Avatar, the blockbuster film by James Cameron likely will not win a Nobel Prize in literature but it sure has made a lot of money. Combine graphics that make your jaw drop with a predictable storyline that won’t offend too many sensibilities (perhaps with the exception of some MercatorNet reviewers) and you have a winner. Avatar is also the first videogame-based movie that is any good, and those of us who have spent a large portion of our youth enjoying videogames get a Proustian tingle down our spine when we recognize those games on the Imax screen.
I think I may have been asked to write this piece because I have collected more videogames than any other regular contributor to MercatorNet: 50,000 so far, and still growing. Why? Because I see in these games an emerging art form, and someone should start forming a library of them before they disappear—a not unlikely scenario, given the tendency of digital media to crash, corrupt, or plainly refuse to open because of a missing bit out of a billion. In the same way that photography has added realism to painting and cinema adds sound and motion to photography, videogames add another dimension to imagery: that of interactivity. Vanguard playwrights have long tried to get the audience involved in their plays by many, largely unsuccessful, tricks, but videogames do it from birth, like chicks that start flying right after hatching.
The connection between cinema and videogames is perhaps stronger than the connections between any other pair of arts. The games often include “cut scenes” that are in fact short movies used to advance the plot of the game. They started out being made with real actors, like Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame in the Wing Commander series of games, but now they are almost always produced with the same animation engine that runs the game itself. Movies have also been produced using exclusively a game engine. It’s the pop phenomenon known as “machinima”. It started with the Quake-engined Diary of a Camper; then came the Halo production Red vs. Blue and then many others. There is even a video game, The Movies, that consists of a Hollywood studio where you can script, cast, shoot, and edit a film using only cybernetic actors.
Back to Avatar. Its ludic lineage can be traced most directly to a fairly obscure action game entitled Giants: Citizen Kabuto. The characters are quite recognizable: the humans of Avatar are a humorless version of the Meccaryns of Giants; the Na’Vi are spitting images of the Sea Reapers, down to blue skin, poisoned arrows and a certain level of (quite chaste) nudity; and the hexapedal beasts of the film seem to have taken more than a strand of DNA from the infamous Kabuto. The lush ecology of Pandora owes quite a bit to role playing games like World of Warcraft and Everquest. This last game includes a playable race that looks as feline as the Na’Vi, but they are not blue. The human machines seem lifted directly from Starcraft or Mechwarrior, just to name two of the better known games. Finally, the marine characters talk and move like those in Halo, while Neytiri, the Na’Vi heroine, bears a more than a passing resemblance to Alyx, her counterpart in Half-Life 2.
The “avatar” name itself is taken from role-playing game terminology, meaning a character controlled by a real-world player, as opposed to characters controlled by the computer. In the movie, humans control real-world Na’Vi bodies that have no soul, so that the human controller becomes its soul while the human is attached to the linking machine. In a game, the machine is the computer. Most video games today only use visual, audio and mouse-keyboard interaction, but developers are already creating a more immersive experience involving 3D and 360-degree vision, tactile feedback, and even direct control from the brain by means of electrodes placed on the player’s head.
Because immersion is the key. The more a player forgets he is in the “real” world and comes to believe he is truly living in the computer-generated world of the game, the better the experience. Actually, the term used is not “better” but “addictive”. When you immerse yourself so deeply in the game world that it feels completely natural, then you enter a state of flow where time passes without your feeling it. You emerge from the game happy from having lived a different—and one would like to think, better—life from your humdrum everyday life. You may be a delivery boy or a night-shift grunt in your real life, but after logging in you are transformed into a warrior, a magus, a princess. The laws of physics no longer apply. Magic is the coin of the realm.
Of course it is easy for a person to overdo it and seek in this artificial world the satisfaction that his natural world denies him, but still I am sure that C S Lewis, who was an ardent proponent of fantasy as a way to understand reality, would have become an avid gamer had he lived a few decades later. There is something enriching about seeing the world from a completely different perspective, about letting your imagination ponder what ifs that life has pushed to the back of your mind.
I am always saddened to see moral leaders casting video games in a negative light. They see their “addictiveness” and their ability to remove consciousness of your real surroundings as something dangerous, to say nothing of the waste of time. Of course, this is nothing new. When they first came out, films were denounced from the pulpit as inducers of laziness at best and perverters of morality at worst. Before that, it was fiction literature that was blamed for sinking humanity into unredeemable corruption. New art forms have always been eyed with suspicion by the watchdogs of morality. To add an example closer to us, the original MercatorNet review of Avatar, with which I thoroughly disagree, was astonishingly negative when everyone else was praising the movie to the skies. Why?
I think the deepest reason may lie in a certain defensiveness against perceived “dangerous innovations”, which are viewed as likely sources of trouble for other people (not necessarily children) who are not so well grounded in the principles and practice of morality. In the end, it emanates from an attitude of seeing the world and its things not as essentially good, but as bad, so that everything new invariably ends up corrupting people until the battle to spiritualize it and make it conform to moral principles is won.
This is not only condescending but also wrong. There was time when sports were not accepted as wholesome, and another time when neither was reading. Both were taken as activities that distracted people from work and prayer, and were therefore undesirable. A very similar thing is happening today, when videogames are sanctimoniously blamed for everything from school shootings to late-onset acne. Never mind that studies show that gamers are usually better at driving, because they’ve gone through all kinds of simulated dangers in their games, strategise better because they’ve have had to think in unusual ways in other games, and tend to be less violent than non-gamers, possibly because they have used up their aggressiveness in those very games some are so eager to ban.
I would recommend people to join their kids in some videogame instead of just lamenting the time the youngsters spend at the screen. Maybe then they will find out that there is something positive, even educational, in many titles. Maybe they will come to realize that this new form of art, like sports or wine or just about anything, is quite a good thing at appropriate times and in appropriate doses.
Maybe that will help many to understand, by having lived it in an indirect “avatar” way, that a world where harmony and loyalty are the norm is actually possible—why, the Bible itself says so—and we have forgotten all about innocence because that’s not the way our world is anymore.
When he’s not inventing things that may or may not violate the laws of physics, Paco Ruiz works as a professor of aerospace engineering in a major American university.