The Games

One highly influential attempt at a logical interpretation of 'fun' has been made by psychologist Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, with his concept of "flow." Csiksentmihalyi was interested in the fact that musician, rock-climbers, chess-players and other people engaged in very complex tasks reported an experience of ecstasy or bliss, losing track of time and losing the sense of self. He decided that although on the face of it each activity was markedly different, all his subjects must be having the same sort of experience, which he termed "flow"…
Trigger Happy Steve Poole (London: Fourth Estate; 2001)

…You see, whatever you "see." whatever you "hear," whatever you "touch," et cetera, what your brain experiences is a pattern of fire. See that? How it washes over the whole brain, like, mm, a cloud of sparks? When I write my immersions I copy those patterns, and make your brains believe they've had the experience. I do it visually, and I'll explain why that works best in a moment. I write the code, and I deliver it on a carrier wave of visible light. I don't even have to fake the patterns very well, because brains love being fooled…yeah, what?
Castles Made Of Sand, Gwyneth Jones (London: Gollancz; 2002)

On the screen, a cartoon-style landscape stretches into the faux distance. Center screen-right, foreground, stands a child-like figure with a big head, painfully cute features, and a peculiar hairstyle; he's hefting an enormous sword. A small group of diverse cartoon characters stands with him. They face another group, these figures not humanoid but garishly colored monsters: giant insects or maybe insectoid machines. Everyone is moving slightly, marking time as in some slow folkdance. The cartoon child springs forward from his phalanx of toys. Fireworks flash from the blade: a monster quivers, changes color, and then everyone's back where they were. Another champion springs forward, and back. A monster riposte… And so on. It's really nothing like a fight. The scene resembles (as much as it resembles anything natural on earth) the display behavior of certain tropical birds. This is a dancing ground, a lek where candidates show each other their DNA poker-hands and the loser folds, bowled over by color and movement.
I wonder, who-and-where is the analog of the female bird?
I wonder, what is so fascinating here? Why am I doing this?


Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there were no videogames. Little children played at make-believe. The girls (predominantly) played house, mummies and daddies, shop. The boys (predominately, played at chasing and killing each other. The children were practicing for life. They were building up repertoires of behavior, just as they had done when, as tiny babies, the flailing motion of a hand connected occasionally with a toy, and by the reinforcement of success the pattern of firing neurons involved in accidental capture became fixed: became the act of grasping, a complex of muscle and eye and nerve and cognitive reaction that could be called up at will (baby thinks: grab rattle)… The five-year-old-selects scraps of unnatural, adult dialogue from her cache (a limited, somewhat arbitrary multiple choice menu), having deduced that these overheard words have something to do with the transaction she's imitating. She places make-believe money on the counter and receives the goods. The other five-year-old runs around the playground, copying actions and speaking dialogue lines more likely to have been picked up from the tv screen than from his real life,-though of course it depends on the neighborhood. He is mastering the invisible controls of a game more "skill-oriented" but perhaps simpler: fewer variables, limited possible moves, more prescription.
From such beginnings social training is instilled, and the rewards are clear: play these games and you will gain added competence in the environment in which chance has placed you. You will amass useful tokens in your society's status-currency, and (crucially) your power to amass yet more tokens will be increased. You will not even be punished if you prefer the games assigned to the other gender or if you prefer both. Little boys can dress up and play shop. Many playground-chasing games are without any gender bias. The years pass. By the time the children of long-ago reach puberty nearly all of them have spontaneously rejected make-believe. Board games and card games are for Christmas, for the stylized socializing at birthday parties, for a rainy holiday afternoon. Passions may rise on those occasions, but emotionally involving role-play isn't a big issue. Physical games, meanwhile, are (predominantly) replaced by organized sports, a source of status for the talented, a universal social currency only among boys. But there is a child with a secret. Something is happening in her mind, as thrilling as the polymorphously perverse, unrecognized sexual fantasies of childhood -though it's not about sex (not exactly); and yet it's an even more vulnerable delight. No one must know. Adults would disapprove, peers would destroy the magic, shun the company of the self-confessed weirdo. She has no name for the activity, though what happens is vivid-swordfights, fast cars, feats of prowess, adventurous journeys, high romance, passionate friendships, tragic sacrifices, lovingly scripted betrayals and avowals. Above all the power to manipulate a world directly, by psychic fiat; like someone making magic.
The ability to fantasize existed in the pre-videogame world like a technology in search of an application. The clumsy young girl wandering alone at the top of the lacrosse field or shivering in a corner of the netball pitch had no Playstation.. She had to invent virtual environments inside her head, and they were not solid places. She could control the libretto, so to speak (the plot and dialogue), but the scenery was elusive, glittering fragments like remembered scenes from a dream. But it was important that the scenery was there, because her fantasy was played out in three dimensions (at least). The action was physical, she could feel it in her heartbeat, in the quickened breath, in the tears that rose to her eyes, in the stomach-gripping tension. It wasn't like a book, or a tv program, or a movie, or music (though she could transfer her skill and use it to bring those other art-forms to life: set them alight). It was wonderfully addictive. A secret power that other people might share: maybe everybody did it, but if they did you'd never know. Later, she might have compared it to a sexual fantasy -even if your lover tells you, you can't know for sure he or she really shares your invisible experience. You can't ever know with this kind of magic, it is beyond intellect or cognition: you can only feel.
In the last twenty years the social status of the games has changed dramatically,. The astonishing, and bizarrely under-examined, videogame phenomenon is not isolated. Organized sports have become very big business in these same years: transformed by the dead, Midas touch of major investment from passion into product. Children, young adults, and older adults who can presumably remember the time when they'd have considered such behavior bizarre, throng the shopping malls dressed in the uniform of sports training wear: Adidas, Nike, Reebok. Primetime tv viewing, the choice of the masses, is dominated by masochistic quiz shows and very strange trials of daring (eat the live worms to win a holiday in Jamaica). The work ethic dies. Leisure is the chief economic activity of the affluent, philistine mass-market. Even the workaholics clearly see that the work they do has little intrinsic value: it's just status-establishing display. Late capitalism returns to the pre-industrial patterns that are finally vanishing in what we still know as the Developing World. Indonesian village dance-dramas, Central Asian traveling puppet shows that date back to the time of Alexander, are tourist consumables now-or gone forever. But here, where we live, the games matter again. Entertainment becomes interactive: every movie has a website, tv soap-opera would be nothing if the punters (that's "the audience," US readers) didn't behave as if they were part of the show. Elaborate sex-games once hidden away in shame or embarrassment are served by high-street retail outlets for bondage gear and curious items of lingerie. Fantasy, in every sense, is big business.
Videogames have been part of this huge cultural shift: a secret, new youth-culture art form/entertainment-technology ignored by the establishment -marked down for its crudity, its anti-intellectual appeal to young males, and for its low-social-class associations. Even a couple of years ago, it was okay to play games on your PC, but there was a stigma (what are you? Some kind of back-bedroom lurking brainless spotty male teenager?) attached to owning a dedicated games console. Though the new industry has been boosted into wider public awareness (it already had its own mass-market) by the success of icons like "Lara Croft," and the sinking of much money into spin-off movies, there's still a major breakdown in communication. To videogame aficionados, the making of a movie about Lara is totally beside the point. A videogame is not fiction… so they say. Conventional fiction can provide raw material (the legendary first person shooter "Goldeneye" is a James Bond movie spin-off), but the making of a satisfactory game entails field-stripping the fiction and discarding most of the working parts. Gameplay is the thing: racking up hits on the targets, amassing status-tokens through puzzle solving, filling-in your trick card on the digitally assisted snowboarding simulator. Aesthetic pleasure, in videogame terms, means superior graphics, high quality sound, an unusually gory blood-spatter effect. Dramatic exposition and insightful characterization are unnecessary distractions. So here's an ironic outcome. Fantasy worlds have become applied technology, and they can be accessed at will by anyone; but emotionally gripping make-believe, of the kind that I discovered for myself long ago, remains a solitary vice. You can still grow up thinking you're the only one in the world.
Few would deny the social importance of emotionally gripping make-believe in its older forms. Theatrical drama, epic and lyric poetry, classical symphonies, opera, print fiction, rock music, film. All of these (and more) are the means whereby artists hold up a mirror to their community, and for thousands of years, probably from the birth of modern humanity about fifty thousand years ago, the community has responded eagerly-with indignation, with outrage, with tears, with delight. Myths about ourselves bind us together. Violence, tragedy, and comedy enacted on stage let the audience share the artist's wider vocabulary of self-expression, bringing release and pleasure. Yet artists and audiences have been curiously reticent about the mechanism behind the dramatic artist's creations: the secret vice of virtual experience. "An artist," says Freud, "is a man who turns away from reality because he cannot come to terms with the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction which it at first demands, and who allows his erotic and ambitious wishes full play in the life of phantasy."2 Fantasy (however you spell it) has a bad name.
Catharsis is a medicine that we need-a purge and a corrective. Social cohesion mediated by inspired myth-making, the shared rhythms of the dance, stirring anthems is a morally neutral force (a lynch mob can feel uplifted by passionate togetherness) that has been vitally important in human history. It's strange, then, that so little attention has been paid to the dramatic artist's technical ability to re-present the world. Investigation seems to founder in psychology. Published material about fantasy tends to the anecdotal: collections, predominantly female-authored, of sexual fantasies (My Secret Garden3), or pathological studies showing that Freud was right. Serial killers are people who act out their fantasies. Weak-minded neurotics take refuge in daydreams. Artists themselves, when they meet, will talk about anything but the intensely pleasurable kick they get from world-building. Perhaps this is self protective. Yes, I freely confess, sex is a vital part of my fun when I'm making up the story of a novel. So is self-aggrandizement, wish-fulfillment, and violent aggression (though I keep that last one on a leash, even in my imagination). But whether fantasy sublimates these instinctual appetites or fosters them into hidden, twisted growth, the appetite is not the mechanism. Right back to the Neolithic shaman who dressed up in the deer's horns and hide and pranced around in the firelight, something physiological must be going on in the brain itself, in the neurons and the electrochemical signals, when the artist conjures up and voluntarily experiences a world that only exists within his or her skull. Sex, aggression, and wish-fulfillment are regarded as very basic, primitive drives and treated with solemn respect on that account by twenty-first century post-Freudian culture. But virtual experience is far nearer to being the primum mobile of our humanity. Some scientists would call the ability to re-present the world to ourselves the very nature of consciousness. The neurological machinery that makes it possible to create a virtual world (in which to run your routines of seduction and destruction) must be common to us all. If it's possible, through genetic predisposition or life experience or both, to develop and enhance this innate power to re-present, shouldn't we be interested?
Everyone has to construct a working version of the world for themselves, in order to walk around and function. Some people (who know how many? Who knows how the spectrum of ability shades?) are able to construct other worlds at will. The vast majority of people (apparently) are able to respond to these constructions as if they are in some sense real. But how much is lost between the charged mental construct and the stage, the screen, the printed page? How much of the most refined art of prose composition, or the most elaborate artifice in lighting and staging a set of actors for the movie screen, is no more than sleight of hand to cover the deficiencies of the medium? Videogames are at present regarded (if they are considered at all) as inferior, stunted, literally deformed4 substitutes for real drama, and videogamers themselves are (generally) far from eager to deny the accusation. Yet I begin to wonder if it might not be the other way round. The respectable dramatic arts as we have them now might be the bent-out-of-shape apologies. The games might be the medium our magical powers of creation have been waiting for.
When I was five, and eight, and ten years old I made myself arrays of characters out of colored plasticene and directed these little bands of adventurers on prolonged adventurous quest-journeys around the house. I acted out, with my sisters and my brother and three trusted friends of ours, lengthy virtual dramas loosely derived (like "Goldeneye" from the James Bond movie) from tv childrens' programs and text fiction. We played "William Tell"; we played "Narnia"; we played "Swallows and Amazons." There were battles in these games, chases, and feats of heroics. There were corner-shop transactions whereby currency tokens were distributed and amassed. There were passages of exposition, when the action stopped and we discussed (in character) what was supposed to be going on. No one had told us what to do. No one had told me that the quest story was a universal myth or that the "spirit journey" has been an initiation rite into full humanity for millennia on millennia. No one had told me that the protagonist/hero with his (or her) band of talented supporters is a motif many thousands of years old, an ancient metaphor for the divided, multivalent self. We were recapitulating phylogeny, enacting routines that seem to be hardwired into modern humanity. But fascinating though it is to look back and trace the immemorial contours that come into being always and everywhere that story emerges, I know that the secret raison d'être of our play was not in the story… Shared make-believe can become a hobby, no different from Freemasonry or Sunday football. You get together with your pals, dress up, and perform the rituals. It may look odd to the uninitiated but it feels ordinary, cosy, reassuring… The real kick didn't come in the game play. It came when, as a character, you reverted to the secret world and found it enhanced, pumped up, by the added element of embodied movement. "And I die," says the little warrior- redoubled, both creator and created, both conscious and self-conscious: composing herself on the ground, a weapon falling from her lax hand, the other hand pressed to her breast, unable to staunch the scarlet rush of blood, on her lips a tragic and dreamy smile…
The first of the quotes at the head of this paper is taken from a contemporary study of videogames, the second from a science fiction novel of my own (the speaker is teaching a master class on a new kind of multimedia art form). Psychologist Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi considers the emotional qualia reported by people performing a wide range of demanding tasks successfully and concludes that there is some common element, a high (or profound: up and down have equal meaning here) order of neurological pleasure-state that all these people can reach, which is independent of the content of the task. A gameplayer hammering at the controls can reach the same delight as the consummate rock-climber or chess-player, because absolute cognitive difficulty and physical danger are not the triggers of reinforcement. (Reinforcement is a term experimental psychologists use when investigating the neurology of pleasure. You can't know that the rat with an electrode stuck in its brain is having fun: you can only know that the animal will return to the "reinforcing" stimulus in question voluntarily, foregoing sleep and food and sex5). So, there's a reinforcing response that's triggered by the bare bones of controlled, repetitive, highly focused attention, and that's what the joy of videogames is about… In the second passage, my fictional futuristic-artist describes the underlying mechanism of all virtual experience. As long as the right neurons can be made to fire, the brain is having an experience of the world. There is no logical difference between artificial stimulation and real experience, because just as the solid objects we perceive "are really" made up of spinning atoms, the whole world of our perception "is really" made up of clusters and laminations of neurons firing together in different ratios. Blue is not blue, red is not red, fire is not fire; up is not up, down is not down, anger is not anger... Not even our passions are unmediated, it's all electrochemical signals.
Slightly gruesome experiments on conscious patients have demonstrated that varied, vivid sensual experiences can be invoked from memory by the simple expedient of a doctor sticking a probe into a specific spot in the grey matter. It isn't far from there to the concept (though of course not the technology) of an artificially induced, entirely convincing, full, sensurround fantasy environment. I wonder if different experiments could establish exactly what's going on in the course of world-building fantasy? There are hormones, enzymes-corticosteroids, noradrenaline-that flood the bloodstream at moments of high arousal. It's no surprise if the fantasist in the grip of a thrilling plot development-and equally the audience sitting in the front row, reading the novel or jumping around in the mosh pit at an exciting rock gig-should have the same chemical symptoms as if they were really facing stressful emotional events. The physical symptoms (flushed skin, racing pulse, dry mouth) of excitement are easily triggered and notoriously infectious. But I wonder if there's something more intriguing going on.
We live in a twilight world. Our treasured self-consciousness doesn't play as large a part in our lives as we suppose. Experiment easily proves that we report the onset of volition (I see the button light up, I'm going to press it) about 220 milliseconds after our motor-nerves and muscles have started gearing themselves for precisely the action we (will) decide to perform. Consciousness is the forward edge; anything that can be subsumed, will be subsumed. What we do well we do "without thinking," and arguably Cskszentmihalyi's 'flow' relies on some kind of reward system that encourages the passage of ever-more complex skills into the unconscious, intuitive mode. (Which explains why people love driving their cars and will continue driving their cars, no matter what the counter-inducement, until the planet is paved over). But paradoxically it is also very good to notice the new. A third of a second after some surprise or novelty, there's a broad-sweep feedback over the whole brain, called the P300 response, damping neuron activity, clearing the screen to make the novel aspect of the moment stand out for conscious attention. It has often been said -romantically or pejoratively- that artists feel things too intensely, and that their art consists in their ability to mediate the precious bane of too much reality. What if this were true? What if that response to novelty, and other, detailed responses of focused attention to sights, sounds, interlocution, emotional stimuli could be detected -with massively greater frequency than normal- in the mind of the fantasist, responding to a world that doesn't exist? Like a well-fed pet cat chasing a crumpled ball of paper, the videogame commando has managed to hijack brain-chemistry rewards that evolved around survival-fitness. The little warrior "dying tragically" must be doing something of the same kind, using world-building to hijack the thrill of intense arousal -without the costs that pain and grief exact in real life. Could this mean (reverse engineering) that everyone has the potential to interact with a fantasy environment? To experience a virtual world exactly the same as if it were reality?
The players of the games seem to be confused about verisimilitude. Complexity is good, because it makes the game more challenging. Photorealism is not essential, not even desirable. Final Fantasy VIII was a disappointment to RPG fans because the characters look like adult human beings rather than big-headed cartoon children. Fantasy sports with quirky customized characters are preferred to realistic simulation manuals. Role play, though consistently given low value by the players, is always an issue. Cutscenes (passages of full animation with no game play) are criticized as a distraction, yet high resolution, explorable faux "worlds" and idiosyncratic soundtracks are crucial attractions. There is a mysterious, intuitive engagement between the player and the world on the other side of the screen -and I have noticed (speaking as a lay person) that many of the features in a videogame are discernibly closer to our raw perception, as recounted in current popular science. The pixilated landscape in the screen is strangely akin to the world as we initially perceive it: no homogenized mimesis, just light reflected from surfaces, noted by the brain not for their beauty but for their relevance to behavioral goals. The hierarchy of presentation, those big heads, the disproportionate size of weapons, may also be deeply familiar. Significance is not a code invented by the intellect, it is the primary, raw value system -a truth which has been recognized by the performing arts since masks and costumes, big heads and exaggerated height were first used to impress an audience. Perhaps gamers reject realism and embrace the cartoon style partly because the "deficient" representation places the game not outside, as a spectacle, but inside the mind of the player/protagonist. Videogames are not yet designed to produce heightened, emotionally complex experiences. Yet something is moving, there in the faux-3D depth of the screen, and in the protagonist/observer relationship between the player and the game, which shines with a very enticing allure.
But these games have another curious feature. Where other forms of art and entertainment technology arrived first and were discussed afterwards, videogames -spreading and growing in the real world at the same pace as the IT revolution-have themselves been thoroughly re-presented, imagined, developed by the practitioners of another art form. Before we go over there and pick up the potion, let's take a step back and find out what meaning-what significance- has been given to the games in futuristic fiction.

The Games In Fiction

My heart pounded, my mouth hauled air. Across my shoulders a line of terrific tension knit my muscles, engaging in force with those other muscles, thrusting pistons of bone wrapped in blood and glistening hide. The pack surrounded me in thunder and bodily heat, little cold gouts of animal spittle hit my cheeks. I felt the thighs -my thighs- clench in a compulsion more violent than any amorous climax; and an enormous surge under me. I bowed my cheek against grey flesh running with a hot gloss of sweat, making myself light as air, standing on my toes, floating, no longer tense… Everything slowed.
Ah. Good one…

Escape Plans, Gwyneth Jones

In 1984 (which is when I was writing Escape Plans), videogames in the real world were fairly primitive. I was playing Pacman like a bulimic, gobbling dots in idiotic late night sessions, reduced to a barely sentient food-gathering loop (somebody stop me! I have to pick all these berries!). In my science fiction I imagined the vicset (vicarious experience) games by analogy from the catharsis of stage and screen drama. In the future, I said (no doubt recalling that lonely sports-reject, wandering the lacrosse field) people will be able to share the physical prowess, the risk, and the sheer mental and muscular work-out of an athlete, same way as they can now experience tragic or thrilling emotions through the mediation of actors playing the parts. It's suggested even in Escape Plans that there can be uglier forms of vicset. Other writers, notably William Gibson in his legendary 1984 novel Neuromancer, were giving fairly graphic descriptions of vicarious-experience torture, rape, snuff movies8. Maybe the important point (because let's face it, evil deeds are not and never have been dependent on any particular form of applied tech) is the statement that we can be wired for anything: the announcement that our consciousness is malleable. The cloud of fire can be ignited by technology, and it will not know the difference. Virtual reality experience -for the moment quite detached from the "world beyond the screen"-had arrived.
The relationship between videogames and science fiction has been close and pragmatic. Videogame sensibilities and modern sci-fi special effects grew up together. Sci-fi game scenarios are ubiquitous. Games developers discerned long ago that violent, gorily destructive shoot-'em-ups are less alarming to society's watchdogs if the victims are aliens, robots, or bio-engineered dinosaurs. The players' preference for the unreal is equally well served, while the deficiencies of the graphics of eighties and nineties games could be glossed over by a pulp-fiction cover-art style. Print fiction, equally, has used the games as a source of special effects: and also as metaphor -usually minatory. In Escape Plans the games mean unearned privilege. ALIC's ability to hijack the experience of another human being (an indentured laborer from the gladiatorial pool), although mild enough, is dehumanizing. In other sf, the message seems to be that in future we'll be able enact our most sickening desires without the cost of actually getting our hands bloodied; and of course we won't be able to resist the temptation.
In Orson Scott Card's immensely popular and acclaimed novel of 1985, Ender's Game, there's a war going on between the humans and some kind of bug-eyed monsters. The war is happening far, far away in outer space, but children sent to Battle School (the hero, Ender is eight years old at the time of this extract), are trained for those traditional interstellar dogfights through video-gaming. Here is Ender on his first day -a boy of destiny, a militaristic Harry Potter.

Within an hour or so it began to pall. Ender understood the regularities by then. Understood the rules that the computer was following, so that he knew he could always, once he'd mastered the controls, outmaneuver the enemy. Spirals when the enemy was like this; loops when the enemy was like that. Lie in wait at one trap. Lay seven traps and then lure them like this. There was no challenge to it then, just a matter of playing until the computer got so fast that no human reflexes could overcome it. That wasn't fun. It was the other boys he wanted to play. The boys who had been so trained by the computer that even when they played against each other they each tried to emulate the computer. Think like a machine instead of like a boy.
I could beat them this way. I could beat them that way.
'I'd like a turn against you,' he said to the boy who had just won.

Of course Ender wins. Before long he has learned to "think like a machine" and has been brought to the point where he will have no compunction in committing, still through the medium of a game, Xenogenocide. (We kill every last one of them, or they kill every last one of us, son. That's the way it works). So, no fresh insights into the human condition here… Perhaps the only thing in Ender's Game that would startle a reader today is the assumption that only children play virtual reality games; but the underlying philosophy is still disturbing and all too familiar. Waste the buggers, using highly intelligent technology that has no moral sense, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, wherever. With this kind of warfare you don't have to be brutalized in boot camp before you are able to kill. All you have to do is press the buttons at a distance: you will feel nothing. Waste the buggers. Waste them endlessly, all around the deserted Martian base, all around the bleak future urbanscapes of Metal Gear Solid. Do it inventively, do it moronically, do it with rumble: but that's the whole story. That's all there is.
The games technology in Escape Plans is wireless, and non-invasive. It's only poor people who have to get plugged in. In Ender's Game there's a zero-g playroom for physical simulations, but playing "mindgames" is not much different from sitting in front of a screen and using hand controls. But since Samuel Delaney's seminal novel Nova (1968) and James Tiptree Jr's acid satire "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973), sf writers have been fascinated by the idea of physically invasive connection to the machines: a connection which is both inescapably sexual and laden with doom. Henry Case, the hacker-mercenary of William Gibson's Neuromancer, only feels alive when he is jacked-in, surfing the data ocean, leaving the "meat" behind-sex and death fused in the allure of "Black Ice," the ultimate computer security, that can zip down that cable connection, through the neural jack and fry your brain. In Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang (1992), in a Chinese dominated twenty-first century, neural jacks are a mark of privilege. If you can plug yourself into the machinery of the State it means you are part of the system. Sexual games with the digital machines (or played through the medium of the digital machines) then become a subversion -illegal, addictive, life-affirming.

…Someone else jacks into our table as the golden ball is gliding past me and I feel everybody shift. It startles me and without thinking I reach out like a jai lai player and sling the ball my way.
When it hits there is an explosion of feeling. For a moment I am the golden ball and the golden ball is me and I am jolted with pleasure. It is orgasmic and threatens to unlock my knees, but before I can even react it washes through me and we drop out of contact. I blink and everybody grins at me. I look at them.
Then I remember. "My point," I say.
"Five points for a gold," says Liu Wen.
Back into the light, where I find my sensitivity is heightened. Now when the red or black balls come near I feel a tickle of sensation, with the golden ball it is more definite. The silver balls seem colder. I become more aggressive in my play and catch the red ball twice. The explosion is less dramatic than the golden ball, and I remember to say, "My point," each time…"
China Mountain Xhang, Maureen McHugh

In Candas Jane Dorsey's feminist post-cyberpunk story "Machine Sex," the sexual connection is gender-defined and bleak. Angel, a woman in the boys' world of software development, abused both physically and psychologically by her colleagues, extracts a vicious revenge by inventing a form of software sex that will give irresistible satisfaction to the male users -and remove their power over women.

It was very simple, really. If orgasm was binary it could be programmed. Feed back the sensation through one or more touch pads to program the body. The other thing she knew about human sex was that it was as much cortical as genital, or more so; touch is optional for the turn-on. Also easy, then, to produce cortical stimuli by programmed input. The rest was a cosmetic elaboration of the premise.
At first it did turn him on, then off, then it made his blood run cold. She was pleased by that, her work had chilled her too.
"You can't market that thing!" he said.
"Why not? It's a fucking good program. Hey, get it? Fucking good."
"It's not real."
"Of course it isn't. So what?"

Strangely enough, or maybe not so strangely, machine sex has never taken off in the real world. "Virtual Sex" (that you pay for) nowadays means a private interactive sex video, with a girl (predominantly, at least, for the mass market) who may be on the other side of the world, who can't see you, and who may not feel particularly sullied by the transaction as long as she keeps her imagination in check. Touchie-feelie versions will surely come, but since girls are so cheap and so readily available it seems unlikely that they will be replaced by software. The sexual element in commercial videogames themselves is controlled by censorship, but to an extent, undoubtedly, also by the self-censorship of the (predominantly young, male) market. Female characters proliferate and are ranked as pinups in the magazines as if they were flesh and blood: but perhaps they are too close to being potent, desirable alter-ego figures (as suggested in Carol Clover's work on gender roles in modern horror films12) for overt sexual behavior to be found appropriate in the gameplay.
In the highly influential 1999 science fiction thriller The Matrix (complete with phallic female icon Carrie Ann Moss), the key to freedom, in a world which is in fact a videogame (though most people don't know it) is to realize (to make real) the fact that you have the same power to defy the apparently immutable laws of gravity, time, space as the oppressors who are running the show. In my own Nineties science fiction, the games became the means whereby my characters escaped from the impoverished, alien-occupied, war-torn environment of a future Europe… into other worlds, both natural and fantastic, where most players are punters and obey the rules, but some have magical powers-

Towards midnight the monkeys entered the city with torches. The battle had been long and varied. Sugreeva was surprised that Angada was still with him. His arm had regrown, but now he'd lost a leg and it appeared not to be regenerating. He also had a grisly head wound. He hopped gamely along on a whole-tree crutch. This monkey was a spider of sorts, but he wasn't very good. The clumsier rule-benders usually avoided the experts. Angada wasn't going to be making any extra kills around Sugreeva. Sugreeva's count in this tranche was respectable, Angada was barely scoring.
Indrajiit still lived. He and Sugreeva seemed well-matched.
The city, oh the terrible sights of that city! Monkeys and demons stumbled through its fire and blood dabbled streets, limbs shattered, eyes blinded, choking in poisoned fumes, witnessing and perpertrating hideous atrocities-
'Whatever turns you on,' muttered Agreeva, as they passed a monkey holding up a demon child, to impale it screaming on another's armed mace. 'I suppose it's therapy.'

North Wind Gwyneth Jones 1994

While experiencing a full sensurround illusion, as monkeys and demons acting out the scenes of the Hindu mythic-drama the Ramayana or in some other engrossing scenario, the players -and the spiders, players who know how to trick the game's software-are not as divorced from the real world as they seem.

…Once you're in the game environment, or when it is in you, you'll run around and jump about in real space, with your physical body, in the arena beyond those doors. It'll seem like a whole world. The sensei will stop you from colliding with anybody, or doing anything to make you conscious of the real-world scruffy hall in there. Remember what a sensei is? The Master Control Program. It keeps everyone in the same envie in contact, by sensing the electrical activity in your brain and converting it into void-forces signals: it's light, but not visible light. Your world will be made of the libretto, the storybook that's been put into your brain. Plus the input from all the players who have entered the same envie, wherever they may be. You understand?
She nodded.
He took her by the shoulders, his touch circumspect and distant, and guided her into position, her back to one of the gates. He showed her a tiny vial, cupped in his palm.
'What's that?'
'This is your visor. This is how the games get into your head…Look up.'
She heard the murmur of his voice, felt the liquid touch her eyes. She dropped, into infinite space. She was in the game…

Phoenix Café (1997) Gwyneth Jones

Eventually, games technology would allow my characters to leapfrog the laws of physics and escape from time and space: and gaming technology would become the gateway to instantaneous transit, an interstellar future… But while I was leading them to this point I became more and more interested in the mechanics of the virtual environment. In print fiction, as on the tv or movie screen, "cyberspace" all too easily becomes another Never-never land. You "jack-in," you swallow the pill, you program the holodeck, and you are in the land of dreams. I had signaled my resistance to this conflation by insisting on physical participation. My cyber-players are not lying in body bags hooked up to the machines, they are running around. The virtual world is brought to life through their muscles and nerves, through chemicals pumped into their blood; by what's happening in that cloud of sparks. But that's metaphor. I wanted to know what was actually going on in the minds of people playing present-day fantasy games, this new dimension of fiction: this storytelling that insists it is not about "stories."

The Game And The Players.

The game goes like this. You meet a girl, a flower-girl… Then you're on a train, urban metro, in a mysteriously empty carriage. You're with your companions, a strong man and a girl; there's another girl on the train in disguise. You are with members of a terrorist resistance group called Avalanche. You used to be a member of an elite Ideological State Militia called Soldier, but you have changed allegiance. Now you're on your way, with the group, to blow up one of the main reactors, and the bad guys will be trying to stop you. Industrial scenery, metal ladders, huge pipelines. Your friends tell you they can see the Mako glow in your eyes. Members of Soldier are exposed to Mako energy when they're recruited, and it never leaves them… Nothing looks futuristic, nothing looks romantically "mediaeval." Maybe the levels of the vast city are a little like the shabbier, lo-rise urban side of present-day Japan. Occasionally, as the game goes on, there'll be intrusions of "reality" -a boss in a suit, who leaves in a helicopter: but this is a world between worlds, just as the names of the characters (your name is Cloud, your companions are called things like Barrett and Jessie, the flower girl is Aeris) come from no particular lexicon. Action, movement. Up the ladders, down the ladders: bright coloured arrows show you where you can go. Choreographed fights emerge out of nowhere. Fights are good, they earn you HP. You learn to approach the secondary figures (the extras, who are serving in shops and loitering around the scenery) to request their input, which will be delivered in text boxes, in lines of white type on blue. You remember to look around, and pick up any extraneous items lying in the street, or under the bushes… How is this different from the games you've played before?
Through flashbacks and illuminating dialogue you'll put together the plot. Mako is the energy of the earth (aka Gaia). Shinra's reactors are sucking out this energy to use as their power source, with the result that the earth is dying, polluted, ruined. As the game opens up you'll find yourself in mysterious communication with someone who turns out to be the ultimate bad guy, the boss baddie. His name is Sephiroth. Your connection with him is obviously intimate, but when you find out the truth it's worse than you could possibly have imagined. You are a construct. Sephiroth made you. All your memories, even your memory of your mother, even that sojourn in Soldier are false. You'll be devastated when you discover this…and if the theme of horror at the determinist constraints of human nature (or of God's inscrutable dealings with Man) comes to you with the shock of the new, the part of you that is not Cloud will be seriously impressed at the twist in the plot. But that's not all. The first ensemble of characters won't survive for long. Many of your friends will be casualties as the game progresses; one of the most beloved of the main characters (like Obi Wan Konobi, in the first Star Wars episode released) will have to die, in order to serve the Good… Yes, of course it's a battle between Good and Evil. Yes, the ending will satisfy you. It will be cathartic. You will feel, if you have surrendered yourself to the game, as if you've been put through an emotional wringer by the end: but you will feel triumph and peace.
Final Fantasy VII (FFVII), says a fourteen year old player, "can only be described as an epic game. It was the first English Final Fantasy game [1-6 only came out in Japan] and was released near the launch of Playstation 2 [Sony's current game console]; it has provided inspiration for many future titles. It went multi-platinum and went down in history as a truly great game. I think this was because of its originality, plot and gameplay/difficulty curve. It has a little bit of everything. It is basically about a boy and his nemesis, Cloud and Sephiroth, with many other interwinding stories as well."
What's the difference between playing an RPG and reading a book?
"I've read Philip Pullman [His Dark Materials trilogy] and Harry Potter. I think playing Final Fantasy took me about as long as reading Philip Pullman-it was a lot of hours of gameplay. The difference is that in FFVII you have a personal experience when playing and visuals to push the story along and add interest. When two people read the same book they read exactly the same words and meet the same characters. In a Final Fantasy game there are a lot more things to do. You can breed Chocobos [big cartoon birds that look something like dodos: magical steeds], play minigames, collect special items, and defeat special monsters. Often this enhances the plot but it is always optional -only the most dedicated player would completely complete an FF game."
Perhaps only the most dedicated reader could extract the whole meaning from a adult novel of comparable (remember, FFVII is written for young teens length and sweep. I don't suppose I'll ever completely complete War and Peace, or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. My young players were, however, aware of a contradiction. One of them told me that you couldn't ever put the whole of the Philip Pullman trilogy or The Lord of The Rings into a fantasy game, because "it would take far too long. No one could play it." For better or for worse there is something in the print fiction that is not compressible into gameplay. Can this change? Should it change? What exactly is the relationship between a role-playing videogame and any other kind of story?
Steven Poole, author of Trigger Happy, describes a games designer, Chris Crawford in Los Angeles, casting his vote for the liberation from linear storytelling. In a fantasy RPG: "the story is generated in real time, in direct response to the players actions…(and) is customized to the needs and interests of the audience…"14 One of my young players said much the same thing -and no wonder. He's been exposed to Games criticism and theory, through Strategy Guides and Playstation Magazine editorials. He knows what he's supposed to think. Outside the marketing of the games, in real life, we can easily discern that this "liberation" is illusory. There are specific things Cloud can do, there are questions he can ask, that lead him through the events as inexorably as the reader is drawn through the pages of a novel by the incidents of the plot. A game may have many "authors" instead of one (just as in the making of a movie), but there is no slackening of authorial control. Though players sometimes complain about the restrictions imposed on them (why can't Lara use her bazooka to blast down that door? Why does she have to find the key?15), it's clear that they don't even want their freedom -they just like being told that they have it. They still want to be told a story. My young players made an interesting distinction, in this respect, between an exploration/puzzle game like Tomb Raider and the character-oriented Final Fantasy. You might get annoyed about what Lara Croft can't do with her armory: but if Cloud can't do something, that's part of the story. When I asked them how they felt about the secondary characters and would it be an improvement if they were able to choose to play from any viewpoint, I was told that you do get to understand the other characters, "you get a deeper look into everybody's background." The ensemble is felt to be an essential part of the game, but just as the fixed gameplay is perfectly acceptable, changing your character viewpoint in FFVII would be nonsense: "The protagonist is the protagonist -not the biggest or the best person, but the person the story's about."
It is not surprising that a role-playing fantasy comes several steps nearer to recognizable dramatic fiction than an action game. Tomb Raider, like those tv challenge shows with volunteer contestants, is the apotheosis of a board game -with an inexplicably, unisexually charming animated counter for you to move through the squares. FFVII is something different. But what struck me most, when I started to play, was how deeply familiar I found the set-up. What happens on the screen may have been choreographed by teams of writers and programmers and discussed in committee like a Hollywood movie, but it plays like a child's game of make believe. I remember this! I remember the brief encounters, the vivid action-incidents: where are we? We're on an underground train. We're going to blow up the reactor… You do that, I do this, watch out for bad guys… I remember how these arousal points had to be strung together and made plausible, by dialogue exposition and retroactive plot development. I know that my novels are still generated in the same way. Themes and plots are off the peg. The story that I write is a transcription of the imagined scenes that I have lived, vividly, in make-believe, as an observer magically able to experience the viewpoint and the emotions of the characters. The plausible, smoothly connected plot, the agreement with the conventions of mimesis in the novel form: these are illusions, laboriously created after the fact. My dialogue, like the dialogue in FFVII, is really a series of instructions, embedded in "conversations" that are mostly inactive matrix. My characters are no more free to express themselves than Cloud, or Barrett, or Aeris. I will craft a whole scene around one line that I know must be spoken, for the sake of my characterization or my plot. My triumph is when you, dear reader, can't tell the difference and call this painstaking illusion "natural." And finally, when my story pauses, when one of those climactic action points is over (or about to start), I will relax and gather my forces in the stillness of a passage of pure description. Another quote from one of my teenage players: "You really look forward to cut-scenes, because they are things of beauty…"
In a big, prosperous Victorian-style novel, or in a twentieth-century modern literary fiction almost devoid of adventure, the lineaments of make-believe may be buried deep, but the evolution is always there to be traced. In Fanny Ratchford's critical study of the Bronte sisters (The Brontes' Web Of Childhood)16 she lays bare the traces of the Brontes' highly colored childhood fantasies of Gondal and Angria in the improbable plots, the lightning vividness and the passion of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre -a famous and rare case of barely contaminated survival. But even Anthony Trollope must have imagined certain intense moments and dwelt on them lovingly, before rubbing them down into conventional form and fitting them into a polished, prolix false-reality. Final Fantasy VII is far from being a great novel, but it plays like the germ-plasm of a real novel, for the first time made available to the audience. It convinces like a clunky form of AI -that looks like a shoebox and talks like a duck, and yet, discernibly, the team is on the right track this time. Somewhere up ahead there's a game which is as different from a novel as print fiction is different from a stage play, a movie, an epic poem: but no less a valid, complex, and satisfying work of art. It will be a story, of course faked, of course full of deceptive "simplicities" that conceal multifarious tricks of the trade, but much closer to the original, virtual-experience of make-believe. The medium will be the message, but the message will be very old-it just took a long time to get through.
When I asked my teenage players how they saw the games developing in the future, they gave me standard answers. Brilliant graphics, more complicated gameplay, more freedom in the game to do what you want. One boy said "I can see the plot being built by personal decisions a lot more." I think that last idea is an illusion, something they tell the customers to think. Plot will remain plot, characters will remain characters, story will remain something that the game player experiences, rather than creating. But I can envisage a time analogous to the change in scientific research wrought by the availability of truly massive number-crunching computer power. So far, the "story" in videogames has been very limited. Gameplay has made a virtue of the necessity to concentrate on action moves, the same way hard sciences used to make a virtue of sticking to the narrow confines of those natural phenomena that would conform to rules of Newton and Euclid. One day soon, the games will offer gameplay that tackles the complex variables of human emotion and motivation; as fluently as SSX handles snowboarding tricks. That won't be to everybody's taste, but it will be an unstoppable revolution.


Society Is Going To Tear Your Technology Apart

Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny. The games are valuable to society for the same reasons that make play valuable to the individual. From their earliest infanthood (from before birth), children play as rehearsal for life -developing the mechanical routines of movement, grasping objects, getting food into their mouths, moving on to the equally vital rehearsals of language development and social interaction. Throughout history games -for adults and children- have doubled as weapons training, narcotic for the underprivileged, ideological indoctrination, a means of wealth creation, and finally, paradoxically, as a safety valve for the resentments that the masses may feel.
The watchdogs of society should certainly be paying attention to videogames, not so much because a generation of young people (predominantly, not exclusively, the boys) is growing up, has already grown up, addicted to interactive ultra-violent cartoons, but because of the attitude to life that lies behind the spattering gore. Win. Collect tokens. Waste your enemies: that's all there is. The games did not invent the ideology, but they reinforce it, in the lab-rat sense of the term, like nobody's business. Steven Poole suggests as a corrective that players of violent games should be made to suffer the consequences of their actions -if you betray a friend, if you leave your wounded behind, if you kill without reason or do anything in contravention of the Geneva Convention, the game will swing around and give you a heavy shot of instant karma; and you'll know not to do that again. Doing wrong should hurt…17 It's nice idea, and intrinsically it should be acceptable to the players (good deeds are just a different form of currency, aren't they?). I've a feeling you'd have to change the assumptions of your society first, or nobody would buy your sissy game. But I don't know. Dramatic art, as I pointed out in the first passages of this paper, is a morally neutral force with a powerful kick.
At first glance it is quite startling to find the mighty Sony corporation peddling a passionate satire on the evils of nuclear power, validating the Gaia theory through Shinto religious faith, and actively promoting a fairytale in which the horror of the modern human condition is laid bare. You don't belong to yourself, son. You belong to the corporation. Everything you do, everything you think, everything you think you want -those aren't your own ideas. The corporation did it to you. You have no free will. Further consideration shows that this is no more than the usual role of fairytale, in modern dress. The tale of the goose girl who turns out to be a princess doesn't foment radical demands for social equality. It keeps the goose girl happy in her lot, because you never know. The lucky ticket doesn't have to come to everyone; it's enough that it is believed to exist. FFVII is one of those stories that acknowledges the evils of the world and redeems them (whether or not they deserve redemption) by weaving them into a rich tapestry of heightened experience: converting them into something that gives pleasure. If fantasy games carry on along this route, they might have some effect on the brutal ideology of our century, without any deleterious implication for the profit-motive, by the mere act of inoculating the players with complexity.
The first videogame I ever played was "Pong" -aptly described by Michael Dixon, news editor of the Internet magazine as "tennis that has been cooked down to a kernel. It's one grey bar against another grey bar hitting a grey square. These games were pretty good!" I was rather scandalized at the way the game usurped the tv screen, social hearth of the late twentieth century, but I was impressed, like Mr Dixon, with the instant success of this utterly simple idea, instantly addictive, to a completely non-sporting klutz like me. I've played the games, sporadically, ever since. But when I met "Pong" I was already adult, already set in my ways. The young people who helped me with this paper started playing videogames when they were five or six years old, but even they were already living in a world of books and tv. What will it be like for another generation, "born and bred" so to speak in the virtual world? I don't look forward to any great moral or social change wrought by the games, but I so look forward to a strange time: when people accustomed from childhood to virtual environments, to e-learning, to constructing alternate "selves" and setting them loose in chat rooms will bring to the videogame-art form the sensibilities, both ancient and very new, of make-believe turned into immediate, completely convincing experience. It's said that the work of science fiction is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I often find that what we do is to take some persistent fiction of contemporary human life and turn it into (imaginary) science.One day videogames are going to complete the loop and make the persistent fiction of the fully immersive virtual world into reality.

(Essay adapted from a Guest of Honour speech given at Swecon, Linkoping, 2002, and published in Imagination/Space, Aqueduct Press 2009)