Welcome to dreamland

Publication date: 14 May 2012
Originally published 2011, in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 14-May-2012.


What does playing video games do to your mind?

According to the spiritual descendents of the people who railed against comic books, jazz, women's suffrage and the invention of the novel (PDF), games are turning The Kids Of Today into uncontrollable murder machines.

Oh, and games are also as addictive as illegal drugs, of course.

Once you clear all of that claptrap out of the way, though, it's clear that video games are a quite odd kind of neural stimulus, and may do something beyond just giving you a tendency to dream about Tetris and imagine health bars above people's heads.

Games have slightly changed my own mental model of the world.

In game-land, see, everything is fake.

We're getting closer and closer to true real-world physics in games, but it's still far too computationally expensive to do 3D multi-object physics properly (Honourable Mention: Rigs of Rods). So games, even "physics games", cheat in numerous ways.

Similarly, ray-tracing lets computers render perfectly realistic 3D graphics, but ray-tracing is monstrously processor-intensive too. So today's "realistic" 3D graphics are a huge pile of corner-cutting cheats that sometimes make themselves very apparent. Polygon-budget limitations that give everything angular edges if you look closely, bump maps that make objects seem to have a realistically uneven surface until you, uh, look closely, limited texture resolution that makes surfaces blurry when you... let's just say that looking closely is generally discouraged, OK?

Games also keep reminding you that they cheat for all sorts of other reasons. NPCs that're happy to recite the same spiel every time you talk to them. Cars and people that fade into existence just out of your field of view and fade away similarly (or, worse yet, cars and people that always spawn right behind you...). "Urgent" tasks which are only actually urgent if a countdown timer appears in the corner of the screen. Computer opponents in Shogun 2 who send their troops laboriously, and frequently fatally, climbing over the walls of a castle even when the gate's been smashed down. And lag in multiplayer games (and one single-player one, too!). And about a thousand other things.

And then, of course, there are actual glitches. Everything on a table in an Oblivion-engine game will gently levitate when you touch one object, or occasionally fall through the tabletop and vanish, which is presumably what the levitation was meant to avoid. (Skyrim finally fixes this.) Nudge your car into a swingset in GTA IV and you'll suddenly be catapulted halfway to Vice City. Line up an apocalyptic crash in any number of "serious" racing games and watch your car, miraculously still more or less in one piece, shoot miles into the air, while the one you hit is now wobbling around half-buried in the ground.

(Oh, and in the real world, bloody Madagascar doesn't close its borders if someone sneezes in Lapland.)

This all-pervading fakeness has, I think, seeped into my mind a bit. It goes beyond just thinking that foggy days are how God keeps his frame-rate high.

I'm vaguely surprised when a thing I left somewhere is still there when I come back a week later - shouldn't that container have refreshed by now? I've also lost some faith in solving problems by a process of elimination, not because it doesn't work, but just because when I see a seemingly intractable problem, I suspect it's just a bugged quest that you can't complete at all.

I've not yet started being impressed by the universe's attention to detail in, say, putting objects and textures in crawlspaces and canyons where nobody ever goes. But it may only be a matter of time.

(It's logically impossible, after all, to rule out the theory that we're all actually brains in jars, or just programs running on some outrageously powerful alien computer. And furthermore, perfectly neurotypical humans regularly see things that aren't there, fail to notice things that are there, and remember events that never happened.)

I think the world's whole population is actually primed to adopt this odd worldview. Every human has a lot of experience with an alternative reality where objects come from and go to nowhere, where physical laws change at random, and where people do things that people can not, actually, do. You visit that strange world every night, when you dream.

Take hallucinogenic drugs and you can dream, only more so, while you're awake. Play games and you're looking through a window into dream-world, mildly so for "realistic" games, rather more so for Darwinia, Proun, anything by Jeff Minter, various Kinect hacks or Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing.

And just as Tetris can make you see tetrominos in your bathroom tiles and Eraserhead can invade your dreams, strange gaming experiences can, and do, affect your perception of the real world.

I'm afraid I have to go, now; the washing's dry, and I have to put it away. The damn drop rate for matching socks can't be better than 5%. I hope they do something about it in the next patch.

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