Friday, May 12, 2006

Atrocity learns a lesson

This week has been very strange and highly emotional for reasons it isn't prudent to go into here. I merely preface this piece with that information in order that you may realise that I'm "not quite myself" and that might make what I'm about tell you a wee bit more comprehensible.

So, to the nub of the matter. I am currently obsessed with a video game called "Animal Crossing". Now those that know me will say that I am not much of a gamer, which is true. A half hour of Counter Strike once in a while is plenty, thanks. If pushed, I favour "knifey-grenadey", a variant of the game which precludes the use of all ranged weaponry. It's very Ancient Greek really; they poured scorn on the Persians for the effeminate antics of using bows and arrows and, even more girly, wearing trousers. Real men wore skirts and no under-pants, if that, something which I still don't understand. Anyway back to the point in hand - I don't really play games and I didn't own a current gaming system. But I felt I must be missing out on something here. So I asked around the studio I work in. Being a visual effects facility the place is stuffed full of uber-geeks who were keen to evangelise their favoured platform/game etc. The distillation of all this wisdom was that I should buy a Nintendo DS and Animal Crossing, which I did.

The principle of Animal Crossing is straight forward, you are a cute little person who moves to a small seaside village populated by other small cute people with whom you must live, chat with and help out. You can collect shells and fruit, dig for fossils or go fishing all in a totally non-linear way. It's like Grand Theft Auto for hippies, basically. Now many of the inhabitants of my village are a bit weird or irritating. There's Roald the weight-training obsessed penguin, or Opal the elephant, who's always complaining about her boyfriends and so on. Alice, on the other hand, was pretty sensible, and calls everyone "geezer" or "guvnor" which I thought was sweet. Alice and I had got on, she'd helped decorate my little house, I'd run a few errands for her and the things she had to say were pretty funny. Then disaster struck, I went round to her house to find all her stuff in boxes and she announces that she's leaving "Whimsy" (the name of my village). I try to talk her out of it (which isn't easy when you only get 2 possible things to say to any question she asks or statement she makes) and eventually she agrees to think about it and make up her mind by the following day.


And I, as in really me, not the little munchkin I control on screen (see above), but really real me, a thirty year old man, am genuinely upset and concerned about all of this. I can only conclude that either :

  1. Human beings are hard-wired to respond emotionally when we are subliminally stimulated in certain ways OR
  2. I am a sap.

I expect that there's an element of truth to both of these statements, but I do think it's an illustration of the power of these immersive environments that can transport us and short-circuit our inbuilt reserve about emotion. I know that Alice is a character made by my DS, I know that if she leaves "Whimsy" nothing has happened in the real world. I know that she probably has some sort of "should I stay or should I go" algorithm to prompt these actions along with all her other behaviour traits but still none of that prevents me from seeing her as a real person within the context of the game. Amazing. I begin to understand the fascination of the MMORPGs more now, and I further comprehend my chum The Furry Straayan's comment that as soon as they develop World of Warcraft for mobile phones there are many lives around the world that are effectively over. You can see it everywhere, there was a fascinating presentation at Pop!Tech this year about real-world economics in MMORPGs and that people can and do choose to effectively live permanently in these online worlds. In some ways it puts a fearsome burden of responsibility on Blizzard, the games maker, as there's a lot more at stake now than simply walloping an Orc.

Alice decided not to leave in the end so I shan't have to sue Nintendo for emotional injury and counselling expenses, and although you can't really see it in the picture, you should check out my AC/DC t-shirt I designed for my character. For those about to rock...

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