Friday, September 9, 2011

Games and Hyper-Reality

This lecture by CMU Prof Jesse Schell should be retitled "How Our Worst Cognitive Weaknesses Are Exploited For Money By Video Game Makers". Using games as incentives to get people to do things isn't a new idea but he boils a lot of it down to psychology in a very clear way. This brings up lots of points.

There are lots of people who don't ever play video games; unless you count this version of Missile Command, I'm one of them. It's not that we're Amish or something, but many of us just don't see the point of spending time learning skills (i.e. the necessary information and maneuvering in a game) that are not transferable out of the game, and which result only in points in the game. Here are some points that are much more worthwhile spending time on: going up 50 points on your credit score! going down 30 seconds on your mile time! Going down 20 points on your cholesterol! That last one gives you literal life points.

The problem is that I (and many other people) wish we were better at paying attention to those kinds of points. Life already is a kind of game anyway (especially if you think we live in a simulation) but the problem is reinforcement. If saving money and eating well and investing and doing speed work-outs (which I hate) had some kind of immediate positive feedback, either from beating your friends or seeing automatically how you've improved over time, lots of people would do them more and better. Schell talks about this at the end of the lecture. If somehow my efforts in Halo or Mafia Wars (those are games, right?) could help me organize my finances, then I would play those SOBs every damn day.

Schell also makes a few comments on the commodification of experience, echoing comments that Umberto Eco and others have made about modern capitalism, and how this has changed life specifically for American consumers. The experiences which are created and sold to us are quite brighter, more clearly-defined, more real than the things they're imitating – and they become "hyper-real". (Ever have a cherry pie without coloring and extra flavors, and realize you didn't like it as much?) This wasn't key to Schell's talk but it's interesting to see this theme's convergence with the technology world.

My own eureka moment on this came during a visit to the California Adventure section of Disneyland, which features various California gold-rush-history-themed rides set among transplanted ponderosa pines and ersatz Sierra granite. As I stood looking over the simulated whitewater of one of the rides, it occurred to me that I could be in the real actual Sierras, with wild ponderosas and genuine granite and whitewater, in about four hours. With no lines, and no screaming kids (or not screaming for long anyway, until the mountain lions do us a favor). But I had still paid to be at this fake one. The commodification of "wilderness" experience is my particular high horse, but then again I'm just fine with going to Taco Bell for "Mexican food", so I guess we all have to pick our compromises.

Disney vs. actual redwood forest.

Notice though that the question of hyper-reality applies to things we purchase mostly for their sensory content: music, food, experiences like Disneyland. Why? Some of the hyper-reality has to do with the brute sensory input of colors and flavor and meeting preconceptions, but some of it has to do with the ideas and beliefs you experience while you're consuming the product. So far it seems to be mostly food products that have exploited this avenue; i.e. you're thinking about how thoughtful of a person you are for buying fair-trade coffee and local organic produce, and what kind of wonderful people from a distant land you've interacted with indirectly. But not all products are as amenable to this as food. I don't know that people are concerned with whether their external A/C unit is "authentic".


dbonfitto said...

Hyper-Reality comes with more accessible indoor plumbing.

When you're in an actual plasma cannon shootout with alien terrorist zombies, they're not going to let you call a time out because you've gotta use the little boys' room.

Michael Caton said...

This is why we have zero-g depends. Yes, there are benefits if you want to shoot someone without being shot back at.