Getting lost in the alternate universes of games
Shangri-La, Iram of the Pillars, and Atlantis are famous utopias that people have yearned to find. Some have succeeded in discovering these perfect societies by turning to videogames. Rapture from the Bioshock videogame franchise began as a utopia under the sea, free of government control, yet it turned into a dystopian society. That seems to be a pattern with other perfect societies in videogames, such as Cocoon from Final Fantasy XIII and the utopia that John Henry Eden from Fallout tries to pass off as a reality. A utopia in a videogame is not always just the amazing visual experience that the player sees, but the experience of losing oneself in this alternate reality. Some might see it as an escape
after a difficult day of classes or work, while others might see it as the life they wish they had.
Kevin VanOrd, senior editor at GameSpot, said that the feeling of escape is a huge draw.
“Consider this: As children, we are often drawn to subjects like dinosaurs and outer space and Greek mythology. Those things capture our imaginations because they don’t represent the world that surrounds us in the here and now.”
Utopias commonly exist in videogames to create a conflict to push the plot forward. By definition, utopias are idyllic places where everyone lives happily. Running around in a place like that would not make for an exciting experience, so usually this perfect place devolves into one that is full of problems for the player to solve. Immersing the player in the world of their game is the developer’s goal. Like any other creative medium, developers are creating something that is going to end up in the hands of millions of people. And like any other medium, whether literary or cinema, the people who create it want the consumer to enjoy what they have created. The immersion factor plays a huge part in whether or not a player will come back time and time again. VanOrd recalled a moment like this from when he played the computer game, Anarchy Online.
“I remember exploring a forest outside of Athens,” he said. “With little warning, lightning struck, and just as I might in real life, I scrambled to get out of the forest and into the city where I might be safe from nature’s wrath.”
Developers want players to believe that they are the characters within the game. That’s why in recent years, Western style role-playing games have become so popular. In these games such as Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, players can create their own character to look like themselves or look completely different. This is one way players can submerge themselves into a game.
Game designer Jenova Chen has created games that are described as being more of an experience than a game. His game Flower was released in 2009 to critical acclaim for the artistry of the game. The player controls the wind and a single flower petal to try and collect the most amount of petals a possible. The atmosphere he created was one of the most memorable aspects of the game.
Chen recently released Journey and explained his philosophy when it comes to having players get lost in his own utopia.
“[Immersion] is very important because I’m trying to create a strong emotion in the player, and if they are very self-aware, and they are really looking at the game from outside the glass, they won’t be able to be really moved by the game,” he said. “Immediately, you want to bring the player into your world so that the ruse, magic, atmosphere and feeling of the virtual world can actually impact the player. If the player is not immersed, then there is no way you can touch them.”
When games have many problems to solve, such as the many quests available in the popular game World of Warcraft, players lose track of whether or not they are themselves or their characters. Playing the game can be an escape in itself.
“Any experience that can distract us when we feel negative emotions can become reinforcing and set up a cycle where the coping behavior becomes rigid and inflexible and we can ignore activities that change the situation instead of changing our state of consciousness,” Ithaca College psychologist Paul Mikowski said.
There are stories of people who have died playing videogames for dozens of consecutive hours because of this escape. Whatever reason the individual player might have, it can be a very dangerous addiction. These escapes from everyday life might be the perfect mental escape but can be damaging to not only the players themselves but those around them. Dr. Mikowski explains what sets videogame addiction apart.
“The harm that comes to people who play games too often is more subtle and harder to see. Game-playing is generally more socially acceptable than drugs, for example.”
Utopias in gaming can vary greatly depending on the perception of the subject matter. Videogame developers engulf the players in inviting worlds that are fun to become lost in. However, these can quickly become dangerous if not managed correctly. Escapes from everyday life are acceptable, but like with all things, only in moderation.
Ross Orlando is a sophomore journalism major and a level six dark elf sorcerer.
Email him at rorland1[at]ithaca[dot]edu