Thursday, January 19, 2017

Human-Shaped Piles of Pixels: The Sims and Westworld

While I was feverish and flu-afflicted I wrote all this stuff that I thought was absolutely brilliant at the time, and then after the fever broke I was forced to reconsider. This is probably the only one coherent enough to be blog-worthy, so here goes:

There’s a slider switch somewhere in the human brain that we didn’t realize was there until we invented video games. One end of the dial is soft, kind and empathetic, while the other is fast and competitive and unsympathetic. These extremes correspond very imprecisely with concepts like female and male, and liberal and conservative, and STEM versus humanities, which doesn’t stop people from trying to shoehorn them together in search of a unifying theory. Lots of people switch back and forth, being interchangeably compassionate and ruthless depending on the situation.

When you look at the evolution of video games, you can watch the divide grow. Earlier titles involved exploration as well as competition via reflex or puzzle situations that tested your right to be there. Gradually the exploring moved off to its own realm of games derisively known as walking simulators, where your rewards are digitized slices of video and no dexterity or deep thought is necessary. On the other side, the puzzles and competitions headed toward MOBAs and online killfests that distilled pure fighting from the distractions of lore and scenery and socializing.

Westworld, which started life as another of Michael Crichton’s cautionary tales against totally cool weird science that would be hella fun if it were true (see Jurassic Park), has become a story about online games from the soft side of the dimmer switch.

But before I get started ranting about that, I’m going to digress, and talk about the harmless, girly, feminine game known as The Sims, where you build virtual dollhouses and fill them with animated people. I used to be part of an extensive modding community organized around the first version, where we did our damnedest to unfold the game engine and customize everything in it. I was obsessed with building this galactic spaceport lot full of invisible catwalks and portals to other dimensions, where I had arranged random drop-ins by a cast of fictional characters and celebrity doppelgangers, each with their own quirks, foibles, enemies and crushes. I'd turn it on and let them randomly interact, like a big character-driven ant farm. 

The game has gotten more contracted and introverted in its recent graphics-heavy incarnations, forcing players to rein in their focus, yet I keep playing it because it’s familiar and soothing. I no longer mod or even install custom content, but I’m not above occasional use of the Ctrl+C window and “testingcheatsenabled true.” Modders play games on an industrial strength level, meddling with Sims’ lifespans and motives and genetics, and murdering them just so we can decorate our lots with ghosts. We're more like the backstage Imagineers at Disneyland, focusing on building the perfect illusion, rather than cozily consuming those illusions with the guests. 

I was reminded how weird this perspective is recently when I happened upon a Sims forum for gentler users, daring each other to tell stories about the worst thing they ever did to their Sims. There were plenty of calm, mild stories about feeling guilty over Sims who died while inexperienced users were fumbling with the controls and I realized I had found the people who play walking simulators. To them, the point of the game had more to do with pretending the robot pirates were real than inspecting the craftsmanship of the Imagineers who made them. 

Possibly this is ultimately a religious question. To an animist, the stepping stones in a garden are as alive as the flowers. To a Muslim, human images are a form of idolatry. To certain modern secular folks, whether Siri or or Evan Rachel Wood’s character in Westworld count as human are irrelevant questions – they act like they’re sentient, therefore you should treat them accordingly.

Then there are the assholes like me who want to look under the game engine’s hood and admire all the content. In Westworld, these are the entitled, elitist, murder-happy guests who assault trainloads of robotic non-player-characters. After they do so, a crew of working joes patches the bots up for tomorrow’s murder-happy elitists.

Writers are similarly twisted, creating nice imaginary people, likeable folks, then deliberately killing them. I’d like to cite facts, right about now, claiming that writers are less violent than other people because we simulate it in our heads (as well as the byproducts – the detectives and the PTSD and the murder trial and the time travel paradox and the forensic investigation and the conquered kingdoms and the vanquished vampires and on and on and on). Except I don’t really have any facts about the relative violence of writers aside from the vague notion probably most of us aren’t about to mess up our hands attacking some creep, because then typing would hurt. 

Especially when we can write thinly-veiled caricatures and torment them instead (and then get paid – hopefully). 

I’m kind of pixelist, myself. Human-shaped piles of pixels are not human, they don’t count, they don’t feel pain – although they can be made to produce speech, sounds and facial expressions identical to those seen in people who are experiencing pain. One can certainly agree to be fooled into accepting pixels as people for the duration of a movie or videogame, but at the same time, we know they're as real as those Disney pirates. People who start insisting that the Disney pirates deserve rest breaks and unions because maybe they're sentient are a little bit daft.

I think people can ride roughshod over pixels without even caring, and in fact, I think they should. Most people can enjoy a game of chess without being disturbed by visions of hapless footsoldier pawns crushed beneath the cavalry’s hooves. Strategizing is fun, especially when you convert the footsoldiers to symbolic game pieces, or pixels, so nobody gets hurt. If only all the future wars could be fought in multiplayer CoD or similar, by well-fed comfortable young men within hollering distance of mom, as opposed to bleeding in foreign trenches. If a certain amount of cruelty and rage is endemic to being a member of a social mammalian species, what better way to deal with it than by destroying simulations while honing our strategic abilities? 

So I have no sympathy for Sims, especially if they turn into buggy, delayed-action Sims that stand there contemplating the sink for an hour before washing their hands. And I’m racist towards all World of Warcraft races except for the one I’m playing at the moment. And I really don’t care if Westworld’s bots get shot every day, plus I think the park designers are truly creepy for spending all their resources creating these quasi-sentient bots just to let yuppies whale the tar out of them. And while I tenderly tuck Siri beneath my pillow every night, I’m under no delusion that she wishes it were someone else. 

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