I’ve always tended towards the idea that Avatar is about the plight of a gamer. The protagonist Sully, caught between a live action world and an animated one, directly experiences a generational and cultural divide that bears far more on the nature of what deserves to be called real (or meaningful) than just simply what happens to be moral at the time. The fact that James Cameron himself refers to the digital system of creating Pandora as “like a video game” only seems to enhance this view—as does my favorite scene in the film, in which Sully reaches out to his surrogate father, the Colonel, explaining the rite of manhood ritual he is undergoing for the Na’Vi tribe. Sully is greeted with a look akin to a father hearing that his son is going on about that damn World of Warcraft again; instead of validation or approval, Sully’s told that the whole thing is just absurd—and worthless.
It’s quite clear that we adore our fictional loves (be they in movies or in games). Avatar, if it is about anything above and beyond Cameron’s environmentalism and noble savage cliches, is most definitely about this romance with the virtual. It’s really no accident that in Cinema 2: The Time-Image Gilles Deleuze defines the “virtual image” as being the nature of the cliche: something represented instead of directly perceived, something that bears on our preconceptions about others before our sense of objectivity about them.
The power of the virtual image is the reason for women like The Matrix‘s Trinity, Tron: Legacy‘s Quorra, Avatar‘s Neytiri, Scott Pilgrim‘s Ramona, and all the other latter 20th and early 21st century “video girls,” reaching through the screen to gratify an abstract (usually male) fantasy in an extension of the titular Video Girl Ai of the early 1990s. It is the reason that in updating the Tron franchise, Disney eliminated the only “real” woman of the canon—Lora—and emphasized Olivia Wilde’s walking, talking, fighting, persistently adorable, virtual girl Quorra instead. She is better than real, you see. The Japanese posters in particular seem to make her grin like a live-action anime girl. Offered just a peripheral glance and you might mistake her for a hidden Final Fantasy XIII character, and why not? Virtual, like sex, sells.
In 2009, we saw the first union of man and video game character when Japanese otaku Sal9000 held a wedding ceremony to celebrate his marriage to Nene Anegasaki, a character from Japanese dating sim Love Plus (W. David Marx, “The Love Plus scourge takes another life: Man ‘marries’ video game”, CNNGo, 26 November 2009). We might tend to write things like this off as that “weird Japanese” business but that doesn’t erase our own Western fascination with the image or with the fetishization of the virtual girl. Or, the virtual guy for that matter, which I discovered when I finally got around to playing Dragon Age: Origins these last few weeks.
Stubborn female consumer that I am, I tend to dislike the heteronormative options that male designers try to foist on a misunderstood feminine audience believing that: a) we appreciate the same things in men that men do or b) if we do have different tastes than men, we at least all appreciate the same things as women. Bioware had tried the “sensitive, vulnerable man” on me before with Mass Effect‘s Kaidan and I wanted none of that, so I held out few hopes for Alistair to do anything differently for me. Yet, against all odds and my own best intentions, I ended up falling head over heels with the man instead. Well, not enough to start writing out wedding invitations, perhaps, but enough to get why Nene Anegasaki must hold so much appeal for players like Sal9000.
While I’ll refrain from analyzing the nature of this infatuation of mine in depth (to do so would probably derail into fangirl behaviors and observations unsuited for this blog anyway), I will say that I have no doubts that this crush of mine is practically identical to the kind experienced in the traditional “video girl” narrative. Alistair may be virtual—and in many respects not unique to me at all, considering how many players before me have already fanned themselves over his sensitive manliness and quirky sense of humor—but the intimacy of experiencing him as the game presents him, as well as the organic way in which Dragon Age manages to hide its underlying affection system. He seemed just plausible enough to nearly appear real—just enough to make me want him to be real.
The double-edged sword of Deleuze’s virtual image is that it is continually being confronted and modified by the optical image—that is, by experienced reality. Objective reality updates our virtual perception but that in turn crystallizes into a new kind of cliche (in the same way, perhaps, that Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic sequences of galloping horses both deconstructed our previous understanding of animals in motion and created a new grainy, black-and-white shorthand upon which further technologies were compelled to improve). Which is not to say that the virtual image or the cliche is inherently worthless, just that it acts as a dialectical antithesis to whatever it mirrors and a necessary component toward Hegelian synthesis.
The only real danger of the virtual image is to be misperceived as the optical image, taken as real. A stereotype taken as fact, a fantasy taken as given. I’m not saying that video girls and guys like Quorra or Alistair are entirely harmless for their target audiences, but taken in context as flights of fancy, you can see why they occupy the same entertainment role as an Edward Cullen or a yamato nadeshiko. Or, as Cleolinda Jones put it when explaining the appeal of the Twilight series in otherwise sane women, it’s like a twinkie. Sometimes you just want sugar (Cleolinda Jones, “My thoughts on Twilight, let me show you them”, Livejournal, 14 May 2008).
In games, the quantification of romance narratives into points and achievements is the wrong approach entirely. I won’t say that this systemization inherently objectifies women and trivializes sex—largely because those arguments have already been made quite well—but also partly because we should be moving past that objection towards possible solutions. The video girl (or guy) isn’t attractive simply out of an immediate reflexive response to her but because of an ongoing and ever evolving coexistence shared with her. The question becomes how to achieve that convincingly through interactivity, how to continually reinvent the cliche, and synthesize the virtual image with the optical to make it more meaningful and complete.
I see courtships like the ones in Dragon Age as a general step forward in the loosely defined genre of relationship games. Playing Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol, and Fable I was always keenly aware of how I should determine my actions in order to start a romance, but companionship in Dragon Age has a tendency to seem much more amorphous and organic, though I wouldn’t call it perfect (nothing is). It proves that games have the potential to take on much more diverse relationship models than something containing an end goal or a win scenario. I would honestly look forward to seeing something like Love Plus succeed in the West, though I hold no illusions that it would retain the same shape. The true gameplay value of Love Plus is not winning your virtual girl, but cherishing your time together once you have her. The epilogue in Love Plus is open ended and ongoing, so you can see why an otaku like Sal9000 would want to marry into that. It’s the same reason Sully wants to join the Na’Vi and Disney treats its Tron women like sculptures: you aren’t just buying into a narrative with conclusions, you’re buying into endlessly unfolding, romantic possibility for good or for ill.