The Real, The Virtual and The Ugly

I’ve never pretended to be a massive gamer. I spend a few nights a week cruising Los Santos, frequenting strip clubs and mowing down unsuspecting members of the public, but let’s admit it, who hasn’t fantasied about doing at least one of the above, especially the latter? But a ten-year stretch in real jail because of some repressed disinclination toward the general public probably isn’t worth it.

There’s a lot of media hype about whether or not video games, like the one mentioned above, which virtually glamorise violence, actually inspire real hatred to one’s fellow man. The argument follows that violent games and movies inspire young people to go out and commit similar acts in the real world, just as they would in its virtual counterpart. True, the characters in GTA V are a bunch of psychopathic, fouled mouthed, sons-of-bitches, but that’s part of the attraction, especially in this age of unrelenting political correctness which saturates all other forms of the entertainment culture from TV to Hollywood, which the games industry seems to have escaped unscathed from.

Anyway, isn’t the whole point of gaming is to escape reality, not mirror it? It wouldn’t do, if a new release were entitled: The Convert: follow the trials and tribulations of Mohammed Whodehella (formally John Smith), radicalised over the Internet by boy band ISA (formally Individual Savings Account). From his suburban dwelling in Blackburn, we follow the ‘I can’t believe he could do it’ grade-A student on a soul-searching journey across the Turkish border to Syria, from the slaughterhouse blues of cavernous dwellings to the refugee camps of Christian minorities – an odyssey of pure discovery. Or what about Depression Quest: an interactive game where you play someone living with depression, tackling a series of everyday events such as the precariousness of your mental illness, relationships, jobs and possible treatments. (Actually I tell a lie, the latter is a real game not a virtual construct of this writer’s warped imagination).

Moving on, the point of games is to escape reality not to inhabit a surrogate virtual reality. It’s a generational thing, this obsession with micro-managing every minuscule aspect of our lives: from calorie intake to Facebook friends to our Curriculum Vitae, we have our ‘life paths’ charted and graded from birth to death, and this culture even transmutes into the virtual realm. Ask your self how many hours of your ‘precious life’ you’ve spent cooking or organising your ‘home’ in Skyrim? Or what about The Sims, which is practically an alternative life – with all the really boring bits – for those sad enough to play it. Even Football Manager feels like a full time job, with the charts, meetings, sackings and financial budgets; don’t we have enough of that prosaic banality in our real lives? Perhaps not, especially if you’re an obsessive compulsive, desperate for more.

So what is it that attracts people to living these bizarre and often tedious virtual realities? Who knows, maybe life really is that dull; but if it is, it’s only because we choose it to be. Are we all slowly being mutated into automatons; calculated droids unable to pass even a few minutes staring into space without catching a quick glimpse of twitter or some other alienating social networking machination, when even our leisure time (a supposed hiatus from all the life-tedium) is spent charting, organising, and budgeting – in the virtual? Think about all those hundreds of management-game Apps, played by millions of commuters on the way home from an ugly 8-hour stretch at the office.

So where does all this leave us? The late veteran gamer Robin Williams said that: “Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t handle drugs.” Quite, but for a lot of us the new drug is the virtual realm, whether it be our phones, tablets, consoles, dating sites or internet pornography; and no doubt in the near future we’ll be strapping some sort of contraption across our faces, sticking microchips in our brains, accessing the internet through our cerebral cortex or whatever it’s called, living in virtual ignorant bliss. But until then, I’ve got the real laundry to do, got to pay my real bills and really wake up to go to work; oh and need to arrange my virtual library in Skyrim. Where do I find the time?

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