In case you don’t know, MMORPGs are Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. And I think they’re fun. They call for the same sort of commitment readers make when they get involved in a story and suspend disbelief, feeling the fictional characters to be at least as real as they are themselves. My novella, Alternative Dimension, is about the attractions and the dangers of playing games and entering a virtual reality. For me, being part of a fantastical online community was a source of humour, a chance to indulge in some gentle satire, as well as a place where I met and got to know people I’d never have come across otherwise.
People are surprisingly unguarded there, revealing intimate secrets to others, even though they’re only interacting with an avatar and they have no idea of who the person behind it is. The risks in that are obvious, and the whole business of grooming and manipulation is very sinister and very real. And, of course, as someone unloads their childhood traumas onto you, you’ve no idea whether they’re true, whether the person’s male, female, Aryan supremacist or Jehovah’s Witness. (It could even be your partner on a laptop in another room – which is an even scarier thought.)
But games are making legitimate claims to be a separate art form in their own right. They’re like movies, they’re like books, but they have dimensions of interactivity which go beyond the traditional. The immersive atmosphere they create, the power of their music, which now has mainstream respectability (the London Philharmonic has recorded several of the best-known themes), the fact that you, as a player, actually inhabit the story and the settings – all of this makes different demands on the creative input of designers but also of players.
So the BBC radio programme I heard about the whole subject made for fascinating listening. One interviewee talked interestingly about how increases in computing power and the refinements in the disciplines involved in creating all aspects of a game meant that today’s ‘best’ experiences were constantly being superseded. Whereas Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and the rest continue to be read and performed, old computer games seem limp and passé.
As I said, all of this was very informative and interesting. But, as she continued to enthuse about the excitement and value of getting immersed in games, she made one throwaway remark which I found very chilling and which made me rethink the values she was ascribing to them. To make her point about how games do have an afterlife in the memories of those who’ve played them, she described a night she’d spent escaping from some captors, gathering weapons, fighting her way along and eventually dragging her boy friend’s body from where he’d been held captive. There was a smile in her voice as she described it all, and the residual excitement was obvious. But then, after all these ordeals, she said ‘God, I felt like I’d gone through Vietnam’.
And there, it seems to me, you have a hidden danger. Not just treating war as a game but diminishing reality itself. It’s a paradox. This isn’t a criticism of her and I don’t mean to imply thoughtlessness or insensitivity on her part. She was interesting, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. The experience for her was real, draining, even traumatic, but its ‘reality’ was immediately put into perspective by the inappropriate parallel she implied with true stress and horror. OK, it wasn’t a considered remark but, in a way, that makes it worse. As I said, I’m not condemning her, I’m asking whether our priorities and sensivities are shifting.