut of the chin, the hairstyle
and colour and so on, until we begin to see ourselves on screen. In
Rainbow 6
the technology takes care of much of the hard work for us: it takes a photograph of our face using a connected camera and pastes it onto a virtual mannequin to place us in the game. The designers of such games believe it’s important that we can see ourselves in its reflection and that our most important characteristics are included in our virtual representation.

The Sims
was the most fully formed attempt yet to allow players to approximate themselves (people known in-game as Sims), their family members, their love interests, and many of the various contours of their real lives on screen. A broad scope was crucial to its success. Fail to represent the broad spectrum of types of human and the game would risk alienating potential members of the audience by essentially banning them from its reality. For the team at Maxis, that meant allowing players to pick an avatar that was tall or short, black or white, plump or thin. That meant, if the game was to be true to life, allowing players to adopt their sexuality.

During
The Sims
’ protracted development, the team debated whether to permit same-sex relationships in the game. If this digital Petri dish was to accurately model all aspects of human life, from work to play and love, it was natural that it would facilitate gay relationships. But there was also fear about how such a feature might adversely affect the game.

‘No other game had facilitated same-sex relationships before—at least, to this extent—and some people figured that maybe we weren’t the ideal ones to be first, as this was a game that EA really didn’t want to begin with,’ Barrett tells me. ‘It felt to me like a fear thing.’ After going back and forth for several months, the team finally decided to leave same-sex relationships out of the game code. It was, put simply, too risky.

When Barrett joined the company, in October 1998, he was unaware
of the decision. A fortnight into his new job, he found himself with nothing to do when his supervisor, the game’s lead programmer, Jamie Doornbos, took a short vacation. Jim Mackraz, Barrett’s boss, needed a task to occupy his new employee, and he handed Barrett a document that outlined how social interactions in the game would work; the underlying rules for the game’s AI that would dictate how the characters would dynamically interact with one another.

‘He didn’t think I could handle it with Jamie off on vacation, but he figured that at least I’d be out of his hair,’ Barrett says. ‘Neither he nor I realised that he’d given me an old design document to work from.’

That design document predated the decision to exclude gay relationships in the game. Its pages described a web of social interactions, in which every kind of romantic relationship was permitted. That week, Barrett confounded the expectations of his boss. He successfully wrote the basic code for social interactions, including same-sex relationships.

‘In hindsight, I probably should have questioned the design,’ Barrett, who is gay, says. ‘But the design felt right, so I just implemented it. Later, Will Wright stopped by my desk. He told me that he liked the social interactions, and that he was glad to see that same-sex support was back in the game.’

Nobody on the team questioned Barrett’s work.

‘They just pretty much ignored it,’ he says. ‘After a while, everyone was just used to the design being there. It was widely expected that EA would just kill it, anyway.’

In early 1999, before EA had a chance to kill the design, Barrett was asked to create a demo of the game to be shown at E3. The demo would consist of three scenes from the game. These were to be so-called
on-rails scenes—not a true, live simulation but one that was pre-planned, and that would shake out the same way each time it was played, in order to show the game in its best light. One of the scenes was a wedding between two of the virtual characters.

‘I had run out of time before E3, and there were so many Sims attending the wedding that I didn’t have time to put them all on rails,’ Barrett says.

On the first day of the show, the game’s producers, Kana Ryan and Chris Trottier, watched in disbelief as two of the female Sims attending the virtual wedding leaned in and began to passionately kiss. The virtual characters had, during the live simulation, fallen in love. Moreover, they had chosen this moment to express their affection, in front of a live audience of assorted press.

Following the kiss, talk of
The Sims
spread through E3. Had the on-screen kiss been between two male characters, the reaction might have been different. But in the context of a marketing show that is dominated by straight men, the lesbian kiss worked in the game’s favour.

‘You might say that they stole the show,’ Barrett says. ‘I guess straight guys that make sports games loved the idea of controlling two lesbians.’

The ostensibly controversial design was overlooked owing to greater concerns about the project.

‘EA was more worried that
The Sims
would flop and hurt the
SimCity
franchise by association,’ says Barrett. ‘It was also a different time; people weren’t so violently for or against same-sex relationships. They didn’t go out of the way to find it and react to it. The right-wing press didn’t have the platform they have today to scream. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no blogs. I kinda hoped people would come at night with pitchforks and torches. But it never happened.’

As a result, when
The Sims
finally launched, a player’s character was free to fall in love with whomever the player chose, regardless of gender. For young gay players who were struggling to fit in in the real world, the feature was profound. In the game, if not in life, they had found a place where they could be accepted.

Barrett kept the story of how same-sex relationships came to
The Sims
a secret for more than a decade. In the years since
The Sims
’ original release, he believes, the world has changed in profound ways.

‘At the time, it wasn’t considered “normal” to be gay or lesbian,’ he says. ‘Some even saw it as dangerous. But in
The Sims
it was normal and safe to be a gay person. It was the first time we could play a game and be free to see ourselves represented within. It was a magical moment when my first same-sex Sims couple kissed. I still sometimes wonder how in the world I got away with it.’

When Barrett finally told his story in public, many who had played the game as teenagers shared their stories of the effect that being able to play as a gay character in the game had on them.

One user of the web forum Reddit wrote: ‘Thinking back, it was actually the first way for me to explore my sexuality. I could be any gender I wanted, and I could date any gender I wanted.’

Another commentator wrote about the profound effect this simple design choice, almost included by accident, had on his sense of identity and belonging:

I was a fourteen-year-old closeted gay boy living in rural Kentucky when I played The Sims for the first time. It’s rare that a video game is a life-changing experience, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was. It was a safe place to experiment with social interactions that were absent from
(if not illegal in) my real world. And it was a space free from the judgment, the ostracism, and the hate that was associated with homosexuality in my family and community. I still return to it from time to time for the sheer nostalgia. It was a little virtual neighbourhood that managed to make my world at the time seem so much bigger
.

In the design team’s seemingly minor decision to reflect the fullness of life in the game, they gave players everywhere who previously felt as if there was no place for them in the world the sense that, just maybe, they had been wrong.

Video games, in their intoxicating recipe of theme, systems, and fairness, provide a comfortable place where people can belong. Many characters are blank sheets, ready for us to project our own stories and ideas onto. It might seem curious to suggest that these virtual artifices, created from arcane lines of programming code and stitched textures, can provide a place of belonging. But there’s an undeniable comfort in their judgement-less approachability (few who are physically able to interact with a video game are turned away—at least, not until the difficulty ramps up in the later stages) and, outside the game worlds themselves, there’s the ever-potent draw of a community of humans who share a common interest and enjoyment.

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