The Orris: A Cultural Journal

The Good and the True

Kano: “That’s incredible!”

Cut cut cut cut…
She slashes with her hand above the puppets as if trying to cut invisible strings.
Yukito: “As I said, there are no strings. And of course I’m not using electronic waves, nor is it solar energy.”
Kano: “Hmm… so it is a spell?”
Yukito: “Yes, it is a spell.”

She leans against the fence in a care-free style.
Yukito: “You’re going to fall off again, mind you.”
Kano: “Don’t worry.”
She looks far away, to the layers of mountains shimmering in the clouds, as if they’re in a world beyond.
Kano: “You know what, I think spells were created to make people happy. Wouldn’t it be good if this were true?”
– From Air

           Too good to be good?
       Many of us, when we were young, spent a portion of our lives in front of a game console. For some of us, video games were way more appealing than hanging out with hostile kids outdoors. As time passed, video games have become about the only source of happiness: work is tough, people are annoying, and even the weather can be terrible, but the game is always there when we need it, and will never bother us when we don’t. Then we spend more and more hours on video games, stop attending to work and don’t like talking at all, unless it is to discuss how to steal the dragon’s egg with our online buddies.

       All of a sudden, we lose our jobs, our friends, and the goals of our lives. We realize that somehow, somewhere, we became so addicted to a virtual artifact, that we failed to tell the difference between what is real and what is not, and that perhaps video game is but a beautiful trap.

       Game addiction, like drug addiction, is considered a serious problem in many cultures. In China, parents send their children to special facilities in order to stop them from playing video games, where these children undergo trainings and therapies, sometimes in a cold turkey fashion, or even worse.

       In the U.S., activists have made known certain impacts of video game addiction such as poor health, loss of job, loss of friends and even death. Nevertheless, one can also argue that video games promote health, create job opportunities, and help people make friends.
Some may not believe lightly in the positive impact of games, but since the publication of Oregon Trail  and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, games have been produced for purposes not limited to entertainment. In these days, games have become both an industry and a research field: Games for Health has in the past decade become a recognized field of research, and professional video game players such as Guillaume Patry, known as Grrr, are capable of living on contest awards. 

       So good and so true
       I made quite a lot of friends through video games. In fact, in a certain period of my life, I had more friends in World of Warcraft than I did in real life. Unlike what many outside the gaming community thought, those friends that I made were not just “virtual friends”. We met regularly, usually over dinner or drinks, discussing how our guild should be managed, how we align with other guilds in the game server, and how the horde needs to work together to win the next battle. They are friends real and true, and we took the game seriously.

       Recent research has proved that experiences similar to mine are not uncommon. In a research paper published last year, Pace and his colleagues have discovered that players of World of Warcraft considered it as a means to extend real-world relationships into the virtual world, as well as a platform to form brand new relationships, and then extend them into the real-world [1]. These relationships are also not limited to friendship and romance. One of Pace’s subject’s described his relationship with another player as akin to that between a father and a son: the subject consulted the older man on how to put the scattered pieces of his life back together. I was more than shocked when I first read this. However, I can imagine that happening. As Pace has mentioned, in an online game, everyone wears a mask, but this same mask that protects the player’s identity at the same time brings out their true character. When the mask is worn, people care about what you say, not who you are.

       Too good to be true?
       Real and true interpersonal relationships formed through video games are eye-opening, indeed, but keep your eyes open for relationships shaped between human and virtual characters.

       It was in 2005, when I was taking summer classes in my college, getting a little bored, when my roommate introduced the game AIR to me. “Get some napkins before you play, pal,” I clearly remembered him saying.

       AIR is a visual novel. A visual novel is a type of game that features one or more stories. The player’s job is to go through these stories just like watching a movie, or reading a novel. What’s different is that the player is allowed to make choices for the protagonist in the game, and the story progresses in different ways based on the player’s choices.

        What followed were a few sleepless nights where I tried to release Misuzu, the main character in AIR, from a curse that made her be born, suffer and die bitterly at a young age over and over again. When she eventually passed away with a smile on her face, the curse lifted, I was sitting quietly in my room, tears running on my cheeks, and I was glad that I took advice from my roommate on the napkins. I was happy for Misuzu, because after all these days we “spent together,” she was no longer a mere game character to me. Rather, she has in my eyes become a living thing, and to make it better, a thing of ultimate beauty.

        Artistically, characters in Japanese games and anime are depicted in a surreal way, yet when it comes to recognizing their personalities, the player and the audience often feel they are so real, so real that the player and the audience may hope that the characters are indeed living.[3]

        I was at CHI 2010, the largest human-computer interaction conference, where the closing plenary speaker, Robotics expert Noel Sharkey, showed a video of a human-like robot showcase. When he said human-like, I thought they would just look like humans, but not to the point where you cannot tell the difference between a robot and a human, which they turned out to be.  A lot of the robots were designed in Japan, and they looked in a way like characters in Japanese games and anime.

       I had an argument with a fellow researcher then. I argued that one day mankind would become extinct because robots would be so good to live with that nobody would want to live with other humans anymore. She disagreed, arguing that when it becomes so good, it also becomes so boring.

        We’re not to judge who is right, and who is wrong here, but obviously someone has already put my words into action. This February, a Korean man Lee jin-gyu brought his virtual relationship with his favorite anime character “Nanoha” to one in real life, by marrying a pillow on which “Nanoha” was drawn. He had supporters and dissenters: his supporters argued that everyone should be allowed to fall in love with and marry whoever, and whatever they want, whereas some of his dissenters questioned: how many people is a single fictional character allowed to marry?

        What is good and what is true
       It may seem that the interaction style amongst video game players and between human and virtual characters may be a result of cultural differences, since indeed eastern and western cultures have produced entertainment genres of drastically different styles. However, this is not, at least not fully, attributable to cultural differences. Although the vast majority of anime and game fanatics appear in Asia, the influence of Japanese style anime and games has been spreading slowly. Step on the campus of a university nowadays, and you’ll find, with some effort, anime clubs secretly watching their favorite series in a dark classroom.

        Over the years, I noticed patterns that distinguish art works in Japan from those in the U.S. I was playing the game Dragon Age: Origins a few months ago. The game was addicting, as the game-play experience was amazing and very true. However, when I compared it with popular Japanese games and anime, I found a critical difference:

       An idea.
       If I were to summarize, Dragon Age: Origins is about the king’s true heir fighting for the throne while invasions from foul creatures underground rise up against the nation, while AIR is about happiness, about what makes someone happy, and about making someone you love happy. Just as in the excerpt of the game’s script presented at the beginning of this article, every time the notion of happiness is brought up, this idea is emphasized and struck into the player’s heart. On the one hand, Dragon Age: Origins is telling a good story, which makes it a good game. But on the other hand, AIR, while telling a good story, is also conveying an idea to its players. If good storytelling is what makes the characters just believable, the idea that the story tries to convey is what blurs the border between the virtual and the real, and makes the characters true.

        When the border between the virtual world and the real world blurs, how are we in a position to tell what is real and what is not? And how are we in a position to tell if something is too good to be true? There will be a day when robots are hardly distinguishable from humans, and when it comes to the day depicted in Blade Runner[4], there may be detectives like Rick Deckard [5] that hunt down runaway replicants [6] to protect the order and safety of humans. Remember, though, that Rick fell in love with a replicant in the end.  — Nuxia & Lynga

References and Notes:

[1] Pace, T., Bardzell, S., Bardzell, J.: The rogue in the lovely black dress: intimacy in world of warcraft. Proceedings of the 28th international conference on Human factors in computing systems (2010): 233-242. Print. 

[2] Horton, D., and Wohl, R.R. “Mass communication and para-social interaction.” Psychiatry 19 (1956):  215-229. Print. 

[3] This effect is being studied as a type of para-social relationship [2]

[4] Blade Runner is a 1982 movie featuring a world in the future, where human-like robots illegally mingle with humans to seek memories and human-like emotions.

[5] Rick Deckard is the protagonist in Blade Runner.

[6] Replicant is what the robots are called in Blade Runner.


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