Blurring the virtual lines: what’s real and what’s a game?

Are Microsoft and Sony's motion controllers a step towards a dark virtual future? Sean examines the possibilities, with help from the movie Gamer...

E3 has come and gone, but the shockwaves of what will surely be a new pandemic of games are still being felt. Between the new Zelda, GoldenEye remake and Black Ops, I probably won’t have a social life in the coming months – and that’s when school starts.

What I found most intriguing was Microsoft’s presentation of Kinect, its new motion-control device. In trying to compete with the Nintendo Wii, both Microsoft and Sony have been working on their own motion control devices. While PS3 will have its own two-piece motion controller, Move, the Xbox 360’s Kinect proves to be the most interesting, particularly as there’s no controller at all.

Kinect is essentially a series of sensors that sits on top of your TV that not only recognises your movements, but also your voice, making the system virtually hands-free. While the presentation was impressive in terms of the advancement of technology, I also found it to be somewhat creepy and recalled films such as The Matrix, or Gamer.

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The presentations showcased unique advancements in how gamers will be off the couch and on their feet. Microsoft’s Kinect presentation featured developers competing in a track race, both running and jumping, while Nintendo’s Wii showed off The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which gives you total sword control, and the PS3’s The Fight showcased how you can not only block and throw punches, but also put enemies into headlocks and repeatedly hit them.

I was quite impressed by this, because whether you have a controller or not, it’s you, the player, doing all the actions. While I can see the positive aspects of such physical activities, it’s interesting that, instead of just playing warriors, we’re slowly becoming them. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll be getting martial arts instructions from video games by simply learning them from a tutorial and then putting them to use against whichever enemies the game has for us.

While this makes for a potentially immersive experience, does this help or hinder us in terms of how we interact with society? If I wanted to really get into boxing, instead of just throwing punches and blocks in my living room in front of the TV, wouldn’t it be more beneficial if I went to a boxing gym and took lessons?

One could argue that it’s cheaper via the video game, but how much realism do we need to get out of our games? The only logical next step I see is to provide gamers with sensor vests, so that if we miss a block or get shot in a game, we feel something, so it’s not just the gamer who’s going unharmed. In fact, something like this is being worked on as I write this.

The reason why I bring up the film Gamer is that the technology we’re now developing is becoming very similar to what’s seen in the film. In it, users are able to stand in a sensor circle and, through a mind connection, control their avatar through their movements – running, fighting and shooting, for example.

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Everything you did, your player did on the screen. Except in the film, the user wasn’t just controlling some computer-generated hero, but rather another human being whose mind had been linked with the user’s and was forced to do whatever the user wanted them to do.

While I hope we’re not moving towards a world where we have to control others in order to enjoy a game or a social site, we are moving closer and closer to living through our games.

No longer is a controller necessary, as our machines are turned on through our voices and our physical actions are used to take down other opponents, either through hand-to-hand combat or through a carefully aimed shot using a sniper rifle. Why even go out into the world, when I can do everything I want all in the comfort of my living room?

Then I found myself a little creeped out when Microsoft’s Kinect presentation showed off a new game called Kinectimals. The presentation had a little girl come out on the stage and play with a baby tiger on a screen.

Not using a controller, but simply through her actions and words, she could pet the tiger, throw a toy, and play hide-and-seek. While the innovation is a huge step in gaming, the girl’s reactions, whether scripted or not, are what freaked me out. She seemed happy playing with this virtual pet and appeared to treat it like a real animal.

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How many years is it going to be before we not only play games online, but we’re also living our whole lives through online play and social networks? While I check out the news or keep up my Halo score, I could feed my virtual dog and talk with all my friends, all from my living room.

There would be no need to leave the house, except for maybe a grocery run (unless you just get it delivered), but you could live almost exclusively in your own virtual world. While kids might want to play with virtual animals, adult gamers might want to interact with virtual spouses.

Some would argue that this is a way of better connecting through the rest of the world, and in some ways this is true. Through the internet and sites such as Facebook, we’re able to acquire more information and meet people from all walks of life. But isn’t it fake if we’ve never lived it for real? I’m a gamer myself, but there are some things I would want to do for real as opposed to just doing them in my living room.

Going to a bar and meeting new people, for example, rather than just talking through a chat room, or playing a real game of football, rather than just jumping around in my living room for a couple of hours among a fake crowd of millions. I slowly think that we’re creating are own version of The Matrix as we become more addicted to online gaming and virtual lifestyles.

While I’m being critical of this recent wave of the virtual lifestyle, I don’t hate it entirely. I think it’s great that millions of people connect through World Of Warcraft, and that I’m able to connect with friends I haven’t seen since kindergarten via Facebook, but we must be careful to not go completely virtual and forget that we have real lives as well.

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Beyond the virtual worlds of Warcraft and the killing fields of Call Of Duty, there is a real world, with real people to interact with, who you don’t have to worry about casting a spell on you – unless you’re on the wrong side of town.

The line of what’s real and what’s not is almost non-existent, as it’s being blurred by new concepts on the horizon. I’m not bashing Kinect and other new innovations in gaming – I’ll probably be trying them out myself – but if we are slowly substituting these real experiences for virtual ones, such as the joy of having a pet or playing in a real sports game, what are we becoming? How much longer is it going to take before we just plug ourselves into a machine and live a completely virtual life?

Thus, enjoy games, but enjoy the real world as well. The real world is the one that can’t be paused or reset.