Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Gamer Messiah - Computer Games as a Medium for Redemption in Cinema

Abstract: In a series of movies from the last decades, cinema creates a fantasy over an ultimate computer game. The ultimate game begins as an escapist paradise and develops into a nightmare, an inescapable escapism. Ultimately the game reveals itself as an epistemological-spiritual journey which goal is to transcend the game and develop a new Weltanschauung. The new perception of reality as a game opens the path to understanding reality as a construct or as a vehicle for self-programming and to post-modern and new-age interpretations on the nature of computer games. The paper will discuss movies such as: The Matrix, eXsitenZ, Tron, Avalon, Hack/Sign and Serial Experiments Lain.

1 The computer game as a metaphor for life

Throughout the last decades, since the rise of computer games as a popular medium, there has been an increasing surge of films that deal with computer games. From Doom to Mortal Combat to Lara Croft – more and more successful computer games have been transferred to the big screen.

In this article, however, I would like to focus on a more specific genre of films. These are films that not only bring computer games images and heros to the big screen but also reflect on the meaning of computer games and virtual realities. These are films that deal with very notion of what is a computer game? What is reality? And what is the difference between the two?

The movies I will focus on in this article are 3 American movies: eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (1999) and Tron (1982); and three Japanese movies and anime series: Serial Experiments Lain (1997), Avalon (2001) and Haack//Sign (2002).

The prevalence of Japanese movies and anime series within this list should not surprise us, as Japanese animation is known to be a highly futuristic genre which often confronts science-fictional themes on an extensive and philosophical manner.

These 7 movies, I argue, present us with the concept of the computer game as a metaphor for life. This idea is shown and developed in varying degrees of detail within these films. Moreover these films also present us with a dialectical process in which computer games teach us to do a better work as players in the game of life.

2 The Game of life

Ted Pikul: (About the virtual game-world eXistenZ) I don't like it here. I don't know what's going on. We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly non-existent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.

Allegra Geller: That sounds like my game all right.

Ted Pikul: That sounds like a game that is not going to be easy to market

Allegra Geller: But it's a game everybody is already playing

(Out of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ)

Computer games are a virtual reality, however to the player of these games, this virtual reality is very real. People in virtual worlds develop identities, relationships, wealth and a distinct sense of existence. In short they are emotionally and ontologically invested in these virtual worlds. As Miroslav Filicak argues in his article Hyperidentities, "when I play I am more my own avatar than the person sitting by the console/computer." Reality and a sense of place are defined by where we focus our attention or in the words of Catalti S.L. "Places are spaces with meaning". Drawn to the extreme these kinds of virtual realities raise the questions: What is reality? Is reality even distinguishable from virtual reality when virtual reality actually not virtual at all for the person living inside it?

Makers of movies about computer games have dwelt on these questions extensively, and show the analogues between life and computer games in various ways.

In eXistenZ the idea that reality is a computer game is already prevalent in the name of the computer game eXistenZ which stands at the focus of the film by the same name. This name evokes the idea of a computer games which emulates the game of existence and throughout the film we are given various hints that reality is indeed a kind of computer game.

When Ted Pikul, the PR nerd, enters the eXistenZ game for the first time with the game designer Allegra Geller he naively asks "What precisely is the goal of the game that we're playing now?". "You have to play the game to find out why you're playing it" answers Geller, as if referring to the game of life. Later, when Pikul comments that "free will is obviously not a big factor in this little world" of the eXistenZ program, responds Geller "It's like real life. There is just enough to make it interesting".

Ash, the central Character in the movie Avalon from Mamoru Oshii, the maker of the Ghost in the Shell series asks similarly:"Which is the greater challenge? Which is the better game? Which game would you play? The sort of game you can win but can't, or alternatively one that seems impossible to win but isn't? Maintaining a precise delicate balance somewhere in between throughout every level of the game is what keeps it going".

Both citations refer obviously not just to the computer game but to the idea that life is a sort of computer game where each of us is a player with a limited amount of free will and with perfectly tuned goals just to keep us going.

In this spirit Mimiru in Hack//Sign asks the existential question "why did I start this game". This classic question about the meaning life, what it means to live and why one lives it, is now transferred into the realm of the game in a sort of virtual existentialism. One now asks not why one lives, but why one plays the game.

The Wachowsky Brothers' The Matrix doesn't even try to be subtle on the computer game vs. life analogy. The movie postulates that the reality which we consider as the real world is actually an intricate type of virtual reality. The whole of our known world is in the Matrix universe nothing but a big simulation, a sold out game.

Flynn the Hacker in Tron is drawn inside the computer and begins living with computer programs only to find out that computer programs aren't that different from real people. The computer programs around him look like his friends in the real world (They are played by the same actors). The computer world is actually very much like the outside world.

Accordingly the maker of the virtual realm, "The World", as it is called in Haack//Sign is often described in these films using theological terms as a kind of God. In eXistenZ Allegra Geller is referred to as the "game pod goddess" or alternatively as a "demoness". The Matrix has a figure called "The Architect" which is the creator and God of the matrix. In Lain it is Masami Eiri which created the 7th protocol that connects the real world with the wired world who calls himself a god. While in Avalon we have the nine sisters who created the Avalon game and are an in-game deity.

3 The Game-Life Dialectic

The virtual game is often first introduced as a possibility for escapism. eXistenZ is a game which promises to be better than "real life", sold in a world where car mechanics play God on a computer. In Serial Experiments Lain our hero Lain Iwakura, a socially dysfunctional youth enters the virtual realm and finds a new exciting kind of life there. Haack//Sign is a series about an Massive Multi Player Online Role Playing Game where people go to have fun.

This thesis of a virtual world as a place of recreational and escapist opportunities is then reversed by an anti-thesis in which this kind of escapism ends up becoming an inescapable escapism – a claustrophobic unreal realm which one cannot escape. The same limitless possibilities which first offered absolute freedom now create absolute and inescapable control. Cinema warns us that the idea of an easy escape from this world using computer games is a too easy idea, one that is bound to fail. This level, the second level and typically also the second act, becomes the center of the piece in most of the above mentioned works.

Haack//Sign is about a player who cannot log out of the game. Tron is about a computer Hacker who gets stuck inside a computer game and can not escape it. The players in eXistenZ move from one reality to another getting more and more confused as to where the reality they left is to be found. The movie actually ends with one of the players "Hey, tell me the truth, are we still in the game?". The Matrix is also about people trying to leave the Matrix and return to the "Real" reality.

Man has performed a kind of escape from his own reality into the boundless world of the virtual world , however the total limitlessness of the virtual world also enables total control and so it is there that slavery becomes even more acute. The player is stuck inside a matrix he knows to be false and still cannot exit.

The third part of this dialectical process is really a sort of 3rd act synthesis "Aufhebung" which is an equivalent of the theological idea of finding transcendence by entering the low depths of the world. Theology speaks in various traditions such as Kabbalah, Hasidism or New Age Evolutionism about a God who chooses to create a world of a lower order, a physical world, in order to descend into that world and emerge out of it with a better understanding of reality. Only through becoming immanent and manifesting itself in finite forms can the transcendent God achieve fullfillment and catharsis. In the same way, man which has descended into the depths of lower virtual realities finds salvation through the lower worlds.

How is this to be achieved? By confronting the false boundaries of the virtual world the player understands that all boundaries are indeed false. The game acts as a metaphor which helps us better understand the world. Once one can transcend the illusion of reality inside the game, one can also transcend the illusion that the outside world is a "real" reality.

By understanding that reality is a kind of code which can be manipulated and twisted at will, the player gains a precious understanding of this world. He realizes that all reality is programmable and so by learning to play the virtual game, he also learns how to play the game of life.

This sort of idea is prevalent in most of the works discussed. "All emotions are caused by impulses in the brain" says Lain in the end of Serial Experiments Lain after going through her virtual journey: "You just need to block the unpleasant impulses and than select only the happy pleasant ones". The idea of "blocking" certain impulses and then "selecting" other ones is reminiscent of computer jargon, only this time it is being used at the psychological existence. At another place Lain says "What isn't remembered never happened. Memory is merely a record. You just need to rewrite that record."

The player in Avalon is driven throughout the movie by a peculiar urge to transcend the game and ascend into a higher level. Finally she does gain a new perspective on life by playing the game. At the end of the movie she announces "Reality is what we choose to believe. As for who controls the game. I choose to believe it is me". Both in Avalon as in Lain, the player emerges from the game with a feeling of empowerment in his inner search, and a concept of reality as a rewritable, programmable construct.

Flynn the Hacker who gets sucked into the computer in Tron also emerges from the computer with a new understanding of life. At the end of the movie he has left his old destitute life and leads a new successful existence in which he sees his older friends as a kind of computer applications and accordingly calls them "programs".

In the Matrix the protagonist Neo, who is a computer hacker has to understand that the world he has been living in is a dream, to use the words of his mentor Morpheus, in order to learn how to redesign the code from which this world is made, and later in the 3rd part of the series even reassemble the code of the universe outside the computer world.

4 Reality Construction in Postmoderism and New-Age
The idea of reality as artificial construct is a central idea in postmodern theory. Reality in postmodernism is not accepted as a given unquestionable fact but as something which is composed out of arbitrary social or cultural constructs. As such it is an object for deconstruction and modular reassembly by the player. Thinkers such as Judith Butler tell us to engage in this game as if we are playing different roles and live life like players in the game. Actors in the Wachowsky brothers' The Matrix have told that "Simulacra and Simulation" by the French Postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard was required reading for those taking part in the film.

The idea of reality as a reprogrammable construct also touches upon another very postmodern stream of thought: namely the New Age movement. Wouter Hanegraaf who studied the New Age movement in his book New Age Religion and the Western Culture concludes that the idea that "we create our own reality" is a central new-age theme that appears throughout the writings of various new age thinkers and icons such as Jean Huston, Marilyn Ferguson, Eric Jantsch and many others. A variation on the idea of creating our own reality is the idea that we program our reality as if it were some kind of computer code, and such an idea is indeed found in the the above mentioned examples, however it certainly reaches it's culmination in the idea of the Messiah as an Hacker which one finds in The Matrix where Neo, the Hacker learns to decode the reality code and thus becomes a messiah.

The computer game-as-life metaphor in contemporary game theory
The computer games and virtual realities which feature in these movies are quite different from the computer games we know today. These computer games are highly advanced simulations which the contemporary game industry can only dream about. While it is much easier to implement and understand the computer-game-as-life metaphor in the context of these fictional games and virtual environments the idea that the computer game is a kind of metaphor for life which teaches us about life isn't limited to these films only. The same idea also appears in the writings of contemporary computer games theorists.

Douglas Rushkoff for example writes in his article "New Renaissance": "Gaming – as a metaphor but also as a lived experience – invites a renaissance perspective on the world in which we live in". Rushkoff goes on to write about the idea which features in films such as The Matrix or Serial Experiments Lain of moving from the position of playing in a pre-programmed world into programming your own reality. "As game programmers instead of game players, we begin to become aware of just how much of our reality is, indeed, open source – up for discussion".

At the end of his piece Rushkoff concludes "I'd predict that gamers will be the next to steer the direction of our renaissance, and that they may have entirely better results. For, unlike businessman or even politicans, gamers know that they reality they are engineering isn't real".

And Rushkoff is not alone. The highly successful and influential game designer Will Wright propagates the idea of players as creators as well. According to Wright the shift from passive media i.e. literature, cinema or television into mediums which create active involvements such as computer games, creates social change from a consumer society into a gamer society in which one is not a consumer but a "conducer", a consumer producer. In the ambitious evolutionary game Spore Wright seeks to give players a genuine feeling of the immenseness of the possibility space of existence. Wright says that he views his games as catalysts to broadening the mind's mental models. Wright therefore creates games with a conscious effort to make games the broaden our perspective on life and uses games as a consciousness expansion tool.

These are just two examples, however, it will be interesting to investigate how the way cinema envisions the idea of the computer games as a metaphor for life and as a tool for broadening our perspective of our existence influences game designers and game theorists and the way these three group interact between each other in propagating and further advancing this idea.


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