Good Parent/Bad Parent
Whether you are a philanthropist or a desultory sadist, you get to name and nurture or abuse and ignore your new pet according to your generous spirit or whim... much like real parenthood, dare I suggest.
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I have an admission to make. I am a bad parent. Actually, the appellation 'bad parent' doesn't really seem adequate to describe the level of neglect involved. After only 93 days, my yellow Mynci is starving to death.
Fortunately, my yellow Mynci is a NeoPet, a kind of online Tamagotchi-Pokemon crossbreed. I created the virtual fella on a Godlike whim several months ago and have willfully mistreated him ever since. In case you haven't stumbled across the phenomenon, NeoPets (available at Neopet.com) are creatures available for creation and adoption by compassionate human beings, or even by ethically suspect individuals like myself while researching online gaming. Said philanthropist/desultory sadist gets to name and nurture or abuse and ignore their new pet according to their generous spirit or whim... much like real parenthood, dare I suggest.
My own neglect is mainly initiated by only infrequently visiting said Mynci in order to feed it hamburgers in a desultory fashion. The abuse of my Mynci is further compounded by entering it into traumatic competition against all contenders in one of the many moderately addictive mini-games on the NeoPet website. The fact that my NeoPet isn't real (thankfully) makes my chances of being carted off from my computer by the relevant branch of Social Services far more remote than would have been the case if said Mynci was say, a child or a Labrador. Oddly, though, the fact that the creature doesn't live and breathe doesn't quite assuage my guilt at my neglect. As I rend my T-shirt in fevered self-reproach, I pause momentarily to speculate why I should feel such remorse over something that, as you can see from the picture, looks like a bush baby-monkey hybrid that's fallen into a vat of luminous yellow lacquer.
I can hear the nasal rattle of my more cynical friends. Okay, so your actions have been pretty neglectful, they rasp from the bottom of their empty scotch glasses, but why worry? After all, virtual heaven is of course littered with the souls of recently deceased NeoPets, the emaciated forms of abused Tamagotchis and the ethereal remnants of those electronic owls for which nobody can now remember their names. NeoPet, they spit, why the name alone sums it up: New Pet. Like New Democrats, New Labour and the New Schmoo. There's something ersatz and a bit tawdry about it, as though real politics, real amorphous cartoon blobs, or real pets weren't quite up to it.
This issue of identity and identification goes to the root, I think, of why I feel so guilty about the apparent impending demise of my NeoPet. And I don't just mean identity and identification with the characters. The NeoPet, upon creation, immediately becomes part of a fairly complex eco-system: one among thousands, I would imagine. In this sense, the NeoPet phenomenon is far more involved than that of its nonetheless important forerunner, Tamagotchi. I would argue that the environment, the context, provided in which any game operates, is crucial to understanding that game. When the environment in question approaches well, okay, mimics in limited fashion the same level of sophistication as the real world, then something really interesting is happening.
Mynci Yellow Baby
Characterisation of the NeoPets is beguilingly simple. Unlike real parenthood unless you're some kind of crazed scientist-type with a lot of time on your hands and an interest in experimenting with genetics you not only get to choose your NeoPet's name, but also the species, gender, and colour (generally luminous) of your new friend. But identity, thankfully, is more than such fundamentals. Identity is also about temperament, so you also get to choose a variety of admittedly very broad character traits for your NeoPet.
You can say how your NeoPet greets others: it might "Smile Sweetly", "Approach with Caution" or maybe it "Attacks if they are Weaker". You can outline what your NeoPet likes doing: perhaps it enjoys "Hunting for Treasure", "Making Friends" or "Bullying Others". You can even specify whether it likes to live in, say, the "Forest", "City" or "Wilderness" (in light of this last category it is possible, presumably, to construct a NeoPet that fits in with your Militia-Bilderberg Group conspiracy proclivities and ensure that your new luminous pet is content to hang out with you in a virtual equivalent of your makeshift shelter up in the foothills of Appalachia). Further traits, such as Health, Strength, Defence, and Weight are randomly generated for your NeoPet.
But does this account for the fealty some owners show their NeoPets? Though my parental bond with my yellow Mynci is self-evidently very weak, I know other NeoPet owners who feel huge emotional attachment to their colourful character, who diligently feed the creature in question and who generally groom the creature and dote over its well being. And as I've said, even if I haven't looked after the creature with absolute care, I do at least feel mighty guilty about that fact. So it's not only my part in my NeoPet's creation, along with my continued responsibility to the creature's welfare, that makes me feel guilty about my treatment of the little fella, but the embarrassment that other people actually do bother to take care of their NeoPets.
It strikes me that a player's relationship with an online pet or various other kinds of online character, certainly of the type intended to have some longevity, is very different from the kind of relationship a player might have with Lara Croft or Sonic the Hedgehog. As discussed in a previous Trivial Pursuit column, Lara is what we might term a "smooth" character, after Gilles Deleuze's description of those literary characters who convince as characters but aren't massively overwritten; in other words, those characters that seem full of potential. When the pneumatic Lara was smooth she was beguiling; as soon as an intertextual film version, incarnated as Angelina Jolie, started to render her unsmooth, she ceased to be interesting for game players. In her case, video definitely killed the game star.
It seems to me that online characters of the kind represented by NeoPets operate on a slightly different balance of readerly invention and authorial construction than those in offline situations. The NeoPet's mix of Strength, Weight, etc., their predilection for Wilderness or City environments, and the nuance of how they respond to other NeoPets might sound like terribly complex characterisation, but if you compare it with the level of complexity offered by the average soap opera character, then a NeoPet on this basis alone is not going to generate a lot of empathy from the player. The set of character variables apparent in a NeoPet is actually quite limited, even compared to those on offer in their offline cousins. It may seem obvious, but the act of imagination which makes a NeoPet feel real(ish) needs constant stoking from real human beings: namely the authors of the game, myself and other NeoPet owners.
Though the environments available for your NeoPet to explore in the world of, ahem, Neotopia, are a curious blend of mawkish colourfulness and real-world allusion, the feeling of a bustling, active gameplay environment makes it feel genuinely alive. If your NeoPet is very hungry indeed and you don't possess any money, you can wander off to the Soup Kitchen. There's a Pharmacy, a Bank and a Book Shop. Neotopia has its own economy. You can play games some violent, some less so you can explore, you can just hang out. This isn't an exaggerated rendition of the real world of the kind provided by the algorithmic machinations of the Grand Theft Auto environments, but it is a version of the real world where randomness is provided by actual human beings.
And this is what the online world offers that the offline one doesn't. The complexity is provided by the human beings playing the game and those controlling the game, unlike in an offline game where the game itself effectively takes over from its human progenitors once the algorithms starting talking to each other. It's the difference between an author writing his or her book and sitting back and taking the proceeds, and the author writing his or her book and constantly bursting in on the reader to change some aspect of the text. Not only that, but the author invites all your neighbours around to help modify the story, as well. So if you haven't been doing your bit to look after your NeoPet (like me) you're bound to feel sorry. It would seem Guilt, not just Hell, is other people.
Demis Hassabis, head of Elixir studios, the guru behind the epic Republic game from a few years ago, speculated on how the online nature of games might get around a particular tricky design problem at the Converging Stories Conference held by London's Institute of Contemporary Arts way back in 2000. Hassabis mused on the perennial problem of computer brains not being able to make virtual environments suitably involving, simply because they aren't big enough. He suggested, with characteristic ingenuity, that an online environment monitored by groups of programmers and designers would be able to detect when a player had reached the boundaries of their exploration, and that these individuals would be able to quickly build additional elements onto the environment. Hey presto, an ever-expanding, continually immersive environment.
Online game environments have thrived for years, of course. Notable established examples include the sword and sorcery environments of Everquest and Ultima Online (nowadays, one suspects, both populated almost entirely by academics researching Everquest and Ultima Online). A recent issue of Wired magazine looked at the huge popularity of online gambling amongst older members of the populace. And the various tentacles of the big console producers are snaking out into the ether as well, eager to give us online versions of all our existing action favourites. (Imagine an online version of GTA: once you've negotiated the mammoth virtual gridlock, this could constitute a truly sublime, ongoing gaming experience).
What this means for the stereotype of video games as pastimes enjoyed by isolated individuals remains to be seen. All I know is that in a couple of months' time I'll become a real father, the proud guardian of a baby that really will mewl and puke, that really will need feeding, burping, diapers changing, and my constant love and attention. I promise to be a good parent, this time.