Back in the day, video games were literally unearthly experiences. From the futuristic, intergalactic settings of Space Invaders and Asteroids to The Legend of Zelda's enchanted, monster-plagued hinterland, games kept players more or less in hyperspace, light years away from Earth.
In this respect, video games have changed dramatically in the past few years. As technology has advanced and players have aged (the average gamer now is pushing 30), video game subject matter has moved closer to home. Since the 2000 release of The Sims, realistic game scenarios have become extremely popular. The game allows players to tinker with the relationships and activities of a suburban family, including taking out the trash, making small talk at the office, and paying the bills. The Sims is just one of the many games that have begun mirroring our own world, complete with complex moral dilemmas, bureaucratic obstacles, and unsavory social realities drawn from the headlines.
Kuma Reality Games may lead the pack of companies blurring the line between video gaming and reality. As Bill Werde reports in Wired (March 2004), Kuma uses sources like declassified military intelligence reports and satellite photos to recreate violent current events. In Kuma: War, missions include a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan, the hunt for Saddam Hussein's sons, and the 2004 capture of the Iraqi dictator. The look and feel of the games is so real (down to the number of steps soldiers climbed as they searched for the junior Husseins) that Kuma's CEO Keith Halper 'sees his company not as a hyperrealistic competitor of Nintendo, but as a highly interactive alternative to CNN,' according to Werde. He quotes Halper boasting that his games 'let you experience the news in ways the networks cannot.'
But don't cancel your cable subscriptions just yet. These are still games, and the designers don't let the drabber elements of reality get in the way of play. In Kuma: War, players move briskly into exciting, decisive encounters -- no dull patrolling or KP. Designers also chose not to focus on the unpleasant aspects of combat. Players won't have to endure lengthy, nerve-shattering mortar barrages, because, as Halper told Werde, 'What fun is that?'
Ultimately, however, the degree of realism in video game story lines may be less important than the newly 'real' ways in which the games interact with their players. As Kevin Parker writes in Reason magazine (April 2004), 'It may be the scripted parts of the games that explicitly state political notions, but what is ultimately more important is the ways games can communicate by demonstration.' The notoriously violent Grand Theft Auto III is a case in point. Its lurid 'reality' quotient of hookers, drug dealers, and guns may be offensive, but it contains a bonus: Gamers can opt out of the plot-advancing missions in favor of a free-form game experience. Exploring the meticulously rendered depths of Liberty City can be a game unto itself.
Thanks to new technology, game developers now can create realistic virtual worlds based on natural laws instead of their own contrived rules. Game play that breaks natural laws -- such as the ability to destroy a cruise missile with an arrow in Civilization III -- may soon be a thing of the past, according to Parker. Realistic games give power back to players: Instead of guessing the 'right' solution to an obstacle, players can 'find solutions through trial and error, logic and innovation,' Parker writes. He cites the technique of 'rocket jumping' in the game Quake. Players discovered that by shooting their rockets at the ground instead of the enemy, they could use the subsequent shock waves to launch themselves in the air.
Parker believes that realistic game mechanics are creating an experimental and highly critical generation of game players. Once players begin questioning the logic of game rules, challenging the political assumptions of the game is not far behind. 'Video games are evolving into a grand antiauthoritarian laboratory,' says Parker.
When Electronic Arts struck a sponsorship deal placing McDonald's hamburger kiosks in the virtual world of The Sims Online, many players raised red flags, including journalist Tony Walsh. In a 2002 Shift.com article, he questioned the game logic that linked McDonald's food to a player's 'fun' points. Walsh urged players to become virtual adbusters by using the rules of the game to discourage other players from eating at the virtual Mickey Ds, open independent restaurants, or run McDonald's kiosks into the ground.
In just this way, the new crop of realistic video games may allow players to experiment with freedom of choice. By providing players with a safe place to question authority, video games may not be sending the next generation of activists into the street just yet. But they might have the potential to transform couch potatoes into critical thinkers.