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Virtual reality: Does gaming change our perspectives on real-life?

Gaming is the medium of communication and self-expression that this generation has adopted as their own. Is it time to start thinking about the images and perspectives it presents us with and treating the games we play as more than meaningless escapism?

[Gaming is the medium of communication and self-expression that this generation has adopted as their own. Is it time to start thinking about the images and perspectives it presents us with and treating the games we play as more than meaningless escapism?]


In my slightly odd habit of catching snippets of other people's conversations, I've been hearing a lot of videogame references this week. Two World Cup discussions at my local pub have brought up football games as a means of judging a player's talent. In the new A-Team film, a villain gloats "This is just like Call of Duty!" after he calls in an air-strike. I also overheard posse of students, in a discussion about Greek mythology, mention Kratos from God of War without batting an academically-dubious eyelid.

Games are an increasingly influential part of our modern lives and culture. It is the medium which has been adopted by this generation of children and young adults in the same way that rock music and film were adopted by their parents and grandparents. Every new wave of children and teenagers look for a way of finding meaning in the world and expressing themselves that their elders do not understand. When we are young, we see the world as it is and long make our mark on it, build new landmarks so that we can prove ourselves and our peers as worthy successors to those who have gone before us.

By doing so, the nature of life and morality undergoes changes, sometimes slight and sometimes great, with every passing generation. Think of how different life was for the average person only fifty years ago, in terms of culture and social interaction. Take that back a hundred or two hundred years and the gulf widens enormously again. The inevitability of new generations finding new media of communication and understanding is as inevitable as the previous generation resisting them. Gaming might get labelled as Satan incarnate by zealous parents nowadays, but their eyes rolled just as hard as ours when their parents had identical reactions to loud music and hippie culture. Even the written word, now the bastion of high culture and learning, was lambasted by Plato as the end of oral traditions and the beginning of the homogenisation of philosophical thought – although given the dispiriting intellectual standards of the university degree I've just spent four years trudging through, I can't say I entirely disagree with him.

I doubt that it's an especially original thought to suggest that much of what we see as reality is just a matter of perception. When Francis Ford Coppola released his adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, he intended it as a damning indictment of the Italian-American mobster way of life. Instead the real-life mob were hugely impressed by what they saw on-screen and started imitating the characters' way of talking and dressing smartly. More recently, the debate over civil liberties that raged in the UK over the past decade, in reaction to the previous government's fierce belief in authoritarian social law, drew heavily on George Orwell's book 1984. In other words, the biggest continuing British political debate was strongly directed by a work of fiction. These experiences, as books or films or games, change the way we see and react to the world. What was fiction can take over the reality. How one generation sees an event can be completely different to their children, because they are using a different set of reference points.
The point I'm rather circuitously getting to is whether we can continue to treat gaming as nothing more than escapist entertainment when its influence on our lives and way of thinking is growing. Of course the idea that gaming could turn any remotely mentally stable person into a killer just because they've seen or caused a few too many virtual deaths is completely specious: people have had access to violent entertainment for centuries (many of Shakespeare's plays are sadistic in ways no game could get away with nowadays) without the planet descending into blood-thirsty anarchy. If anything, the stress relief of escapist gaming can offer an excellent means of satisfying aggressive feelings in a non-threatening way. But what gaming can do is change the way we react to certain images and events, subtly revising the moral boundaries of what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

When a young person sees war through the context of Call of Duty, for example, it is given a mental association with meaningless entertainment. What messages about wartime losses does that game's multiplayer send out by putting players in a nihilistic cycle of war that has no goals and will never end no matter how many soldiers they kill? While it's ridiculous to suggest that the game could or should ever be viewed in such real-life contexts, as a situation it has a strangely sinister quality that's hard to shake. That does not mean they will not understand the implications of what is happening, but it will take more powerful scenes for them to have a strong reaction to it than for someone raised without access to such entertainment.

When something seems commonplace, we become desensitized to it no matter how unpleasant it may be. Can we honestly say we react to hearing stories of murder and rape on the news with the horror those events deserve? Many of us will sigh and perhaps voice a pithy sadness, but as soon as a fresh report begins, the previous one is forgotten. The events that truly horrify us are those whose images don't have a precedent in our minds: I don't ask this question to demean the tragedy of the events or lessen the loss of the victims, but would we have reacted to the equivalent number of deaths from 9/11 (or perhaps the 7/7 bombings in Britain) with the same despair had they taken place in more sadly-familiar scenarios, such as civilian wartime deaths, murders or a motorway pile-up?

I use representations of violence and warfare because they're such a prevalent part of the Western gaming culture mainstream - and thus easiest to see how gamers exposed to those images are affected by them. That's not to suggest those are the only ways in which games can shape players' perspectives on the world around them. Perhaps it would be interesting for someone living in Japan to observe whether the Love Plus dating game phenomenon is changing the way young men are interacting with women and what their expectations are. In South Korea, where MMORPG addiction is considered a genuine social problem (and where deaths have been reported as a result of players not leaving their monitors for days at a time), could it be said that the most fervent players (those who spend more time online than interacting with the world outside their homes) are treating the game world as their 'real' lives and every moment away from the screen as the short-term escape most of us get from playing our videogames?

Gaming seems stuck in adolescence in terms both historical, it being forty years since the first commercially released videogame Computer Space (nearest rival television being eighty years since an equivalent landmark) and cultural, its content fixated on the aesthetics of violence and sex with none of the complexities. I have no problem with violent games as escapist entertainment (I own Modern Warfare and play it online quite regularly), but as the medium grows in importance to people's lives, it needs to offer a more fully-rounded range of experiences, tackling subjects from many different perspectives so that when young gamers see parts of the world they can only relate to through their gaming experiences, they have a more complete basis on which to form an understanding. An air-strike is not just a kill-streak reward, but results in the losses of many real lives. Equally so, what political or personal reasons did the pilot have for pushing the 'drop' button? These sorts of questions don't need to be asked all the time, but do need to be asked sometimes.

As much as previous generations may continue to resist, gaming is as vital and relevant a part of modern life as any other medium, perhaps moreso to the children and young adults who have grown up with it. Maybe it is time for the games industry to grow up as well and start reflecting reality, just as reality is starting to reflect gaming. It's a medium that can offer great opportunities to escape into new lives and worlds, but we must be sure we're asking the right questions along the way so that escape doesn't turn into a trap.

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