Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Seduction Of Alternative Realities

We are at a fascinating crossroads in human culture. At no time in the history of our planet have we had the choice to shed our individual human lives so convincingly for the thrill and adventure of an alternative reality experience.

No matter how we spend our usual day, driving a bus or running a mega corporation, we all yearn to try on the exotic wardrobe of another existence. That was the basis for the timeless classic story: The Prince and the Pauper. It's why we read adventure novels, watch television and go the movies.

If you're Ralph Kramden, living the dreary life of a bus driver in the big city, wouldn't you jump at the chance to be Indiana Jones for a day?  Oh, too dangerous you say? Well what if you didn't have to worry about the pain of injury or dying? What if you could simply re spawn your character and try that daring leap across the chasm again - and this time you manage to grab onto the opposite cliff face by your fingers just long enough to pull yourself to safety? Yeah, that's more like it! Much better than that horrifying plunge to the rocks below - again.

We all thrill to living vicariously through the adventures of others. That's not new. What is new, is that now you can take the two dimensional characters of books and film and "physically" drop people into their fully immersive 3D worlds and see their lives from a unique perspective. Not the author's, or film director's view, but from whatever point of view YOU choose. It's intoxicating to have god like powers allowing you to shape and mold everything to your own liking. You can fully explore a rich exotic new world, get the girl, shoot bad guys and always win your quest no matter how impossible it seems...well if not the first time then surely after a few failed attempts.

Welcome to the digital age of Interactive Entertainment; also known as video games. Don't play video games? Think they're still just a silly waste of time like the last time you were chucking quarters in the arcade machines at the 7-11 for Pong and Donkey Kong? Where have you been the last twenty years by the way? Look again. Now they are fully immersive, three dimensional worlds and you are the star in the middle of the action of a full blown interactive movie. Put on your earphones and 3D visor and the real world completely disappears. Now you're in a scary realistic, digitally created new world of adventure and you better get moving or something big and ugly is liable to run over you, or worse - eat you!

So that sounds pretty great on a lot of levels. Who wouldn't love the experience of curling up with a good book by the fire, or flopping down with a tub of hot buttered popcorn to watch a double-feature action picture at the movies? Now you get to kick that up a notch. Got problems at work, with your marriage, no job, or just frustrated with not getting ahead in life as fast as you'd like? Well, how about trying on a newer, cooler hero's life for a few hours a day? A life where you get what you want, when you want it for a change? Right! Where do I sign up? Is there a problem here? Think about it for a minute... why would you want to leave?
Well, back to that first line above where I mentioned we are at a "crossroads in human culture". We can go to the right and curb our appetite for the altered realities of digital entertainment, or we can veer left and fully embrace them. The implications of either path are striking by the way.

Let's consider the right path for just a sec. So you swear off anything that isn't real dirt and atmosphere around you. Okay, you're probably over 50 and you're getting along just fine without the fix of a digital adrenalin rush. Life isn't perfect but it's pretty good. No problem there. Well, except that you're surrounded by a massively growing population of digital natives who wear the electronics of our digital age like Spandex. If you aren't already feeling a little left behind you certainly will be within your lifetime.

If you're under 30, you're probably thinking    "duh" right about now. So let's say you choose the left fork in the road and fully embrace the new world of alternative reality entertainment. Like the other option, there are trade-offs and some are rather ominous; which should give one pause for careful consideration. Altered realities are highly addictive. Maybe on an order of 100 times more addictive than being a bookworm or a movie fan. According to a study by Metrics 2.0, business intelligence consultants: "Reports from around the world suggest that gaming addiction is real and on the rise." So is booze, drugs, porn and reality TV. So what? Clearly this is a lesser evil. But it has broader, more subtle influence on our society than any of the aforementioned vices. They are percentage wise far less invasive to everyday life of the average adult. Video game entertainment is different.

Take a look around. Every major facet of modern life is being influenced by electronics and now it's offspring, the video game culture. Most younger adults are wired, texters, iPoders, cell phone twitch-game-players and coffeed up every day. Society is speeding recklessly ahead like a runaway freight train. We talk faster, walk faster, drive faster, change jobs and partners faster. And our patience is growing thinner.

These aren't all just symptoms of a video gaming culture addiction. Civilization has been speeding up for centuries. But that need for greater speed is also pushing up our demand for sensation. For most people slowing down is no longer an option. And when we have a moment's pause, many younger people instinctively reach for something to fill the void. That's what I mean by the left fork in the road has greater overall implications for humans. That's why video games have exponentially growing appeal. Not only do people get a dose of high adventure, but they also get to check out of reality when the stress of life is too high and when reading a book just won't do it for them anymore. And that's what I mean when I say there are trade-offs. Human interaction is becoming more and more conditional.

Look, we can't turn the clock back to a gentler, simpler time. And those times weren't all that they seem in retrospect either. But we can pause for a second and look around. Realize that society is changing and that our need for sensation, as we are caught up in a jet stream of frenetic daily activity, is growing.

Alternative realities are intellectually fun and sensationally satisfying, but the next generation of games need to offer more substance and greater relevance to current reality. We'll need more protein and less carbs in future games of alternative reality. Game based learning is in fact on the rise. That's a good start. Soon we will use alternative reality virtual worlds to train the doctors, soldiers and hopefully politicians of the future. Making them better, faster and in the latter case we can only hope far less self-serving.

And then the big question might be, where do we stop? Scientists say the suspended reality, virtual world of the Star Trek-Holodeck is only decades away. That raises even more questions the most obvious being: "where does reality end and
alternative reality begin?"

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