Virtual Culture: Gaming and Simulation

Popular culture is ever-increasing, not only in its own populace but in its amount of sub-cultures that allow individuals to partake in it. Popular culture has its tentacles in various fields of human activity and transgression. This includes a whole number of public spheres like fashion, music, film, sport etc. In the last two decades the number of fields grew larger as technology developed and created more and more possibilities for us. This is significant because of the fact that many of these possibilities that we now accept as being ‘normal’ were at a stage in history seen as being improbable or even impossible.

The focus here is not on popular culture but on different cultures that shape popular culture and also moves back and forth within its indistinguishable boundaries. Within this webpage I will refer to various notions like visual culture, virtual culture, gaming culture and the internet as a paradoxical international community. The main purpose of this webpage is to appropriate the gaming culture or the topic of gaming within the realms of virtual culture in a larger sense. I will also be using Will Wright and his work to sustain a purposeful argument.

 

Before I can continue my argument I first have to clarify the sense in which I mean to incorporate the notions of both, visual and virtual culture. Briefly, the term visual culture can be seen as what images, acts of seeing, and attendant intellectual, emotional, and perceptual sensibilities do to build, maintain, or transform the worlds in which people live. (Morgan 2004) Visual culture is made out of a large number of separate entities that are combined to form the different categories in this culture. This includes anything from street signage to film and lots more. The gaming culture is one entity that plays a large role in visual culture in the modern world. Virtual culture refers to the notion of virtual reality. Heim (1993: 109-128) explains and defines the terms virtual and reality as two separate aspects to simplify the notion as a whole.

Virtual, Heim describes as being in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted and reality as a real event, entity, or state of affairs. He also comments on the fact that virtual reality is mainly based around simulation and the simulation of reality to form another reality called virtual reality. Simulation then creates the sense that something seems real and believable which in actual physical fact is not. Jaron Lanier’s name always comes up when one researches the notion of virtual reality. He is believed to have coined the term virtual reality as he was part of the first company who developed the notion into a consumable for the public sphere. He also led the initiative of multi-person virtual worlds like that of SecondLife or even The Sims. Lanier, together with the organization VPL Research, was the first to create the avatar element in the virtual realms (Heim 1993: 109-128).

Avatars are a way of Anthropomorphic Representations representing an individual in a virtual world (Murray and Sixsmith 1999: 315-324). They can take the form of normal photos or animated images that the active user finds most appropriate to his or her personality, appearance or object of choice. In a system like SecondLife or The Sims they take the form of Three-Dimensional animate entities that represents or embodies the visual aspects of humans in some way. In some cases they can even embody the similar appearance of the individual active in the virtual system (Lanier 2008).

Heim (1993: 109-128) continues to explain that there are several elements involved within the sphere of virtual reality. The first and most obvious is simulation which is done by simulating elements of reality to create another or virtual reality. This can be seen for example in an environment within a computer game where it is depicted via sharp images and textures. The combination of textures and visuals makes the environment believable and life-like. Another element as Heim explains is interaction. This interaction is of that of the user or individual active in the virtual reality with the environment, playing field and other users. The other users can also be other individuals taking part in a virtual reality network or it can be a complete computerized entity that only exists within the virtual reality and is controlled not by a human but through calculations executed by the computer.

Artificiality is one of the most important aspects of virtual reality. Anything that exists but is not real in a physical human sense becomes an element of the virtual. This is a key factor to the articulation of alternative or virtual realities. Immersion is another element that must be considered when one refers to virtual reality. Heim claims that ultimately virtual reality means sensory immersion through a virtual environment. There are ways to incorporate most of the senses during a virtual experience. The Flight Simulator is a good example of this. Seen as not only a game but a highly developed method of training, The Flight Simulator incorporates senses of sight, sound, and touch. By adding smell and taste stimulus an even more believable or deceivable reality can be constructed.

Finally, the notion of network communication also springs to mind when referring to virtual reality. This is obvious as one of the main goals of this reality is to connect and interact with different elements. The fact that one can communicate and connect with a living entity like another human within a different reality like a virtual one makes the argument of alternative realties much more interesting, pliable and accredited. (Heim 1993: 109-128) A world constructed within a different reality is still a world that exists. It is still there enabled to be explored. The internet is an electronic world with different areas and environments to be experienced. This is a reality different from our physical one whilst still being real or existent.

Concluding this section of my argument the notion of cloning exists hand-to-hand with virtual reality. Cloning is obviously a controversial element in our existence because it contradicts a number of religious beliefs. The question that interests me is the notion of cloning within alternative realities. In any social community that exists within the realm of virtual culture one duplicates one’s personality and attributes and even appearance which ultimately continues to exists apart from oneself within another augmented reality. It seems improbable but as an example to which extent this can lead I will refer to modern day’s most advanced form of animation and photo-realistic representation. The article by Richard (2008) shows the extent of the precision that an animation can achieve. This might not be physically existent but in the virtual reality which is just in a different dimension than ours and accepted by all, it certainly seems possible to duplicate an individual. This notion simply broadens the virtual reality dimension and shows a glimpse of what future development will hold for us.

Will Wright is the most successful gaming developer in the history of mankind. He started off with a simulation game which was labeled as one of the most influential games ever made, SimCity. He then created the best-selling PC game of all time which was The Sims. His approach to gaming was quite strategically executed in the way he exposed his interests to the world. With SimCity you were able to control complete cities and play governor or president for a period of time. In The Sims he basically enabled you to control families and specific individuals. His greatest achievement is his latest offering called Spore which was released September of this year. In Spore he focuses on the notion of evolution and lets you be in charge of not only families or city development but worlds, planets, solar systems and ultimately, the universe. He lets you play god within an alternative reality.

Wright, I believe has just as much to debate about Virtual Reality than an important figure like Lanier. His contribution to not only gaming but other aspects in popular culture such as online communities, social communities, virtual realms and even the education system is immense. With his work I will discuss and argue why the topic of gaming is one of the most popular and important aspects of modern virtual reality. Within this discussion reference will be made to his gaming developments including The Sims and Spore.

Without trying too hard, a game like The Sims would have no problem concurring to what Heim explains what virtual reality entails. To briefly correlate a game like The Sims, which represents modern gaming as a whole, I will promptly look at its features. First of all The Sims is based on humanity as it simulates normal, everyday life. It not only simulates environments and spatial organization (Genius Loci) as mentioned by Strickland (1994) where we live in but also human behavior, emotions and habits. It has it all, anger, love, friendship, excitement, depression and even sex. Other elements include the depiction of animals and mechanical objects such as dishwashers, fridges and even robots (telepresence). All of these elements that are simulated and depicted are able to interact with each other. When playing the game of Sims one uses these characters to interact with other characters. Interaction is an extremely important factor in virtual reality and what Wright was able to do with this is highly impressive. (Heim 1993: 109-128)

In his interview with Turner (2008) he comments on the modern educational system as he explains that the general public has taken a narrowed, reductionist approach to what learning is. He says that the education system has not really incorporated the concept of failure and how advantageous it can be for learning. He believes that the world of gaming and a game like The Sims bring just that to the realm of learning and education. Gaming teaches one the method of learning. He claims that failure is a better teacher than success and in a sense his trial-and-error approach seems logical. When one reverse-engineer a notion one’s understanding of it is just as complete as solving it conventionally, if not better. His main argument is based around the fact that it prepares someone for the real world. By simulating a situation that seems appropriate and possible for someone to experience and having him or her experience it a few times would better prepare them for when it actualizes in their real world. This can be seen as an extremely powerful tool that virtual reality provides and specifically in The Sims, that of improving social skills and ultimately social systems.

A very important factor that justifies gaming as a form of virtual culture even more is its online connectivity. Computing and networking exists parallel to each other and thus virtual reality will definitely explore this notion. The internet enables games to be played against other people in different locations. An even greater remote presence is created when one plays online gaming which is unique to virtual culture. Through this notion virtual communities are created in developments such as The Sims Online or SecondLife. This connectivity and sense of community is just another great feature that the world of gaming brings to realm of virtual culture to make it seem even more real. (Heim 1993: 109-128)

In McKenzie’s writings (1994: 88-101) he explains how one should rather see virtual reality as less of a technological integration and more of an experience design. Technology must be not be seen as an instrument but as medium of expression of content. By immersing human and technological performance one creates this virtual reality or experience design. The experience created in a game like The Sims is filled with many possibilities and scenarios ready to be experienced. What better way to experience them through trial-and-error, over and over in a safe and virtual world. Referring back to Heim, The Sims has it all. Together with the above mentioned elements it also includes artificiality, immersion and even telepresence. With specific functions attributed to all of them these elements appropriate the gaming world as one of the most obvious and powerful candidates of virtual reality. (Heim 1993: 109-128)

Laurel (1994) also mentions the importance of narrative structures within a virtual environment. To make any virtual experience worthwhile and believable there needs to be a subsequent amount of narrative elements involved to maintain the user’s interest. Physical embodiment is also a crucial factor in the realm of virtual reality. (Murray and Sixsmith 1999: 315-324) By achieving these elements through Anthropomorphic Representations in the simulation one creates a sense of presence and the feeling of actually being there. In The Sims this formula is followed very closely. For The Sims this is imperative for the game to work as a virtual element but in a game like Spore we witness a completely different situation. (Murray and Sixsmith 1999: 315-324)

In Wrights latest offering, Spore, he enables the player to play the role of god in the universe of the game. You are able to design your creatures and have them evolve from its simplest cell stage to land creatures and finally to extraterrestrial pioneers. You are able to travel and visit other galaxies and make them your home. You can teach your creatures various fields of knowledge including culture and political beliefs. As you destroy or convert other races to your religion you can conquer planets and even whole solar systems.

With this game there are no real Anthropomorphic Representations or human similarities. (Murray and Sixsmith 1999: 315-324) You do not really assimilate with your creatures, you control them. With a highly developed program and a system of randomizing calculations Spore enables a player to enter a template-like world and edit it accordingly. By playing the game this world becomes customized according to the players actions. This means that by directing individuals onto a path their final outcome or creation will be unique. Each player will have created their own unique virtual universe. Ultimately they will also be able to share their worlds and intertwine via the online gaming feature which will broaden the horizon of virtual realities even more. (Turner 2008)

In conclusion, Will Wright makes an interesting remark about the world of gaming on how it not only enhances virtual reality but also our reality as well. He claims that they are an amplification of our imagination in the real world. In regards to games with educational cores like The Sims (society) and Spore (culture) players are able to use their experience with them to manipulate the real world. He provides the example of gaming interfaces. He believes that this provides the players even more skill to use elements such as cell phones and Google maps in everyday life for their own good will.

This in a sense proves that the gaming industry can be seen as an educational advocate. (Turner 2008) I believe the gaming industry is one of the forerunners of virtual culture as it not only concurs to the standards of virtual reality but it also expands its boundaries and develops the notion even further. Because gaming owns a large part of popular culture in a capitalists sense the possibilities it will create for virtual reality is endless. Gaming is the new reality of our reality.