In case you don’t know, MMORPGs are Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. And I think they’re fun. They call for the same sort of commitment readers make when they get involved in a story and suspend disbelief, feeling the fictional characters to be at least as real as they are themselves. My novella, Alternative Dimension, is about the attractions and the dangers of playing games and entering a virtual reality. For me, being part of a fantastical online community was a source of humour, a chance to indulge in some gentle satire, as well as a place where I met and got to know people I’d never have come across otherwise.

People are surprisingly unguarded there, revealing intimate secrets to others, even though they’re only interacting with an avatar and they have no idea of who the person behind it is. The risks in that are obvious, and the whole business of grooming and manipulation is very sinister and very real. And, of course, as someone unloads their childhood traumas onto you, you’ve no idea whether they’re true, whether the person’s male, female, Aryan supremacist or Jehovah’s Witness. (It could even be your partner on a laptop in another room – which is an even scarier thought.)

But games are making legitimate claims to be a separate art form in their own right. They’re like movies, they’re like books, but they have dimensions of interactivity which go beyond the traditional. The immersive atmosphere they create, the power of their music, which now has mainstream respectability (the London Philharmonic has recorded several of the best-known themes), the fact that you, as a player, actually inhabit the story and the settings – all of this makes different demands on the creative input of designers but also of players.

So the BBC radio programme I heard about the whole subject made for fascinating listening. One interviewee talked interestingly about how increases in computing power and the refinements in the disciplines involved in creating all aspects of a game meant that today’s ‘best’ experiences were constantly being superseded. Whereas Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare and the rest continue to be read and performed, old computer games seem limp and passé.

As I said, all of this was very informative and interesting. But, as she continued to enthuse about the excitement and value of getting immersed in games, she made one throwaway remark which I found very chilling and which made me rethink the values she was ascribing to them. To make her point about how games do have an afterlife in the memories of those who’ve played them, she described a night she’d spent escaping from some captors, gathering weapons, fighting her way along and eventually dragging her boy friend’s body from where he’d been held captive. There was a smile in her voice as she described it all, and the residual excitement was obvious. But then, after all these ordeals, she said ‘God, I felt like I’d gone through Vietnam’.

And there, it seems to me, you have a hidden danger. Not just treating war as a game but diminishing reality itself. It’s a paradox. This isn’t a criticism of her and I don’t mean to imply thoughtlessness or insensitivity on her part. She was interesting, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. The experience for her was real, draining, even traumatic, but its ‘reality’ was immediately put into perspective by the inappropriate parallel she implied with true stress and horror. OK, it wasn’t a considered remark but, in a way, that makes it worse. As I said, I’m not condemning her, I’m asking whether our priorities and sensivities are shifting..


  1. Very definitely our sensitivities are shifting. And there’s a lot of unknown repercussions in online activities that we may think we’re prepared for but find we’re mistaken later, to our embarrassment or horror.

    I’m so interested in online games but I think it’s a good thing I don’t have time for them, ;)) Love this sculpture. What is that?

    1. Thanks, Marley/Livia (please let me know which you prefer). You’re right, these games are time-consuming. That’s why I stopped them ages ago.

      Glad you like the carving. It’s my wee copy of a wonderful marble created by the sculptress Anna Chromy. Hers is called the Cloak of Conscience or Cloak of Peace and she carved it from the biggest block of marble ever taken from the Michelangelo Quarry, Cararra. It weighs 250 tonnes. I love it

  2. Very interesting post, Bill, and you’ve just highlighted one of the very real dangers of games, especially the violent kind. Some players may be so enthralled by them that they do indeed become desensitised to real life violence and the horrors of war.

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. Luckily there are plenty of these games that don’t rely on obliterating the opposition. Just last weekend I was playing a puzzle one with my 6 year old grandson. It was the story of Amelia Earhart and we got completely absorbed in it. Needless to say, he got to the end before I did.

  3. Hi Bill!

    I’ve been having similar-but-different thoughts for the last year or two. I suggest the games that could become their own art form are first person shooters with a strong narrative structure, and there are a few of them about now. Games like Crysis are essentially techno-thrillers with a huge immersive factor.

    Yes, they do date quickly, I certainly agree, but by the same light, when was the last time someone read a Helen MacInnes novel? It’s sort of the same thing, I think.

    Your final point is superb. The number of 12 year olds playing these things is terrifying, and I fear a lot of them think it’s reality.

    1. Hi Gary, thanks for stopping by. And you’re right, the strong, first person narratives are the ones that have the biggest market and thus the higher levels of investment. They create the settings and atmosphere of the slickest action movies and draw you in not as a spectator but as a participant. They have high production values, imaginative storylines which follow the ‘classical’ structures beloved of creative writing gurus – they really are art forms. But I can’t help feeling that they’re a logical extension of where we’ve been heading for a long time. It started when the characters in soaps started seeming more real than real people. Viewers cared about them, knew them better than they knew their neighbours. Then that horribly artificial concept of ‘reality TV’ took it a stage further. It seems that ‘real’ reality is too unstructured; people want to step out of it into something with ‘meaning’. Games are simply the next evolutionary stage – the most effective way (so far) of realising oneself. Scary.

      1. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, intrepid adults with a bit of time on their hands would live out their fantasies with a dice, pen, paper and a handful of miniature figurines of paladins, elves, hob-goblins, dungeon masters and the odd sword-wielding alewife. Some went a stage further by forming into groups, choosing a setting in a park or someone’s house, don some weird emo-style clobber complete with over-sized hoodie and pretend they were being chased through labyrinthine underground chambers by an ogre mage or fungoid demoness. Of course, they risked being arrested for carrying an offensive weapon in public; or at least committing a breach of the peace, but there was also something missing: imagination alone isn’t enough to convince a reasonably sane adult that Geoffrey from number 32 is really Snurre Iron-Belly, the Great Demon Fire Giant of Rustamputo. More and more, computerised RPGs are taking away the imagination: you don’t even have to make up a character from personal preference any more; you can use a generator to produce your perfect avatar. I think the future will be a computerised all over body suit that gamers will be able to put on for total interaction in a real virtuality. They’ll see the fantasy world through a visor and interact with it via a power glove. They’ll feel the impact of things bumping into them; feel the heat of the dragon’s breath on their faces; and the sting of an assassin’s blade in their backs. If they don’t want to wait for the future, they could always have my job and enjoy the same experience for nothing.

        1. Thanks, Sara. That’s a brilliant summary of how it was in the early Dungeons and Dragons days. There were guys at my school playing it – and that was in the 50s. And you’re right about how real and comprehensive the gaming experience is becoming. For my novella, Alternative Dimension, I did a wee bit of research into the latest techniques and soon there’ll be pressure sensors and direct neural controls and all sorts of creepy stuff to make the game indistinguishable from reality and vice versa. Maybe they’re already in place. All good escapist stuff, but not really a substitute for living.

          1. Oh, I don’t know Bill – quite fancy myself as Saraphina Hexblade , the half-human, half-elf psychic warmage of Tarkustia: look at the fun I could have with my workmates ; )

  4. Hmmm, how does the anatomical part of half-human, half-elf work? I think we need to know, for medical if no other reasons.

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