The question in the title of this post was pitched by Simon Parkin in his Gamasutra post Where next for the video game power fantasy? The answer to this, from the point of view of this blog, is Yes.
Video games are not reality. While it does affect us, like any other form of entertainment (or anything, if we get down to it), games are not art. Well, as much as mountain climbing racing, playing blackjack or children’s play is. Parkin starts with an assertion that games are art first and foremost, which is where his questions tumble around. Yes, no subject should be off-limits to art, if we are to keep art as a form of free expression. If we are to consider video games as art, the same rules apply. Then if we don’t, then there are subject off-limits from games? No, free market is to decide on that. Just like with the role-playing games you have in the bed, certain games are meant for adults only, and should have the freedom to touch on any subject the creator/s wish. They just need to present in a marketable form and offer good gameplay.
Without a doubt the paper Parkin refers to in the article, where Madary and Metsinger suggest a code for ethical conduct, has some relevance to how VR is handled. The human mind, and brain overall, are rather plastic and can be moulded in surprising ways. The nurture of environment is significant, though nature affects as well. Both sides play a significant part in who we become and how we change throughout our lifetime. Playing a game sure does affect us, be it enhancing out eye-hand coordination or something else. VR, as both Madary and Metzinger suggest with an assertion from Parkin, is not physical. While VR users “experience” the Virtual World, the fact it’s just a headset on your head doesn’t go away. Whatever level of graphics and whatnot you have, only certain kind of people who lose themselves into these software and mix them with reality.
Virtual Reality, as it is now, does not introduce any sort of emotions that could not be introduced outside other means of entertainment. Certainly, putting the user in the first-person experience of a horrible murder or becoming the murderer in a game has its effect, yet it still be audiovisual stimulation. VR is not at the level where it would be able to give full-body feedback or be used without the goggles.
The whole discussion about VR possibly having content that is not suited for everyone. Your standard information what a sofware or game includes and what is its target audience is enough. A consumer must be informed of the content type, and of his own condition. In case of parents, they should be able to follow their child’s growth and estimate what sort of material they should be able to consume at what age. Certain children may be to handle harder and more serious materials earlier on, while with others it may take a while longer.
This form of discussion whether or not VR software particular should have limitations for their content is the same discussion we’ve had about tabletop games causing kids to become devil worshipers or certain kind of music being bad for the youth, be it Rock or Heavy Metal. The terms and words have been changed around to sound more convincing and suitable, but in the end the discussion still ends up being This thing may be harmful for some, it must be banned for all.
Parkin quotes Scott Stephen about how VR users are careful not to collide with other scale models of humans, and this somehow shows the gaps being closer with brain, body and motor-skill. While I don’t want to stick with this point, it really sounds more like the players are have the same level of immersion than with First-person games overall. Any FPS has some sort of model of self, which has a hurtbox that interacts with the environment. Of course people who play VR game would be aware of their virtual avatar and try to avoid collision with others, just like they would do otherwise in a game. Collision with other characters usually slows you down, or in case of some games, hurt the character (or you, the player.)
I’m just going to slide Parkin’s comment on virtual crimes, because there is no such thing, because any crime committed would be a real crime.
I contest his assertion, and by that extend, Robo Recall‘s designer Shawn Patton’s definition, of power fantasy of something people wouldn’t have no means or ability to do in real life. If that would be the case, each and every daydream we have or similar would be counted as a power fantasy, making it far too broad and lacking in definition. In reality, what he describes is escapism, or people being able to do whatever they want without putting the everyday’s hard work into it. By Patton’s definition, Harvest Moon would be power fantasy, because so many people do not have the power or means to farm in real life. Hell, even Tetris can be fitted to this mould by saying it gives the players god-like control over falling blocks and sweep them into non-existence.
Parkin suggesting that developers should begin to implement punishment to people who would act in an unapproved ways is inane. If games, and VR software in particular, affect us in such major ways as Parkin suggested earlier, and now is suggesting developers would use that power to essentially influence the consumers’ behaviour to some, socially more acceptable direction shows that there is an agenda underneath here. To boil it down, games should steer away from the icky and serious stuff and slap your hand if you oogle a character’s ass too long. Give me a goddamn break.
And the coup de grâce of for Parkin’s post him comparing reading a book to a video game. He finds it weird that people talk about beating games, but not about beating Moby Dick. This comparison is like saying it’s weird how people always speak about watching a movie rather than reading it, or watching music rather then beating it. Games are meant to be defeated, ie. completed (or in case of earlier arcade games, to gain as high Score as possible) and it does not limit the medium. Parkin’s approach in this is that games are akin to literary works, not literal games. A video game, any video game, has closer ties to soccer than Moby Dick. Here is why his take games as art fails, because he does not understand that games are not related to literary works or art as a whole. His inability to see that a fail state in a game is loss on the player’s part, and if you really want to get down to the whole story thing in games, there are buttloads of games that touch on failure, death, loss and pain. Hell, just look at how Metal Gear Solid 3 through V and Nier Automata handle serious topics. If we want to get on the meta-commentary train, failing in a game and gaining a Game Over screen or the like is real-time commentary on the failure of the player’s skills and inabilities to overcome a challenge.
The whole disempowerment fantasy is laugahble at best. Games where the system is gimped against you are not uncommon, and if realised unsuccessfully, just drag the experience and often seem to put the message and literary narrative over the gameplay and the narrative the player creates through action. Hell, the way Ian Bogost describes them sounds like they’re taking the game out of video games. They’re nothing new, but the way Parkin emphasizes their special place looks almost masochistic. I’ll leave it up to you if it tells about certain people’s want to lift helplessness and inability to take control of things to a high status.
The rest of the post really is going the points again with some paint slabbed on to it. I can’t help but admire how actions taken in a video game are compared to trafficking women or child slaves (apparently, trafficking men and adult salves is A-OK.) VR alone doesn’t have the question of psychological impact. Any form of media has to ask this, but in the end, it is the user who determines what he is willing to consume. Making a general sweep like this, assuming that an intended emotional reaction will affect people as expected, is outright stupidity. I’m sure Parkin intended something else than comedy with his Moby Dick comparison earlier on. Claiming that VR somehow is the first thing to put people in the middle of something as themselves echoes empty. VR tricks us to believe something is real as much as any movie or non-real entertainment. It’s called immersion. To reiterate what I said earlier; only people with mental problems would not be able to differentiate reality from fiction. VR boom has already passed, and we’re setting at its low-tide. Just like how 3D screens went.
The whole blockbuster comparison though is pretty spot on. The market decides what’s successful and what is not, and though in the more recent history of video games we’ve seen far less copying game elements from other successful titles and more sequels based on long-running franchises. And no, it’s not problematic to “flatter players through power fantasies.” If anything is the problem here, it’s the fact that people are trying to limit designers and developers from doing what they want all the while wanting to push their own influence through the same channels they criticise.