This article will fuck with your mind. It is a personal opinion piece that I have cited the best I can given limited intellectual resources. I wish I still had access to something like JSTOR from college, but a membership in such a database of works would require current membership at a college. Oh well, hopefully you enjoy my machinations anyway!
When you dream, you set yourself aside for a time and drift down into the subconscious place of your mind. There is an element of entertainment that allows us to do something similar, and it exists in a place you’d never guess: movies. This mechanism of reality-alteration is known as the suspension of disbelief. It means that while you watch a movie, you accept for the duration of the film that its reality is plausible and that many of the laws that govern our day to day lives are inapplicable. Just as with a dream, reality is set aside to allow a false reality to be experienced. By setting aside the judgments of the ego, you allow the film to supercede even yourself, just as your dream supersedes your personal consciousness. But there is another form of this that exists, and the location of this is even more astounding: video games. During a videogame, you willingly set yourself aside to allow the assumed identity of the main character to be taken on. Many of us commit horrible atrocities during this state, too, but as a movie will not correct you to become more like a main character without your permission, you will similarly not become like the characters of game realities unless you will it. But one thing that video games do is empower their players, and through the looking glass of the suspension of disbelief, players are delivered onto the doorstep of a self that is capable of changing the fabric of reality. Video games don’t make you a person consumed by insatiable violence, but they prepare your conscious self to deal with reality. They don’t make us the most violent people in the world, they make us the most powerful people in the world.
Through the suspension of disbelief, we enter a dream-like state where true reality is willingly set aside. Now, comparing a dream to a video game, we are the player and the designers; but in Inception, a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio about shared-dreaming, there is a whole structure to generating the dream-world. In this example, consider the “subject” of the dream to be synonymous to the player in a video game.
First you have the Architect, or the level-designer. This person generates the world that the subject finds themselves in and makes it as convincing as possible to keep the person from realizing they are asleep and waking themselves up. They have to get the dream-world itself down to such a perfection that every aspect will be believable, and the world is hemmed in by maze-like logical loops. In this way, Architects are also like graphics designers, and, in the beginning of the film, we see the consequences for the first Architect for inadequately recreating those graphics, that reality.
The Architect’s function allows the Extractors to do their job and pull information out of the subject’s mind. Another primary element of the dream is the device in the briefcase. This object is never fully understood nor explained, but it seems to be what links the dreamers and delivers the sedative that keeps them asleep and allows them to dream so interactively. This briefcase acts as the game’s engine in that it is the background mechanical element that makes the shared-dream possible.
During the primary operation of the film, where a team convinces Cillian Murphy to dissolve his father’s multi-national corporation, several other people are called in to help sustain the veracity of this dream-world. Several of the team’s members are called upon to act as Architects, or level designers, for each dream-level that the participants descend.
Most important is the role of the Chemist, who serves as a sort of gameplay designer. He makes a sedative strong enough to keep the team and subject asleep for the duration of multiple dreams. He allows them to stay engaged, even if some element of the Architects’ constructions are flawed. It is also this sedative that brings in the threat of mortal danger during the operation, as anyone killed can now stay locked in the infinite dream-world of their own subconscious.
Now, in this film we see one element that doesn’t seem to match this analogy entirely. The projections, or people that populate the world, are all generated from the subconscious of the player. But in a video game, the player does add something to the game. Without the player, every element of a game is just a piece of a perfect whole, unperturbed by outside forces. A dimension unto itself. Only by the player breaching the space of this game do the decisions of the player tell the game where the world will go. Now, some of these are inconsequential alterations; like losing a few missions for killing the wrong character, as is possible during the assassination missions presented by the story arc of colluding with the Dark Brotherhood in the Elder Scrolls series. Some of these are serious consequences, such as destroying the entire settlement of Megaton in Fallout 3. Either way, the projection of the player’s own subconscious self through the medium of their own actions, in a sense, populates the world just as the subject of Inception.
But what of being discovered by the projections? When the player is pulled too abruptly out of the suspension of disbelief by unrealistic elements of the game, they might begin to behave as someone who knows they are in a game reality, which does not matter. So they might just go on a rampage, kill everyone in sight and let the cops chase them, as in Grand Theft Auto. It doesn’t matter, and they can just revert back to a previous save once they’ve had their fill. Just as the projections in Inception, only to (normally) have them wake back up. At that point, the player is entertaining the conscious ego that has become bored and knows it is playing a game, rather than engaging their true self and setting aside their personal ego. Inception sets in one more ingenious piece of the development puzzle, which takes the form of the Forger. The Forger is a person who, through the strength of their own imagination, is able to make themselves look like a projection of the subject’s subconscious. The Forger on the operation is then able to engage the subject directly. The Forger functions as a game’s AI, which is created to be as intelligent as possible to create a more immersive and believable gaming experience for the player by mimicking real intelligence thereby creating a higher level of difficulty.
At this point you might be wondering what what Inception, if anything, has to do with video games and how that ties back to reality. Freud’s idea of the subconscious mind, or unconscious mind, as represented in the film Inception, is similar to a dark cave; and this is described aptly by Joseph Cambell in his book, The Hero of a Thousand Faces.
“The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors. odd beings. terrors, and deluding images up into the mind – whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared integrate into our lives.”
In the film Inception, Cillian Murphy faces his own subconscious after being conditioned by the team of extractors. They implanted the suggestion that his father wanted him to live his own life and not be like he was. Lo and behold, when Cillian Murphy gets down to his own personal subconscious (perhaps ingeniously placed in a massive, technologically advanced vault), he sees a projection of his own father telling him he was disappointed Cillian tried to be like him.
Game developers are capable of the same thing, creating a narrative that we follow through a series of twists and turns, which mimic the dark and perilous caves of our own subconscious, to come to some conclusion about the character and the events in the game. But because of the suspension of disbelief, we have been personally identifying with the main character’s struggles. We have followed every twist and turn, and followed along with the narrative. And, unlike in a movie where you sit impassively denying your own self for about 2 hours, in a game you spend several days engaged with this character. In an article on Cinemablend, they arbitrarily throw around a range of numbers at 8 – 10 hours, it’s suggested this is part of a modern trend of shortening game-lengths. Even at that length, you are talking about a length of up to 5 times the length of an epic feature film, which means more time for the player to become engaged with the main character.
In an attempt to utilize the game’s Photo Mode to capture cinematic pictures emulating his real-life works, Ashley Gilbertson recently “embedded” himself in The Last of Us, a video game that takes place in a zombie apocalypse. It is understandably violent in a graphic fashion. Gilbertson says in the article:
“To be successful, a player must be the perpetrator of extreme, and highly graphic, violence. I’m interested in a more emotionally engaged type of photography, where the human reaction to a scene is what brings a story to life. That was tough inside this game. Occasionally the characters show anger, though generally they’re nonchalant about the situation they’ve found themselves in. In the end, their emotions mimicked that of the zombies they were killing. By the time I finished this assignment, watching the carnage had became easier. Yet, I left the experience with a sense that by familiarizing and desensitizing ourselves to violence like this can turn us into zombies. Our lack of empathy and unwillingness to engage with those involved in tragedy stems from our comfort with the trauma those people are experiencing. [...] I came away from the experience having learnt a couple of things: that the work I usually do is an antidote to the type of entertainment this game represents and that I suck at video games.”
I would argue, however, that Gilbertson’s statement at the end of the article is the most revealing: he sucks at video games. Earlier in the article he describes how the game seems to make him feel ill, the reason he has to bring it into the Time studio and have his colleague play for him, handing off the controller so the photographer could take screenshots.
This means that Gilbertson was not engaging with the characters and not giving into the suspension of disbelief. This is understandable since he obviously does not play video games on a regular basis, so it can be assumed he won’t be able to utilize the controller effectively. He even describes the death scene with intense detail, likely earned by frequent visits to scenes where he is eaten alive. In that he can only blame his own inexperience with gaming and the etiquette of the controller.
But his own experience is telling about the nature of gamers and gaming: if you do not sit down and take the time to work through the struggles of the game’s characters, you will not be able to associate with that character. If you look at how old CNN suggests modern gamers are, you’ll realize they are adults with regular jobs, kids and real-world concerns. This means that they might sit down with a longer game and play for short periods of time. You know, in between laundry and diaper changes. Even if they get in 1 – 2 hours every night or two for a couple weeks, that is still the amount of time you might spend with a friend. Shit, if CNN is to be believed in that article, most gamers play online, so they very well could be playing with friends. But those fictional characters in that fictional narrative are still characters that you are with. And before someone says “but you control that character! How can you identify with a puppet of your own manipulation?” First, you might control their actions, but it is generally understood that the actions of the player are the actions of the character that you guide between cutscenes. Add to that the dialogue that you hear, and in some cases guide, and you have a fully contextualized expression of the player’s own personal motivations. Mass Effect is a perfect example of this. it is a game where you choose the general concept of what you say to others, and you have to choose carefully because in some cases it will get others killed.
My point is that if you play the game and control the character, your actions are inseparable from those of the character and, therefore, the ending to the narrative is a reflection of your own unconscious decisions as they guide this character. Whether it has multiple endings or one ending, the ending of a game forces you to confront some logical conclusion, guided by the player’s own actions, of the narrative of the game.
Coming back to Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio has a discussion with his new Architect early in the movie at a cafe during a shared dream. During this conversation, he tells the Architect that, during a dream, you are able to get in between the process of creation and perception to achieve what he calls “genuine inspiration.” In the film, the only way to sustain this is through shared dreaming, but I submit that this could be an accidental allegory for the video game. When a developer creates a game, they create an interactive experience that allows you to simultaneously create/manipulate your world and perceive/discover it. Of course, some games are too simple for this part of the discussion; but games like Skyrim fit right in there, allowing you to decide who is right and who is wrong in a political clash that shapes the future of the world, choose which missions you complete and when. You can even personally design the facial structure, sound, race, skills and lifestyle of your own character, features that might draw you deeper into the character. Hell, even Massively Multiplayer Online games are taking this angle, with Sony going so far as to create Landmark, a game where players have been helping to create the world of the company’s next installment of the Everquest franchise.
The point is, we are getting to a place in video games where one can get in between creativity and perception to achieve genuine inspiration. Just as the singer in Wallace Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West, gamers are getting to a place where they are just as much creating the game as they are playing it. But what does this mean? Well, to put it simply, if gamers are able to create the game as much as they play it, it shows that they help guide the characters in games as much as they help shape them. It is only a short step before they are able to apply this to themselves and make their lives a product of their own actions thereby making their own lives in the image of their imaginations. And if enough people are able to do this, they will shape the world to fit the image of the imaginations.
Don’t think this is even remotely possible? Check out game designer Jane McGonigal on Ted Talks and how she thinks that video games will save the world. And considering that philosophers like Renee Descartes have been using thought-experiments to test or justify various theories like the “brain-in-a-vat,” video games provide a virtual space that multiple people can interact with simultaneously. Recently, when writers spun rhetoric in publications favored by gamers, the gamers initiated #GamerGate, probably the most successful consumer revolution ever seen. Even now, they are in the process of altering the fate of games reporting, and that discussion started back in August. Face it: Gamers are simultaneously the most dangerous and the most capable humans on the face of the Earth because we have be trained to shape our own world to the image of our own imaginations, and they are taught by the most effective teachers in history: game developers.