Reality gaming and living reality

In the olden days, when life became complicated, you would probably have written a poem, ploughed a field or poisoned someone. But ever since the advent of the internet and MTV’s reality shows, watching someone else’s reality seems to have become the most common pastime when your own life gets too hot to handle.

If the passive voyeurism of watching cops drive around Los Angeles suburbs, or people almost drowning, wasn’t enough, computer gaming has given us even more interactive options.

As I was writing this, my copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas arrived by courier, and I couldn’t wait to get home to start up my PlayStation 2.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Grand Theft Auto series, you play the role of a criminal in a massive world teeming with activity. You make progress through the game by completing missions, all criminal in nature, and a substantial amount of time is spent speeding away from the police in the fastest vehicle you can find.

However, the appeal of games such as these is not the violence or the criminal intent. It is the close but stylised mimicry of real life that makes them so absorbing. 

For instance, when you get into your car in San Andreas, you can choose between 10 radio stations that play music, talk shows and advertising that corresponds to shops you see as you drive through the city. Your character must eat, and he puts on weight if you keep him on a fast-food diet. If you want to buff him up a bit, you have to take him to a gymnasium and do cardiovascular exercise or weight training.

The Sims and Singles are other examples a new genre of “reality gaming” that literally requires you to send your character to the bathroom when they need to visit the toilet, or to tell them to wash the dishes when flies start circling in the kitchen. 

The ultimate goal? Work for a living, make as much material gain as possible and live a happy life. We can see the capitalist doctrine encoded there, reinforcing the American dream—freedom to be exactly like everyone else and make money while you’re doing it.

The popularity of games such as The Sims and its many expansion packs raises some interesting questions about our society. Why would a person spend so much time micro-managing the life of characters with pixels for DNA? Could it be that many of us are suffering from god complexes as a result of an increasing sense of personal insignificance in the global village?

The answer may not be as dramatic. Perhaps these games are simply highly interactive and this captivates our increasingly short attention spans. I don’t know.

What I do know is that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sold a million copies in nine days. It’s a massive commercial success; so is reality TV, so are the other game franchises that bring outside reality into the household. So, in fact, are news networks such as CNN. 

At some point, news narrative and gaming are going to collide, as news and entertainment already has, and the result will be myriad user-controlled and fact-premised alternate realities.

The debate about how computer gaming affects people is still in the air. The Columbine shootings in the United States are an extreme example, as are cases of children imitating Beavis and Butthead or the characters in Jackass, another MTV-led trend in masochistic stunt shows. 

I know from personal experience that the more time I spend with my PlayStation, the less time I spend with my family and the harder it becomes to interact with them normally. 

The “reality” I have access to from outside seems more interesting than the “mundane”, day-to-day life. My digital life becomes my real life.

But, as my mother always says, you need a healthy balance. So, if you find yourself becoming detached from the physical world, spend a few days camping, have a braai or dinner with friends. Mow the lawn, even. It helps.

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