[6 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
One of the major tenets of believing that a video game is capable of communicating a message comes from a concept that Ian Bogost calls “simulation fever”. When a person plays a video game, they are engaging with a designer’s perspective of reality (or fantasy) through the finite nature of the simulation. Hitting someone in the back of the head in Halo 3 will win a stealth kill, but the same blow to the face is not lethal. That might strike someone as stupid or illogical.
For example, in Modern Warfare 2, a knife attack is an instant-kill no matter where you’re facing. This inadvertently becomes a metaphysical discussion because none of these things are real. It’s just your reaction to a simulated attack’s feedback. Everything is based on artificial rules instead of physics or other external factors. The “simulation fever” here is the player’s reaction to the confines of the game and how its virtual world works. Numerous philosophers including Bogost have explored this connection between ontology (how people define reality) and games, but one of the most important thinkers in this field is also one of the greatest science fiction authors. Through the language of pulp science fiction Philip K. Dick’s work is an exercise in exploring the concept of “simulation fever” when reality itself is not quite working properly.
As an author, Dick’s connection to video games exists both in his beliefs and even in the way that he wrote his stories. In the novel Valis, the protagonist believes that the universe is composed of information that humans through sensory input put into “hypostasis” or an illusionary visual state. In many ways. that’s what a video game actually is, bits of programming given visual representation that we can interact with. Dick would sometimes extend this principle of interacting with pure information by using random systems to generate plots for his own books.
His award winning novel The Man in the High Castle was written by his use of the random system of the I-Ching to decide what each character would do next. What interested Dick was the world that his characters were conflicting with. In his essay, “How to Build a Universe” he writes, “I like to build universes that do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem.”
Going back to the discussion on Modern Warfare 2’s knife policy versus Halo 3’s melee strike, how does your awareness that these are simulations and that someone could alter these rules change the conversation? Does the simulation have a duty to be more realistic? Such discussions are not one-way interpretations.If you acknowledge that a game is depicting or even can depict reality, what does that say about reality itself? It’s the same conundrum that is proposed in Blade Runner, which is based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The film extends a lot the themes concerning empathy that are present in the book by presenting several different examples of androids, making each one more relatable than the last.
The first, Leon, is mostly violent and disturbing. Others are shown trying to strangle the protagonist, sticking their hands in boiling water as if they had no feeling, or wearing bizarre make-up to makes them seem inhuman. Deckard’s eventual confrontation with Roy, who saves him and laments that his experiences are being lost like “tears in the rain”, coincides with Deckard’s own questions about whether he is a human or an android. Long drunken nights staring at his own family photos along with his relationship with the android Rachel have made him realize that the things that prove his humanity amount to little more than what the androids can claim. The film suggests that accepting that we have commonalities with a simulated person also means accepting the artificial elements of ourselves.
The underlying argument of the film is that the real thing isn’t inherently superior to the fake. The android is not different from the real thing in any meaningful way. The ending to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has Deckard finding value in a toad he finds in the desert even after he learns that it’s artificial. Dick argues in the The Golden Man, “The external world supposedly consists of a number of different objects, but they can be known as different only because there are different sorts of experiences ‘of’ them. Yet if the experiences are thus distinguishable, there is no need to hold the superfluous hypothesis of external objects.”
Or as Jonathan Lethem phrases it in his introduction to the Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, looking at the world from this purely philosophical perspective of Dick’s means that nothing exists. There is no perfect representation of reality. Engaging with various perceptions and ideas expands our identity and awareness of reality, but it’s still just us putting an artificial value and standard to what is otherwise pure information.
That’s what makes his work relevant to video games and the argument that they are art. Unlike the characters of The Matrix who reject the simulation out of principle, in most of Dick’s stories, the simulation is just another perspective. Since even what we call reality is subjective in this context, adopting other perspectives isn’t really a problem because there isn’t any one valid interpretation of the world. In the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, which the film Total Recall is based on, part of the appeal of purchasing virtual memories is that the experience will be perfect. The agent explains, “You’re not accepting second best. The actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions, and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s the second best.”
The protagonist goes to Rekall because he knows that in real life he can never afford to go to Mars and even if he did, he wouldn’t be a super spy saving the world. There isn’t any risk of dying or needing to be qualified to go on this exotic spy adventure. The film constantly plays with this by having Schwarzenegger’s character never really know if what he’s experiencing is real or not. When he finds out that his personality was just a construct to fool the rebel’s psychics, he still rejects his old personality for the artificial one. Even if he was originally a bad guy who went undercover, Schwarzenegger’s character embraces the simulated worldview because he finds it more fulfilling.
One could say the same about a video game like Rock Band which requires just a fraction of the struggle yet still marginally recreates the sensation of being a rock star. Acknowledging that the artificial experience has value is, like the reciprocal acceptance that an android can be human, ultimately an exercise in accepting what is fake about being a rock star in the first place. Being a famous musician is not just a matter of being talented and working hard. The PR, producers, hit songs, and pure luck of succeeding in a highly competitive field reduce the odds of even a great music talent playing in a sold-out stadium. What if you’re not talented enough, you have a family that makes touring impossible, haven’t got the time to practice, or any other number of reasons that make being a star unrealistic? All that Rock Band requires is that you press buttons in sequence, the audience boos and hisses if you mess up. A post at Graffiti Gamer points out that even the game’s visuals visuals are mostly based on rock concert filming techniques. It’s barely a fraction of the real thing, but it’s enough to engage millions of players.
Another take on this concept of finding validity in the artificial experience is when Dick proposes a scenario where there is nothing but the simulation for people to engage with. In the short story “The Days of Perky Pat” (which he expanded into the book The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), the last groups of humanity are called flukers and live in bomb shelters. All their food and mechanical needs are met by alien allies who drop off goods but otherwise leave them alone. Totally dependent on these handouts, the survivors have nothing to do except play a board game obsessively. Money no longer means anything except for use in the game, “there was no other criterion by which one could tell if he had won or lost.” People spin a wheel and send Perky Pat and her boyfriend Leonard through the normal routine of life before the war. One character muses, “We lived then, like Perky Pat and Leonard do now. This is how it actually was.” Everyone has a unique layout, doll, and accessories, all of which are prized by the survivors. It’s the only way for them to find validation in life after the bombs dropped—by creating a simulation of their old world and succeeding at it like they normally would have.
Eventually it’s discovered that another shelter near Oakland plays a different game with Connie Companion, who is married and lives with her husband in-game. Their version of the game has abandoned money, uses larger dolls, and is generally considered more sophisticated than Perky Pat although “not morally right.” For both groups, what happens in the game is considered to have meaning and status in reality because their lives of being fed by aliens offer neither of those things. Conduct in the game reflects back on the player so that eventually several characters are exiled from the Perky Pat shelter for playing the more mature game. The protagonist muses, “Those Oaklanders; their game, their particular doll, it taught them something. Connie had to grow and it forced them all to grow along with her. Our flukers never learned about that, not from Perky Pat. I wonder if they ever will. She’d have to grow up the way Connie did.”
In some ways, Dick’s fiction also engages with the notion that perhaps reality is a bit overrated. In the short story “The Minority Report”, a police commisioner realizes that he is an aberration in the psychic system. Because he will receive future predictions via cards that tell him where and when murders will happen, he knows that he is going to murder someone a week before it occurs. The psychic system, which works by having 3 psychics vote on the correct timeline, falls apart because the protagonist is aware of and thus capable of changing the future. Two psychics say that he will murder a General, one says that he will not. The protagonist is aware of his own fate because of his unique position with the police, yet he does not change anything because he still decides to complete the murder. He still does what the psychics claimed that he would do, rationally justifying the act when the General tries to prove that the psychic system is flawed and attempts to take control of the police force. An all-powerful awareness of the future does not change anything about your life. You still are adhering to a structured reality that you cannot get away from.
Philip K. Dick’s fiction is a defense of the validity of video games because despite the fact that they are not real, his stories argue that there is still something valid in the artificial. His unique approach to metaphysics, which constantly engages us with humanoid robots and simulacra, taps into Ian Bogost’s “simulation fever” by having his characters react to the world itself in such a manner. Rather than a game’s depiction of reality being rejected, reality itself is what isn’t working for these characters. Bogost contends in Unit Operations, “A simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity.” In many forms of art, it is the user’s subjectivity or the that way reality is shown that’s tinkered with. The message is told to us, we see the artist’s version of the world, and we take from it what we like. In games, the space between source and subjectivity is what’s being explored. It’s not just a new perspective that we’re being shown, it’s a new way of acting in a world. One that we often would never be able to experience in real life.
In the short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” the cryogenic process for a sleeping colonist malfunctions. He is conscious while the rest of his body is frozen on a ten year space flight. To keep him from going insane, the ship’s computer begins to reconstruct his memories and allow him to re-experience his life. Yet each simulation decays and collapses as the colonist finds himself wishing that he’d done things differently. He ultimately decides to go and change his memories entirely. He decides, “If I do that, maybe my life will change so that it turns into something happy. Something that is real.”
From Rock Band (corrected)