Digital Attachments


XCOM sniper (not Dmitrri)It’s tough to lose a solider. Especially one like Dimitri. A fine sniper, with a good kill record. I had trained him for so long, raised him from a lowly private to sergeant, then to lieutenant. He was equipped with the best gear. His accuracy had improved to a deadly asset. He was a cornerstone to my tactical approach.

He was also an investment in time and materiel. And as such, he was headed for greatness. Captain, maybe major.

Until the aliens got him. That was nasty.

Three of them swarmed his position, flanking his protection and taking him down with close melee attacks while the rest of the squad was busy defending citizens, too far to help.

Not a pretty sight.

The same battle took out Matt, the heavy weapons corporal who blasted whole blocks with his rocket launcher. Matt was caught in the blast of an exploding car outside a mall where the aliens had landed. Damn, I hadn’t counted on that when I moved him up to an overwatch position. But the aliens set the car on fire and that was that.

Our assault got caught in an ambush. We won, eventually, but it was a long fight with every inch bitterly contested. Coming back to base we were a solemn group. Two dead. Not a good thing.

Now the squad looks awfully thin, two down with rookies in their place. Big shoes to fill. And it’s not getting any easier out there, with the aliens ramping up their own technology, and getting tougher and smarter all the time. Winning this war won’t be easy. Matt I could almost afford to lose, being relatively new, but Dmitri was my best sniper.

I need to start training someone, fast. But who?

Of course it’s a game (XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be precise). Playing it this week has made me ponder the nature of attachment, in particular our attachment to characters in games or online. Why does it matter to us when a digital character “dies”? Or how he/she “lives”? How do we get so attached to virtual beings?

After all, it’s not like real life or death. Just a game. But yet…

Losing Dmitri irked me, but it also bothered me on a deeper level. Not simply because I had customized him, changed his suit colours, his facial hair, and imagined a background for him. He was mine. Or me. I’m not sure which. There was an emotional link. Not the easiest thing for a person who values logic and skepticism.

When the aliens gutted Dmitri, I was torn between restarting at the last save-game position and playing the deus ex machina role to save him, or letting the narrative run as it played out. Starting again felt like cheating. Letting him die felt like I had failed him. It. Dmitri wasn’t real, of course. But he/it felt like he was, at times. The narrative won, but not without misgivings.

We become attached to the characters we play or supervise in games – if the game is well crafted, that is. We happily invest ourselves emotionally and consciously into the games through the characters because they are us: we become them, in a suspension of reality. Thus we play longer, spend more time doing small, even trivial things (like mowing lawns and cleaning dishes in The Sims – which feels too much like work to me) because they enhance the experience and because they’re things we would do in real life.

Yet not to get all Buddhist on you, it’s attachment to nothing. To a string of code, to an electronic process. It’s not like our attachments to each other, to our pets, to our material belongings. It’s more being attached to an idea than a thing.*

Yet without those attachments, without the emotional investment, games are little more than finger exercises. So we suspend our disbelief and become what we behold.

What’s the difference between Pong or Centipede or Pac-Man and Call of Duty? Simple: the story line in COD. The characters are given a simulacrum of reality through a multi-faceted and multi-branched story line, through complex and realistic environments, through in-game dialogue and cut scenes. Through a world that behaves in a believable way, and looks believable.

Like reading a good novel, you become invested in the story, playing more to see how it turns out. Story is, apparently, genetically built into us.**

Blogger Alli Reed wrote,

Video games provide a wholly unique medium for storytelling. Unlike movies, books, or your uncle’s drunken Thanksgiving ramblings, games give you a deeper level of immersion because you’re in control. The events feel like they’re happening to you, because you don’t relate to the protagonist; you are the protagonist.

Movies and games share an odd synergistic space in the entertainment world these days. As Charles Yu wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press

There’s little reason to think movies and video games couldn’t continue to co-exist. But if audiences are becoming overly familiar with Hollywood’s version of the three-act structure, and if games continue to grow as a form of narrative entertainment, it’s tantalizing to think the next few years or decades might bring some more serious attempts at experimentation and cross-pollination.
It’s already been tried. Most of the results, however, have been marketing masquerading as “interactive storytelling.”
Despite efforts in both industries to find some creative alchemy, most attempts, though admirable for the effort, fall short of true invention. Movies made from games, games made from movies, movies and games released simultaneously with added content end up being less than the sum of their parts, more like two conventional forms of entertainment smushed together and repackaged as a new product.
Movies and video games both take place in a larger, common universe of possible narratives. But are they fundamentally incompatible? Could anything interesting ever emerge from recombining the DNA of the two?

We have an innate attraction to it, a biological need to have ideas, issues and events cast as stories. We fall asleep playing out our day’s events in our own stories, playing the what-ifs and if-only-I’d-said lines over and over until we reach a comforting outcome. Video games give us stories we can live through in their virtual world.

The hallmark for me of a good game is one that you lie in bed thinking about later, wondering if this move or that strategy would have worked better, when you mull over the what-ifs and the possibilities. It’s the same for chess and go and video games, but a video game is more escapism than strategy.

Opps...Dmitri wasn’t a whole character. He didn’t have the spare time to have a drink in the mess, didn’t show feelings for Astrid or his other female squadies, didn’t speak of his beliefs, political leanings, ambitions. I never knew where he came from, other than the flag patch on his armour and his name. His few voice cues during battle were generic and could have been any other male soldier. He vanished from the game during those build-and-research segments that.

He was barely 2D in many ways, yet he mattered to me, because the story line mattered. I had counted on Dmitri to help save the world from the alien invasion.

I had a stronger attachment to his character – call it a paternal feel – than to, say the characters I play in in World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2. In those games – and in many video games – dying is an inconvenience. You may lose time, money or points, but you always resurrect. In XCOM death is final – assuming, of course, you let the internal narrative run at its pace, and don’t use the save-game option to confer some digital immortality to your troops.

Dan Pearson, writing in Games Industry, echoed some of my own thoughts about the emotional attachment gamers feel about characetrs in the XCOM story:

Those squadmates, offered relatively little in the way of visual customisation, are capable of a surprising level of emotional resonance, which Stanton points out is a close consequence of the combination of exponentially increasing value and fragility imposed by an unforgiving combat system. Lose a soldier and you leave a big hole in the team which can take several missions to repair, all whilst under constant pressure from the stream of alerts and demands flowing through your base’s command centre.

By the time you’ve pulled a squaddie up through the ranks to become a fearsome colonel, commanding avenues of fire from a sniping position at the rear or bursting through doors with a close-ranged shotgun, you’ll be oddly attached.

Call of Duty, a first-person shooter (FPS), has proven a remarkably successful franchise, in great part because of the strong (if somewhat hyperbolic) story line in each new game. The games themselves don’t change a lot; the mechanics are similar. The stories aren’t multi-dimensional Dickens or Tolstoy: they’re more like Ian Fleming. Rather simple, direct point-A-to-point-B plots, with frilly bits about the edges to make it busy without deflecting the player’s attention from the basic plot and current goals.

It works very well. Many a night I’ve stayed up late to finish just one more scene in the game’s progress. Just to see how they worked the next bit, what angle the designers chose, and more important, to see how my character developed in the milieu, what information or profile would be revealed in a cutscene.

But like WOW and GW2, death is not the final arbiter in COD or most other action/FPS/RPG games. In fact, being shot or wounded in most games is usually a minor effect, and all you need is some time and patience (or magic potion) to recover, even from critical gunshot wounds.

In Red Orchestra, it is more lethal to be shot, and death means going back to start the scene again, but even there it’s not final. But I think the loss of characters in XCOM makes the story more compelling. You start to pay closer attention to the others, watch their positions, their equipment, their health as if they were real people. Or at least more realistic simulations. The roster of KIA soldiers is also a testament to my failure, both a shame for my inability, and an encouragement to do better with the survivors.

Role-playing games (RPGs) have offered interactive storytelling since Dungeons & Dragons. Computer games just do it so much better, because they mis the visuals with the action for a visceral experience. It’s why 10 or so million people play World of Warcraft (or better yet, Guild Wars 2). You invest time into building the character, into pursuing the story line(s), into developing skills, talents and abilities. The character you manipulate becomes you.

But why? Why do we become so immersed in the games? It’s not like the story lines are all so compelling – many are cookie-cutter plots from B films or novels. But it seems we can’t help ourselves. ***

We are, as Lisa Cron writes in her eponymous book, “Wired for Story.”

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.

In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world. So if your eyes glazed over back in high school when your history teacher painstakingly recited the entire succession of German monarchs, beginning with Charles the Fat, Son of Louis the German, who ruled from 881 to 887, who could blame you? Turns out you’re only, gloriously, human.

Alien nasty thingGood game designers take advantage of this hardwire aptitude and engage us by giving players the ability to act as players, even protagonists and heroes, in the story. But as the competition ramps up for the consumers’ hearts and minds, the challenge becomes: whose is the best story?

I remember playing an early version of Call of Duty (2) set in WWII, in which I played a Soviet solider in Stalingrad. I’ve played the same battle in other games, most notably Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. Both were first-person shooters in a realistic, 3D environment. RO2 was the more realistic, the more accurate. But COD was more fun because it had a better, more compelling story line. The mechanics were similar and – after hundreds of hours of playing FPS games – mostly irrelevant.

But wait a second, you say. I’m a human, I am aware these are games, I know consciously that these characters are just virtual, constrained by the restrictions of code and digital environments (sometimes annoyingly linear, like Bad Company or Diablo III), I realize they are not real, they are just characters in a game, like those in a graphic novel – and yet…

It’s like reading a paperback novel I don’t really like, but I continue to read it through to the end just to finish the story. And I’ve done that many, many times. I need the completion, even if the writing and structure are atrocious. Ditto with many games: follow the story to the end (and movies… I watch a lot of B flicks…).

XCOM isn’t like COD in that you really manage a team, so the emotional investment is less personal than in games like COD where you really just manage one character. Or, at times, different characters from the first-person perspective. And that matters too, because the through-the-eyes view makes you feel more like you’re part of the action than the isometric view of XCOM or 3rd-person view of GTA or Mafia II (or the latest XCOM: Bureau game). You sink deeper into the character when you look through his or her eyes.****

Gender is also interesting, because some of these games let you play either male or female roles. I’ve played both, but prefer male roles, simply because that’s who I am. I can’t get quite as immersed playing a female character: basic biology makes me unable to appreciate the nuances.

But changing gender may help us see the world in a different way, make us appreciate the opposite sex more. Assuming that the characters in the game have something realistically different about them, not just different armour or headgear. Still, it’s interesting how male gamers treat female characters in WOW and GW2 without knowing the actual person (male or female) behind the avatar.

Witcher (I and II) is a fantasy RPG with a complex story line and significant interaction between male player and computer-controlled characters. It even has sex – albeit nothing that has any effect on the story line or game, just some gratuitous soft porn to titillate the under-15 boys (most video games are still male-oriented, and often misogynist, sometimes aggressively so, like the GTA series) but it raises the issue of what is acceptable and desirable in the story line to increase immersion in the character. How much depth is required to make the experience feel full? And how does this male-oriented game affect female players (are there any?)

Games clearly have well-defined parameters, but some gaming environments offer greater scope and a less-restricted environment, which means greater immersion, greater emotional investment. Farcry was one of the first that had a fully open environment, although the later versions added stiff scripting that reined in personal expression to achieve the goals your own way.

Second Life is probably the nest-known example of an open environment in which players can live out their fantasies through game avatars, building, buying/selling, interacting with others, but it really lacks a story. You interact without goals or purpose, sort of like an online version of the Sims, but with wildness (and simulated sex).

Some games like Bioshock, Fallout III and Half Life are well known for their rich, layered stories, others like Doom III and Homefront are simply mechanical shoot-em-ups with a story tacked on almost like an afterthought (Battlefield comes to mind – great shooter, but thin on story).

Sometimes, sadly, the game franchise starts out well, with a rich story line, then deteriorates into me-too, cookie-cutter, action-over-story sequels. Such is the case with Assassin’s Creed, which had two great games followed by a dismal third and many mediocre spin-offs. Video blogger Danny, on Gamespot, wonders what went wrong:

Tom Bissell writes an interesting counterpoint, based on his experience with GTA V and what it says about gaming in particular:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person. Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. Niko, I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

I don’t really agree with all his points, but he makes some salient ones. I still think we play for the inherent need in ourselves for story, to receive it, to incorporate it into our life, to embellish and fantasize it. We want to be the director, the producer and, of course, the actors in the story all at once. *****

Why else would we feel attached to the characters? Because we’ve both made them part of our story, and we’ve become part of theirs. We control them, make them act for us. We see in them a reflection of our selves, our goals, our beliefs, just like we see them in a character in a good novel.

Yes, many games are mechanical exercises, have limited goals, structured environments and repetitive reward-seeking activities. But when wrapped around a believable environment and a good story,  these become background; automatically performed as we dive deeper into the narrative and become increasingly attached to those snippets of code.

Gaming remains an evolving field; the cauldron in which many technologies bubble and boil. Open-world gaming is creating a curiously advanced, 3D, interactive environment that gets more and more realistic with every generation. Persistent worlds, a setting and story (and characters) that evolve according to our own interaction with them – we could play online for hours, maybe days at a time.

Today the characters we play and interact with are computer screen images. Tomorrow they may be 3D, AI-driven, responsive and able to simulate real human reactions and emotions.

Who knows, maybe we’ll fall in love with them one day, too.

But not Dmitri, RIP. He’s KIA and I have to go now to train another sniper and try to make sure he or she survives a little longer.


* People get attached to ideas, ideologies and philosophies, of course. Which is why we have Scientology, conspiracy theories, political parties, and cults. But it’s a different sort of attachment. Intellectual (albeit not always intelligent). Attachment to a story character is emotional.

** By story I don’ mean lie, fib, dissembling, deception, innuendo, rumour, gossip or other terms that refer to children (and a few local bloggers…): telling “stories” to excuse or justify their bad or antisocial behaviour. I mean story as in narrative.

*** XCOM could easily be a movie starring Bruce Campbell… there’s a certain irony in the feedback loop that games steal ideas from films which then make the games into movies… but in general movies made from games are unsuccessful because they lack the immersive quality of the game. Movies are too passive to stand on the same level as a good game, although it often seems games are designed with licensing rights in mind. There’s an interesting comment on the HuffPost about women using movies and storytelling to change the world:

And what if women’s epic movies could change the world — by providing the uniting narratives that can overcome the division and fragmentation of our civilization today?

**** I’m not really impressed by the story lines in the GTA, Mafia or other similar crime series. They’re usually the Breaking Bad-like reluctant guy who agrees to get into crime and kill people to help his family or friends out of a jam. It hardly took any prompting, it seems to go from a moral state to immoral. Besides, I don’t have a hankering to be a criminal. At least WWII games have clearly defined us-them good-bad lines.

***** One of Bissell’s comments, however, has local resonance. It’s what he says about how the online community responded to a contrary review (emphasis added):

One reviewer of GTA V, Carolyn Petit of GameSpot, said the game was “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic,” which is very much a defensible position. Petit also made it clear she loved GTA V. Twenty thousand irate comments piled up beneath her review, many of them violent and hateful. Is this reasonable behavior? Sure, if you’ve come to regard anything that stands in perceived opposition to you as in dire need of eradication. What is that if not video-game logic in its purest, most distilled form?

Contrary opinion is often treated this way in social media, blogs and forums: by puerile attack, rather than civil or mature debate – regardless of the topic.

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