The great escape

In our emotionally deprived, over-administered society, could virtual reality provide the excitement real life lacks?

Sex sells. It sells so well that even when you are wanting neither for sex nor for whatever it is being used to sell, you still find yourself having a quick look. Thus it was that I recently found myself answering the question "Bored at work?" by clicking on an advertisement in which the question was framed by a finely-pixelated décolletage. The bountiful bosom duly disappeared and I soon found myself signing up for a Civilisation-style game so clearly cynically designed to take all of your time and quite a bit of your money that it would be unethical to mention its name.

Typically I am not bored at work. Nonetheless, I played three games of blitz chess between writing the second and third paragraphs of this article. If this is not typical that is because, often, I play at least five games between paragraphs. (My paragraphs have also become notably shorter over the years.) The site I play on used to have a statistic for "percentage of life" spent logged in, but they removed it because such raw confrontation with the facts of addiction is probably ill-advised on mental health grounds.

In zoological terms, the evolutionary function of play among primates is quite clear. The games we play provide a training ground where we acquire many of the skills and fine-tune the instinctual responses that will help us survive out in the real world. Think of lion cubs learning hunting skills through play-fighting, or human children learning the rudiments of social inequality through musical chairs. In contemporary adult society, however, we can rarely analyse games in this way. When solitaire and minesweeper were introduced as standard on Windows 3.1, Microsoft pretended they would help develop eye-mouse co-ordination. Instead, they developed a way for millions of office workers to happily fritter away their employers' money. At best, they helped develop peripheral sensory functions that afford even the most thoroughly numbed minds intuitive awareness of an approaching supervisor.

There is one reverse-evolutionary analysis that fits many of the gaming activities that today occupy so many of us, so much of the time. For while it is neither particularly useful to us in ordinary life to be able to drive virtual or real automobiles at breakneck speeds (unless of course that happens to be the way you make your living), or to mow through armies of zombies with machine guns that never overheat, we look to these activities for the sense of danger and violence, romance and death-defying physical agility that evade the emotionally deprived realities of our over-administered societies. We crave such extremes of emotion and activity in our lives because, however emasculated we become, traces of our basic instinctual makeup still worm their way into our psychology. Even if physical excellence has no exchange value, beyond the capacity for sports entertainment obviously, we still hanker after the evolutionary advantage it once offered.

Most of all, though, we crave the idea that there is some connection between our thinking and our doing, and it is in the world of games that these are still intimately, functionally connected. In the world of work, tragically, thinking about what must be done is merely the least imaginative of the various available ways we chose to avoid doing it. Otherwise, our working lives are by and large structured in terms of an inflationary logic of purely personal aims and goals that rarely appear to possess, except to the most deluded, any external relevance – until we are sacked, that is, for playing too much solitaire.

Karl Marx's theory of alienation provides an early analysis of the way in which industrial society relieves the worker of any sense of responsibility for and power over what he produces. Lord knows – that is, when He is not too high on opium – what Marx would have made of the degree of alienation in today's post-industrial society, in which consumers are as alienated from their desires as workers are from the few things that are still actually made for commercial gain. Although it has its merits, the solution he provided – communism – is generally judged to have one or two flaws. I, however, have a much better plan.

We all require a sense of reality in which our feelings, thoughts and actions can have some meaningful relation, and part of that means finding an external corollary for the loathing and lust to be found deep within us. Indeed, it is generally through the experience of such extremes of emotion that the world appears at its most real. And so if it is, increasingly, to games that we look to provide this sense of reality, then why shouldn't we conduct all or part of our lives through virtual interfaces designed precisely to supplement what real life lacks by answering us with what we "really" need.

Take one of my favourite games, Age of Empires. Here the satisfaction of a day spent breaking in uncultivated land, developing advanced "civilisations" and wreaking havoc among foreign parts was routinely undermined by the realisation, usually reached somewhere around 4am, that what you had actually produced in the last 20 hours amounted to two ham sandwiches and a full ashtray. But it's not difficult to imagine such a platform being used as an interface for genuine commercial activity – trading on the stock-markets for instance. In this way, instead of drawing job-satisfaction from bankrupting entire nations, traders could gain satisfaction by shipping goods and funds across dangerous enemy terrain, or plundering the gold mines of incautious neighbours. Surely, this would make for much more interesting conversation in the pub afterwards, and anyway, such virtual realities would soon extend to fill our entire waking lives: we would eventually leave our basic bodily needs to be looked after by the network of computers whose mindless interests we, unwittingly, serve.

If that all sounds rather reminiscent of The Matrix, it is worth reflecting that most of us, finding themselves confronted by people called Morpheus and Trinity – possessed of strange pseudo-Messianic ideas and offering a "reality" of bad porridge and subterranean rave-discos – would have taken the blue pill and chosen to remain asleep. And if some of us would have gone for red pill and the porridge, that is only because the virtual reality with which the matrix chose to fill the slumbers of its human crop took the form of a rather gloomy and unremarkable 1990s metropolis. Imagine if instead they had offered Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, or even, in a nice little bit of ironic self-reference, a computer game of The Matrix itself. Only a fool would give up this level of involvement and excitement for some dreary, post-nuclear kibbutz.

Like Marx, I may of course be wrong. And it must be said that I am worse at chess than Marx was. But then chess was so much more exciting and romantic back then.

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