Video Games as Art: What It Means To Be Human in The World R:2

Today’s assigned reading was the infamous Roger Ebert blogs regarding video games as art. His statement, of course, was ‘video games can never be art’ (my emphasis), a statement that he later recanted–sort of. Ebert retracted his previous statement and replaced it with ‘Video games are not art now, and this generation of gamers will not see video games become art.’ Steven Spielberg once made a similar statement, saying “I will accept video games as a story-telling medium when someone can honestly say, ‘I cried at level 17”. Spielberg is currently in a partnership with EA games, and has made a few games with them, like a little series known as MEDAL OF HONOR. I guess if one is going to convince industry types of the value of video games, there’s no point in starting small. Other big-name movie industry types who dig games are giants like Peter Jackson (whose involvement with the Halo franchise led to him attempting to earn the rights to produce a Halo movie–we got District 9 instead, the proof that the rookie director he had chosen could, in fact, make a compelling sci-fi film), Mark Hamill (who spends most of his time now doing voice work for video games, including the recent Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, starring opposite from Leonard Nimoy), and Guillermo Del Toro (who has defended video games as an art form, and who is deeply involved in the production of an upcoming horror game, InSane).

Though considering Guillermo's Hellboy fist over there, it's not surprising.

One of us. One of us.

Ebert’s retraction included the following remark: “I don’t know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature.” Many people responded to this remark with titles such as World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Everquest, and sundry other MMORPGs, all of which derive their experience from playing with other flesh-and-blood people. In response to Ebert’s remark, I would ask what one could learn about another human being from watching a movie that they couldn’t learn from playing a video game; with the exception of documentaries, movies aren’t about real flesh-and-blood people, and neither are video games. Both focus more on Human Nature than on individual humans, and any oblique remarks about learning about the director applies not only to video games, but to every single animated movie ever made (and anyone who argues that Toy Story 3 doesn’t communicate anything about people simply because it’s animated toys is clearly a Cyberman.)

Having not played many MMOs, I will have to supplement my lack of experience in that arena with another game: the .hack series. A series that simulates people playing an MMO in the near-future, .hack often presents players with the question of what it means to be human.

Example 1, Mia.

The original series (.hack//Outbreak through .hack//Quarantine) features the character Mia, a Blademaster (the average longsword-type fighter) who has an illegal character model; while all other characters in The World are human, Mia has hacked her character’s appearance and instead made herself a purple cat. She also has several other hacked abilities, such as the ability to see the main character’s hacked Twilight Bracelet, an item that was invisible to all other players in the world, including the System Administrators (whom Mia also seemed to be skilled at avoiding). She is best friends with a boy named Elk, who plays the game to try to build his self-confidence in real life, where he doesn’t have many friends and is a bit of a shut-in. These two characters don’t tend to associate with many other people, and have a very strong friendship. The only problem is that Mia is an NPC, a ‘Non-Player Character’. Unlike the usual NPCs in The World, however (usually shop-keepers and the like), Mia has a full-fledged AI program, and conducts herself as a human; she is not even aware that she is not a real person until near the end of her ‘life’. Her behavior is entirely human-like; there are even periods where she is inactive, and you are unable to invite her into your adventuring party, just like when human characters are logged out. In essence, Mia could be considered the first Loebner Prize Gold Medal winning program.

As the main story progresses, however, Mia’s program integrity begins to degrade, manifesting in odd behaviors and speech, rather like when a person’s mental state becomes abnormal. This ultimately culminates in Mia confronting the truth about herself: she isn’t real. Not only that, but she is a villain, a piece of malignant software created for the purpose of extending the lifespan of Morganna, an AI program who was designed to digitally oversee and program the Ultimate AI. Morganna, like so many antagonists in Japanese RPGs, is not a clear-cut evildoer like The Joker, or even a man who is clearly evil but has what appears to be good (or at least non-evil) intentions, like Magneto. Morganna’s aim is to live. Should her purpose of completing the Ultimate AI ever be fulfilled, then her program will terminate. However, as an advanced AI herself, she is aware of this fact, and does not want to die. Therefore, she deliberately stalls the completion of her project by attempting to disrupt The World. As the player attempts to stop Morganna’s interference, however, they destroy vital parts of her programming, which manifests as severe bugs and corrupt data in The World (as Morganna is the underlying code for the entire game world). Another important piece of lost data was her knowledge of her purpose, turning her into a psychopath who then attempts to do outright harm to people, and causing her to attempt to actually destroy her ‘daughter’, the Ultimate AI ‘Aura’. It’s as if the Blue Screen of Death one day caused a deadly neurotoxin to leak from your CPU because it didn’t like the fact that you were switching from Windows to Linux.

The only time Morganna makes a physical appearance in .hack. She is an unseen antagonist throughout the games.

In the sequel series, .hack//G.U., while AI data anomalies (known collectively as ‘AIDA’) play a major role, they do not manifest themselves as characters. Instead of an AI-controlled character, our views on what it means to be human are questioned by the character of Sakubo. Sakubo is a player character shared by a pair of twins. Depending on who is playing Sakubo at any given time, her personality and appearance changes. When the older twin, Saku, is in control, Sakubo has a very pushy and acerbic attitude (at one point, while her brother is playing, she outright steals the controller from him), and only cares about one other player in The World; the Arena Champion Endrance (a character played by the same person who played Elk seven years prior; thus, Endrance looks like an older version of Elk). When her ‘younger’ brother, Bo, is in control, Sakubo becomes very passive, soft-spoken, and unsure of him/herself, but is very affectionate toward everyone around him/her, and is eager to please.

Sakubo, showing both her Saku and Bo appearances. When the player switches, slight changes show in the character

Throughout the games, however, hints are subtly dropped that Sakubo is not what she appears to be. Eventually, it is revealed that Sakubo is, in fact, a character belonging to two people…in one body. Sakubo belongs to a young boy with a split personality, whose alter is modeled on his idea of what his twin sister would have been like, had she not been stillborn. The fact that the boy developed a second personality (and the fact that his ‘sister’ is so mean to him) hints that his home life is not a very loving one and, like many others in The World, he plays the game to escape real life. Eventually, Saku admits to the player that she is not real, that her brother ‘made her’ for protection, both from his neglectful parents and from the pressures of society. The player is then faced with a decision to make: to ‘kill’ Saku (against Bo’s will) by telling her that she should leave, or convince her to continue to exist in Bo’s mind. It’s clear that the main character doesn’t want her gone, if not just for Bo’s sake, for the fact that Saku had been with the cast for three games, as a completely separate entity from Bo. Saku is her own person in The World, just as Mia had her own body, voice and personality within The World.

And yet the fact remains that both Saku and Mia are simple facsimiles of people. Neither one is their own person outside of the game, and yet within the game, they are just as human as every other character. Science Fiction writer (and ‘pro-robotist’) Isaac Asimov loved to work with the idea of non-human humans, as evidenced by his cast of characters with positronic brains, all of whom distinctly show human-like (if sometimes child-like) tendencies. The Bicentennial Man is perhaps Asimov’s best illustration of a non-human human. Andrew is possessed of all of the faculties we normally associate with humans, such as creativity and emotions, and his strongest desire is to become human himself. This desire is so strong that he begins replacing his mechanical components with organic ones; he reverse engineers himself from fully robotic, to a cyborg, and ultimately to a fully human organic being.

Asimov’s works are almost certainly considered art, as they are some of the finest short stories in the Science Fiction genre. So much of what minds like Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein wrote became staples of the genre, it would be remiss to discount the importance of their works. How is it that a story which asks the same questions as Asimov’s art, and directly engages the player in considering this question of humanity outside of humans in the case of Mia, Morganna and Saku’s fates, not be art?

The question present in the .hack games regarding human nature doesn’t necessarily make the game more fun. In some cases, it can be downright depressing to learn about the human condition. Sakubo is played by an 11-year old boy with abusive parents, causing him to develop a split personality. Atoli is played by a depressed 16-year-old girl who started playing The World at the suggestion of a boy she met on a suicide website. Gaspard is a 13-year-old boy who is bullied because he is overweight and makes poor grades. Bordeaux is a 14-year-old girl who is angry about her parent’s divorce, and vents that anger by killing players in The World. Endrance is a 20-year-old hikikomori who stays in his room playing The World almost 24/7, and is incapable of functioning in real life. Kaede is a 28-year-old woman whose son died in a car crash that she caused, and she plays The World to interact with a player named Zelkova, who reminds her of her dead son. The game seems almost like a warning to treat everyone on the internet with respect and politeness, because you never know who is one message away from killing themselves, or who might turn into a real-life stalker and come after you.

What makes the game fun (aside from a battle system based around executing very cool-looking combos, a colorful cast, and a solid story about saving the internet) is that the characters are just that: characters, each one created by a real person. Some characters, like Alkaid and Gabi, have role-playing aspects to them (Alkaid is a tough-talking punk whose real-life counterpart is a quiet bookworm, and Gabi is childish and off-the-wall, though his player is an accomplished novelist and retired college professor), revealing to the player what the other players want to be. Other characters, like Silabus and Pi, are almost exact representations of themselves within The World (Silabus is a prominent member of a guild meant to help new players start in The World, and spends his real-life free time volunteering with social aid programs, while Pi is a System Administrator for the game, and sees playing the game as part of her job, and conducts herself accordingly. She makes no show of trying to hide her profession from other players, unlike several other characters played by CC Corp employees). It is up to the player to decide how much about each player they want to learn. It is entirely possible to play the game without ever initiating an e-mail chain with another player, and probably even possible to beat the game at 100% without doing so; interaction with other players through e-mail or other out-of-game media is entirely optional.

But the process of learning about the people behind the characters is fun. Exchanging e-mails with various players adds incredible depth to the characters, increasing the emotional investment players have in the game. For example, while I was playing .hack//G.U., an update popped up on my news feed. A 19-year-old college student had fallen to his death from his 3rd story apartment window while playing The World. I panicked; Silabus was a 19-year-old college student living in his own apartment. I immediately logged on and went to the party creation screen. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw that Silabus was alive, well, and logged in. I invited him into my party and adventured with him for a good half an hour, simply happy to see that he was alive. I can’t know if the news story was purposefully added to evoke that emotional response toward Silabus (as reading the news updates is entirely optional), or if my response was just due to me having an interest in learning about Silabus’s player (as e-mailing Silabus to learn about him in real-life is also entirely optional), but what I do know is that it made the game more fun.

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