From Minecraft to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, how real life imitates the games we play

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Art imitates life, Aristotle would’ve said, if he’d spoken English. The Greek philosopher defined the concept of mimesis as the imitation and perfection of nature. It’s a way of understanding seeing and thinking that’s been passed on throughout the centuries – you see a thing, you paint a thing. The world is there and art represents it. The English countryside exists. John Constable copies it.

In 1889, Oscar Wilde published The Decay of Lying, an essay arguing the opposite. “Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation,” he wrote. “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.”

(Above: The Hay Wain by John Constable)

Wilde wrote that life imitates art more than art imitates life. We look at a painting or read a novel and it informs the way we see. We understand the world through the lens of the art we’ve experienced. If there is fog in London, life seems to imitate Bleak House. If there is a beautiful sunset, life rips off JMW Turner. The English countryside is a second-rate copy of a Constable painting.

Treating life like a game

For many of us, video games are the representations we experience on a day-to-day basis. In terms of life imitating art, if you grew up playing Tetris you’ll likely pack a car boot as if you’re stacking rotatable, multicoloured blocks. If you grew up with Frogger, you’ll see every traffic intersection as a challenge. If you’ve ever broken your grandparents’ lampshade, said the wrong name, kissed the wrong person, made a mistake, done a bad thing, you’ll probably have considered the possibility of loading a saved game stored in the banks of some invisible, omnipresent, cloud-based memory system.

Personally, I grew up playing adventure games such as Monkey Island, Broken Sword and Grim Fandango, so every now and then I’ll find myself approaching situations in terms of object puzzles and branching conversation paths. My pockets are my inventory. Conversations are a series of branching dialogue paths. If you’re more familiar with Minecraft than Monkey Island, you’ll likely see the Oyster card, coins and lint in your pocket like items waiting to be combined. Play a lot of Fallout 4, and it becomes hard not to see the spare screws from your IKEA desk as precious items to be hoarded. The games may be different but the tendency is the same: play games and life begins to seem like an imitation of their systems.

(Above: Grim Fandango)

Life is not an ordered experience. It is a mess. Pushing life’s imitation to its extreme soon betrays how inadequate the neat containment of a game is in dealing with the near-limitless possibilities of real-world situations. To take this tendency to its logical conclusion, I decided to treat a real-life situation as if it were a point-and-click adventure game. I found a door and I found a man. I needed to get past the man to gain entry to the door. In the real world, I’d find another way into the building, but in a game i’d approach a challenge as a puzzle to be solved - an experience structured around explicit, limited, solvable systems. It didn’t end well, as you can tell from the gallery above.

Mapping a symbolic grid

The real world does not, of course, physically reassemble itself around the paintings, books and video games we have experienced. What changes is our perception, and our minds have a tendency to cling onto structures that help us comprehend the swirling mass of impressions we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Games, with their distinct series of systems, offer a negotiable model through which to understand the world.

Psychoanalyst, academic and author, Josh Cohen, tells me that the way we use games to structure the world says a lot about how our minds express unconscious impulses. “Psychoanalysis conceives our minds as intrinsically self-disguising and self-deceiving,” he says. “Our deepest impulses are always expressed to us in displaced form, such that we often wouldn’t recognise them as ours – dreams, which video games so often (and sometimes consciously) resemble, are the privileged example here, but this is true of almost all the forms of our life, including cultural life.

(Above: Assassin's Creed Syndicate)

“Games are interesting in this regard because they’re so interested in the undertow of psychic life – violence and aggression, sexuality, greed, rivalry, power. The symbolic worlds and narrative frameworks they offer can be understood as ways of dramatising and being in contact with these aspects of unconscious life. They provide a way of both revealing those aspects to us (we are the hero/ bounty-hunter etc) and concealing them (it’s a game, a make-believe world ‘nothing to do with real life or with me’).”

Cohen tells me that the rise of games as a cultural medium can be linked to this tendency and its usefulness in making sense of a threatening world. “At a time when daily life in the world outside exposes us so routinely to horror, and makes us feel the precariousness of our lives in so many ways, it makes sense that video games should become an increasingly important cultural form,” he says. “They provide a narrative/symbolic grid through which to organise this experience.”

Beauty and horror

Wilde’s original argument is less to do with our minds grasping for systems to help make sense of social horrors and more to do with beauty. “To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing,” he wrote. “One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence.” His idea is that we look at the trees and hedgerows of the countryside, but we don’t see the beauty of the countryside until Constable paints it. Do games have a similar relationship to beauty? Do we only see the English countryside after playing The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture?

(Above: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture)

Whatever the case, whether we’re talking about beauty or horror, games are maps we use to both pinpoint and distance ourselves from unconscious experiences. The world is a beautiful, terrifying place, and games help us organise these impulses at a comfortable distance. What happens in the gaps between those structures is another matter entirely, when games turn less to John Constable and more to Kazimir Malevich's Black Square. For the representative artist, however, reality is a source of inspiration and now it’s reality’s turn to play the game.

Note: This article stemmed from a short VideoBrains talk, which you can watch below.

Next: Read about how games such as The Walking Dead turn us into armchair philosophers.

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