This Synthesized World

To better understand tomorrow’s hypermediated world, we could do worse than to follow the experience of today’s video gamers. Writer and artist Michael Salu considers the increasing prevalence of synthesised experience in our day-to-day lives

Michael Salu
The Startup

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League of Legends World Championship, audience 2017, copyright Riot Games

Aside from a brief flirtation in the late-Nineties with the Tekken video game series (1994–2015) on Sony’s first-generation PlayStation, the multiplayer mode of GoldenEye 007 (1997) on the Nintendo 64 was my last real gaming moment. Over the past few years, however, my interest in gaming has had a second wind, and themes associated with gaming have become a dominant part of my fiction and art. I’m interested in the social and ideological refractions of digital and physical worlds as they merge and how they might alter the mind.

GoldenEye, a straightforward first-person perspective shoot ’em up game created by Rare, a British developer based in Twycross, England in 1997, was much like its seminal predecessor Doom (1993) by Dallas’s ID Software — a gory, if graphically-limited, battle with demons from a sci-fi-inspired hell, and one of the most influential titles ever. Today, the first-person shooter genre still dominates the gaming industry — an intriguing phenomenon given the availability of arguably more sophisticated formats. But rather like the way webpages still use the scroll function as their default method of navigation, it seems gaming has also developed its own (much less rigid) dominant modalities.

GoldenEye’s gameplay was fairly average in single-player mode as you guided Mr. Bond through a post-Cold War espionage mission based on the 1995 film of the same name starring Pierce Brosnan. But it really came to life in multiplayer, where up to four people were able to battle to the simulated death in labyrinthian hallways. Assassinating and being assassinated by one’s closest friends with a single well-placed bullet as we shared a sofa was the game’s primary allure. This sequence of hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed, would continue until one of us claimed enough lives to win outright. Then we would start over, killing each other again and again.

Today, the world of video games is one of power and influence. It’s a multi-billion euro industry with vast communities of gamers and fans alike, full of intricately-written and adventurous open-world experiences. E-athletes, competitive gamers that take their craft as seriously as any professional sports athlete, can earn eye-watering fortunes competing in e-sport contests around the globe, followed avidly by huge fan bases.

League of Legends, Worlds 2017, copyright Riot Games

Since Bertie the Brain (1950), an electronic version of noughts and crosses commonly regarded as one of the first ever video games, these interactive electronic realities have offered us windows into other worlds. From the frequently-pirated PC-based games of the Eighties and Nineties, to internet-era socially-driven titles such as The Sims series (2000–), Second Life (2003–) and Minecraft (2011–), gamers have always been able to actively engage with, and more often than not succeed in, other incarnations of existence. It is therefore not happenstance that the mass popularity of video games (which arguably began in 1972 with Pong, a table tennis simulation) coincided with the West’s turn to social atomisation. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s successful election campaigns in 1979 and 1980 respectively were built around appealing to the singular needs and aspirations of the individual, both key factors in initiating free trade and globalisation. Today, the cultivation of the individual’s desires and the idea of the possibility of self-mobility is at the centre of business and ultimately capitalism itself. As a result, modern society manoeuvres to position each of us at the centre of our own existence, a practice gaming has arguably long been a precursor to. In his Critique of Pure Reason, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested our order and structuring of the world is a direct result of us actively trying to sort and synthesise the data our senses absorb constantly. So, what then happens to our cognitive intuitions when the worlds we are experiencing are actively designed for us instead?

From psychographic segmentation (a marketing practice of dividing consumers into sub-groups of psychological characteristics) and tailored advertising, to retail experiences created just to indicate cursory participation in an Instagram story, positioning the individual at the core of their own synthesised experience is now one of the key mechanics to thriving in a world where digital and physical realities have merged. Gamification, the application of game design principles applied in non-gaming contexts, is a key business strategy that corporations use to ensure brand loyalties through feedback-based engagement. When looked at in this context, gaming makes for a nuanced understanding of the present and the future.

One consequence of positioning the individual as paramount while society digitises itself is an increased separation from emotional and moral instinct. At 1.30 pm on 29 August this year, 24-year-old lone gunman David Katz killed two people and injured 10 others in Jacksonville, Florida, before fatally shooting himself. His victims were attending a Madden NFL 19 (2018) tournament, an American football video game franchise named after former coach and commentator, John Madden. Katz, a participant in the competition, had allegedly become disgruntled after losing a game, so left the venue, returned shortly after with two handguns and opened fire. The shooting was partially captured on Twitch, the live-streaming service that allows gamers and fans all over the world to tune into competitive gaming events. It would be unfair and simplistic to draw an immediate connection between video game violence and the shooting given the complicated gun ownership discourse in America, but it is difficult not to think about the increasing prevalence of a synthesised understanding of the world having tragic impacts on real lives. I don’t consider myself a gamer, but even the time I spend online moving through videos, games and high definition representations of reality, can lead me to superimpose impromptu scenes of digital violence. I’ll imagine the high street I am walking down to be suddenly flooded by a tsunami, or a stroll down Karl-Marx-Allee to be accompanied by Second World War Allied tanks.

These synthesised experiences are real-world echoes of electronic realities. On social media, communication is often informed by partisan and incomplete versions of history, confusing fact with fiction in the fog of disinformation. Any statement made online becomes an instant declaration with little room for retraction or a simple change of mind — as humans are capable of doing. Information and images can be easily recontextualised and shared with an intent entirely counter to their origin. Images gain their own momentum and the damage of deception can be instantly done upon dissemination, as can be witnessed on the 45th President of the United States’ Twitter account. Once published, it doesn’t matter whether a statement is true or not — it has entered into discussion and gained currency. As a consequence, new binary battle lines are being drawn, leading to deeply entrenched ideological divisions, the ones and zeros that form the fabric of our digital world in code sharply reflecting real world oppositional forces. Each side is good and evil in equal measure depending on which absolute position we have taken. Te passive-aggressive warfare of Brexit makes for a fine example of this, as the instigators of Brexit appear to rely on a strategy of disorientation. Warfare is a strong word to use to talk about this laboured exit from the European Union, but it might be worth now considering the aggregation, manipulation and consequent weaponisation of the individual as exactly that, a new kind of warfare. As with the political power moves we’re witnessing across the globe, the British public now find themselves clustered into partisan groups of pawns on the chess table, but the hysteria of this collective impotence is a useful distraction from what any real geopolitical intent might be.

Second Life, 11th Birthday Live Drax Files Radio Hour

Oppositional positioning can be found across online communities and the world of gaming can often play a key role in the discourse of these divisions. While Neil Druckmann, creator of the adventure title The Last of Us, is lauded for games with a balance of gender, some online gaming communities are a hotbed of misogyny, referring to women as THOTs (‘Tat Hoe Over Tere’), and fetishising female Manga and video game characters (and as a consequence, East Asian women).

Although the online world can show unsettling echoes of real-world problems with misogyny and patriarchy, the relationship between gender, sex and gaming may also be used to understand aspects of mainstream gamified social behaviour.

Cosplay, a practice and environment for enthusiasts to bring anime, film and game-based characters to life through costume is a real world hobby that further blurs the physical and the digital. Within the world of cosplay, men and women are able to inhabit their game-based fantasies in the real world and record them online. As a result, they add their own layers of mythology to the original fictional characters while occasionally gathering at real world events or ‘cons’. A subgenre of cosplay is, naturally, adult cosplay where attention to detail in how accurately a model conveys the look, characteristics and native environment of a video game or anime character is for many enthusiasts (who are as critical online about this as they are about games themselves) more important than the sex, which itself is often (very mildly) simulated. Many will say gamified dating apps like Tinder have become more about the synthesised hit of attraction than the comparatively laborious urge to actually meet in the real world. While there are many misperceptions and speculations surrounding the issue, hypotheses about the purported reduction in sexual activity among young people (according to a survey of 8.3 million teens by Child Development journal, members of Generation Z are having less intercourse than their parents) have linked this phenomenon to social time being increasingly spent on digital activities.

The gaming world’s duality is therefore worth exploring. Expansive craft and intricate storytelling is often combined with ubiquitous tropes such as zombie apocalypses, mass murders and extinction events. Zombies have always represented the social issues of their time and it is interesting to frame their proliferation in today’s gaming with the geopolitical rhetoric around immigration, new populism and the ever-present fear of a mostly invisible ‘other’. Racial slurs are often casually deployed by gamers as they compete against each other anonymously online. Divisions are emerging in online communities as new political groups hide behind irreverent avatars. Some of these, we now know, are leading to grave real-world consequences, such as the 2017 far-right and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, whose attendees organised via social media platforms and message boards popular with gamers, including Facebook, Twitter, 4chan and Reddit.

It’s easy to make only negative associations about gaming, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with it, but it has also proven to have a positive impact on society and regularly offers inclusive social spaces. Manouchehr Shamsrizi’s Gamelab Berlin is a good example: it’s currently developing RetroBrain, a therapeutic title geared towards care for dementia patients.

Gaming is therefore here to stay and is becoming part of our day-to-day lives. In a memo leaked to business news website Cheddar in October, SnapChat CEO Evan Spiegel revealed plans to collate user-images into 3D simulations of certain locations, renderings that will later form the basis of augmented reality experiences — a case of social media imitating video games, encapsulating a key moment in history.

The future is a self-fulfilling prophecy and tech developers have often been influenced by science fiction. Our increasing reliance on synthesised experiences over real-world sensorial input, however, has consequently led me to wonder if gamers — long attuned to vast open worlds, impressionistic representations of life, dystopian narratives and artificial intelligence — might be the best candidates to handle a world increasingly geared primarily to synthesised experience. Will they be the ones prepared for the real zombie apocalypse when it arrives? Or have we, as real-life gamers, already reached that ‘level’?

This article was written more for non-gamers than gamers and initially appeared in issue 60 (winter 2018) of Sleek magazine.

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Michael Salu
The Startup

📝🎨🗣 Working in cyberreality and corporeality. Words in various e.g #freemansjournal @catapultstory | Agent: Seren Adams, United Agents.