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April 19, 2006

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Round Table: There's Nothing but Strangers Out There

"Friends? Friends? We've only gone out together three times, and already you just want to be friends? You never gave me a chance! And for that, you'll fry like a pork sausage!"
--Mad scientist, Sam and Max Hit the Road

Video games are not my friends. Characters from video games are not my friends. This is not dismissive--well, maybe a little--because it's not like I have friends in other media. I don't have relationships with characters in books or movies. The very idea that I would be friends with even well-realized characters like Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is as alien as befriending Hiro Protagonist or Indiana Jones.

I don't want to get into a long definition of friendship. Let's go with the pithy phrase "someone who hates the same things you do," which I think is workable enough. To establish a relationship, my interpersonal communication classes would tell me that it requires establishing levels of trust and shared communication. It requires interaction. Theoretically, that's something a game should be able to provide.

But when I interact with characters in games, mostly it's to shoot them.

Don't look at me like that. You do it too. The history of intimacy in gaming is littered with the corpses of Black Mesa security guards, cartoon chickens, and crazy-taxi'd pedestrians.

Why the violence? I don't think it's out of any anger. I just think that it's asking a lot for me to care about a digital persona after I've had some kind of transaction with them, because the latter usually exposes their inhumanity. I can care what happens to the Prince in Prince of Persia because he's a funny, naive guy. I feel a little sorry for him. I hope he does well. But if you asked me to actually hang out with him in the game, talk to him and act like a "friend," you're going to run into a digital divide pretty quickly. And that breeds a kind of callousness.

Even attempts at creating a ghost in the machine as the primary goal have usually failed. Remember Seaman, the Dreamcast game about a drugged-out fish-person, narrated by Leonard Nimoy? Of course you don't. Me and three other people played it. And we only enjoyed it because the fish was so incredibly abusive and needy that we wanted to see how long we could go without cranking the heat in his tank to 200 degrees. Roast the little punk alive. And Seaman was one of the better attempts: he would read your memory card to see what games you played, remembered your birthday, had long conversations about your childhood, and even managed this through voice interaction. It was a valiant effort, one that nonetheless inadvertently reminded you--constantly--that what you were doing was talking to your television, and hoping that it would understand you.


Who else wants to talk?

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