Video Games Get Real

Back in the day, video games were literally unearthly
experiences. From the futuristic, intergalactic settings of
Space Invaders and Asteroids to The Legend of
‘s enchanted, monster-plagued hinterland, games kept
players more or less in hyperspace, light years away from

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
, 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
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

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

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

When Electronic Arts struck a sponsorship deal placing
McDonald’s hamburger kiosks in the virtual world of The Sims
, many players raised red flags, including journalist
Tony Walsh. In a 2002 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.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.