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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
into other worlds, both natural and fantastic, where
most players are punters and obey the rules, but some have magical
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
'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?
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.
'This is your visor. This is how the games get into your head
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
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
is customized to the needs and interests of the audience
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
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
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
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 Classicgaming.com
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)