GAMING VS LIFE: The Noob's Guide to Escapism...

Okay, so there aren't exactly robot slaves and flying cars these days, but 2011 is a lot more 'futuristic' than some of us give credit...

Okay, so there aren't exactly robot slaves and flying cars these days, but 2011 is a lot more 'futuristic' than some of us give credit. I mean, imagine if, back in the Eighties, someone told you you'd be jumping into digitally-rendered worlds in less than three decades time? That you could create you perfect little 'avatar', at the click of a few buttons (and the frustrating wait of continual patch downloads) occupy an entirely new alias in a fantasy world... humbling stuff, when you get to thinking about it. Not exactly what Blade Runner foresaw, that's for sure (unless the replicants are indeed living among us). Online role-play is big business indeed. Blizzard's World of Warcraft and Linden Lab's Second Life are all the evidence you need of that. We've all the heard the news stories of addicted players who let themselves expire in their office chairs--starved of that oh-so-important real-world sustenence-- and of the grossly overweight Second-Life addicts doing the online nasty behind each other's back in the safety of an optimistically sexy virtual character. Sure, for us more 'in touch' gamers these cases seem isolated and ridiculous, but it does raise an interesting point: is real-life just over-rated? If you've a chance at another fantastic life, shouldn't you embrace it? Or shouldn't we all just get a grip and accept that no pleasure in a game exceeds good ol' clean living? I sense pros and cons on the horizon...

THE 'SOCIAL NETWORK':

There was a time when the computer game was, if nothing else, an alternative to interaction with human beings. But, alas, this has all changed with the introduction of the worldwide web. For many people, gaming is an excellent way of meeting and interacting with new people. Let's be honest, in real-life we most commonly meet new people through either the tedium of our working lives or through a night on the town--getting utterly wasted is neither to everyone's liking nor, in all honesty, flattering of the world's most intelligent prmate. Surely, in this day and age, a man should be able to meet new allies in both the safety of his own nest and, more importantly, whilst doing something predictable like, say, saving Azeroth from dark forces. Let's also be fair: a lot of modern people are utter jerks. At least if you get bottled in a bar-fight in the orc capital of Orgrimmar, you can always respawn at the nearest graveyard. Try a night in A&E if you're living in the real-world. Surely the sense of fellowship one finds in online parties can only be a good thing? Well, it would be if it weren't for one obvious fact... jerks play games too. And yes, although physical damage to one's self is not an issue in an avatar body, lippy little know-it-alls with a deluded sense of superiority are more than abundant. First time players should be warned, do not play as what might be referred to as 'the healer'. People treat these guys like crap. Every veteran player in the area will be calling upon you for medical support regardless of your experience. And they ain't nice and supportive about it if you drop the ball. You'd be fooled into thinking that some players valued each of their infinitely renewable lives as much as their real-one. In fact, jerks can often be even bigger jerks in a game. Take online FPS's and microphone chat. Jerks aren't afraid to throw about words like 'fag'. Why? Because they know they can do so without the fist to the nose they so blatantly deserve. Which brings up a point. Part of socialising is the right to kick a jerk in the balls. Games provide a barrier to this fact. That sucks.

LOVE IS IN THE AIR

Ah, but surely we cannot forget the beauties of love, passion and fulfillment of sexual fantasy? Yes, meeting new people is tough at the best of times, but meeting that 'special someone'? 'Tis a trial that many find more insurmountable than all the exams, over-time and financial troubles put together. A nagging self-awareness can be damaging to one's potential charisma, especially when we think our arse is bit too fat or our spots are flaring up. Let us yet again ponder upon the case of David Pollard, whose online Casanova antics as 'Dave Barmy' was the stuff of news back in 2008. Surely our man Dave (whose Second-Life counterpart was, at best, an optimistic interpretation of the self) wasn't capable of that sort of Tiger Woods/Ashley Cole faithlessness in his own body? Christ, he even met his first wife in the cyberworld (married her there too)--this wasn't just casual recreation, this was realisation of a man's most primal need. Second-Life gave Dave a chance to be the flithy beggar most of us men probably are deep down. Surely, if nothing else, that's a positive boost if one suffers a severely deflate ego? Or not. The truth is, though many a website such as Match can provide irreplacable partnering tools, the use of games as 'another existence' does have a wealth of horrendous pitfalls. For example, what is the point in all that virtual groping and tongue-wrestling if, at the end of it, one isn't going to savour the *ahem* delights of the flesh? Surely part of that sort of gratification is in the acts themselves, rather than some teasing mimicry, which only serves to remind you that no-one in 'your league' will ever be as inhumanely gorgeous as the supermodel elves which occupy the gaming world? But, of course, I'm being cynical. If you (pardon the expression) 'click' with someone online, surely there's no harm in meeting the beautiful mind behind your digital paramour? Well, depends on how much that elvish body really meant you. The sad fact is that high-level, carefully constructed characters are only formed by someone with a LOT of time on their hands. With that in mind, you can bet the best and brightest characters are, in fact, the most socially awkward of all. The likelihood of any mirroring personality, confidence or radiant good-looks between the avatar and the person are slim, at best. You think people are disappointing when you get to know them? Just try it this way and see.

IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY...

But, all seedy ulterior motives aside, sometimes all we ask for in a game (and especially in an online game) is a chance to be a part of... well, something greater than humble normality. We want power... Adventure... Admiration (even if it be that of an NPC)... It's no secret, for example that December's release of Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to be big. Huge, even. Gargantuan, perhaps. Why? Because, quite frankly, we science-fiction buffs are all sick of watching fictitious characters and the actors who play them hogging all the glory. We want in. The idea of being a mighty Sith Lord or a noble Jedi hero in the golden days of the Republic is enough to get us flailing our arms and whooping like an irritating gungan. Sure, it's all make believe, but when you and thousands of others share in the same delusion it sort of... gains clarity. Let's be frank, George Lucas is never going to let you pen the next great chapter in his hallowed space epic (though many would argue it's no longer safe in old Georgie's meddling hands) and the closest you'll get to jumping to lightspeed is running to the office loo when the previous evening's undercooked Jalfrezi heads South. Games are, in all honesty, a chance to 'live the dream'... an opportunity to experience the worlds, locals and dynamics of places we'd long pined for. Or they would, if it weren't for one thing: other people. Because if we know anything from the past of online games (MMO's and FPS's equally) it's that nothing quite breaks the illusion of escapism than someone hurtling swear words, death threats, annoyingly ambiguous acronyms and generally made-up words. Going back to 'The Old Republic', for example... how is one meant to truly relish in the maniacal thrill of being an all-powerful Sith Inquisitor--bolts of lightning frying every Jedi in sight--when the seasoned Bounty Hunter uses words like 'F****ing NooB' and 'pwnd', before no doubt breaking into some kind of dance. Indeed, how is anyone going to take the evil Darth Malerus serious when said Bounty Hunter's name is 'KillyodaXxXx'. I'm sure Empire Strikes Back would have been a much different piece altogether if, whilst Vader was handing over the carbonite-frozen Han Solo, Boba Fett had replied "KK, LFT to raid Jabba's Palace, WOOT WOOT!" The point is, as hard as many try to truly 'escape' into the 'alternative' reality of their beloved mythologies, they're constantly reminded of its artificiality by the more casual gamer. Worse than that, it calls to attention the sad devotion we all find ourselves holding to it. Effective escapism should have no such invasions of self-consciousness. Let us dream, for crying out loud. Gaming's got a long way to go, no doubt about that. Who knows what hemorrhage-inducing wonderment will come out of the developers' minds next? What seemless virtual worlds will our grand-children's grand-children lose themselves in? And, when the illusion of reality is finally mastered, will it be healthy for them? Whatever the case, one thing's for sure... games aren't even close to it yet. So when you hear all these horror stories about people dying whilst being addicted to WoW, just remember one thing: games are still as definitely games as they were when 'Asteroids' were released. Life is, unfortunately, still the only one we've really got. Log-on, group up, join the raid, smash a SPARTAN in the face and enjoy the ride. Then move on.

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Brad Fear is the published writer of two novels, 'A Macabre Myth of a Moth-Man' and its sequel, 'A Siren Song for the Stricken'. He is a keen gamer and an expert on all things Pokemon, Final Fantasy and Star Wars related. His overt geekish qualities have defined him as a leading expert in 'useless knowledge'. Plus he has the second best name in living memory (damn you, Captain Fantastic).