Distilled Reality

I don't like to brag, but I own a lot of video game houses. I'm the owner of five residences in the province of Skyrim alone, and in Albion anything bigger than an anthill has my name on the deed. Some of my many electronic properties were even built with my own two thumbs, like the mansion I designed for my Sims or the low-res countryside villa I constructed in Minecraft (from cobblestone I mined myself).

I still own my 300,000-gil mansion in Costa del Sol, one of the first video game properties I ever bought.

Given my depth of experience in the arena of virtual home ownership, I wasn't terribly concerned when (back in the real world) my wife and I recently bought a single-family house for ourselves and our two children. Moving into our new home, however, I quickly realized two things:

  1. We own a lot of crap, and most of it is very heavy to lift.
  2. The countless hours I've spent playing games like The Sims and Minecraft have led me to very seriously misjudge the amount of time, expense, and effort required to establish a suitable residence for oneself and one's family.
Hey, if it can hold up a Honda Civic, then it should be able to keep my cabinets from falling off the wall, right? (Yes, this is really how I fixed my kitchen cabinets.)

In other words, it appears that owning all these video game houses has done fairly little to prepare me for buying an owning a house in the real world. Upon reflection, I've realized part of the problem is that certain key parts of the homeowner experience have not been adequately represented in gameplay.

For example, despite the province of Skyrim's incredibly low real estate inventory (which apparently consists only of five houses), I didn't have to engage in any multiplayer battles against other prospective buyers who were all competing for the same property. When playing Fable III, buying a property in Albion never involved filing a mountain of paperwork in order to get a mortgage, whose underwriting inevitably would have unlocked entire new dungeons full of paperwork for me to navigate. And don't even get me started on the lack of a plaster repair game mechanic in Minecraft.

I suppose what we're really talking about here is a question of immersion. Video games often talk about being more "immersive", but to be honest I'm not always sure what that means. In a truly immersive version of Skyrim, for instance, upgrading the blacksmithing perk would have required the Dragonborn first to complete a five-year apprenticeship, and exploring the frozen mountains of Winterhold would probably have involved less enchanted loot and epic battles with dragons, and more crushing loneliness and frostbite. With these changes, I'm not exactly sure what kind of game Bethesda would have ended up with, but somehow I doubt it would have sold 10 million copies.

Here's an MLS photo of "Breezehome", a little place I own in Whiterun. It's an historic Scandinavian-style cottage in a great school district, provided you don't mind your children occasionally being eaten by dragons.

My point is that people like video games not because they provide some sort of alternative "virtual" version of reality, but because they provide something far better than any virtual reality: distilled reality. Like the corresponding physical process, the distillation of reality that video game designers perform removes the impurities of the real world (like taxes and wallpaper removal), leaving us with an invigorating aqua vitae chock full of action, mass murder, puzzles, instant gratification, and bizarrely athletic plumbers.

Regrettably, like any libation, distilled reality must be consumed in moderation, lest its side effects lead to unfortunate consequences. In my case, getting drunk on booze or reality both result in similar kinds of behaviors, including (but not limited to) unpredictable fits of anger, horniness, and the firm belief that I would probably be able fight a dragon. Nevertheless, there's nothing like a bourbon Manhattan and some Gears of War deathmatch to take the edge off at the end of a tough day... and like my distilled spirits, I don't expect I'll be giving up my distilled reality anytime soon..

9 Comments
9 Comments
Posted by Apocralyptic

I don't like to brag, but I own a lot of video game houses. I'm the owner of five residences in the province of Skyrim alone, and in Albion anything bigger than an anthill has my name on the deed. Some of my many electronic properties were even built with my own two thumbs, like the mansion I designed for my Sims or the low-res countryside villa I constructed in Minecraft (from cobblestone I mined myself).

I still own my 300,000-gil mansion in Costa del Sol, one of the first video game properties I ever bought.

Given my depth of experience in the arena of virtual home ownership, I wasn't terribly concerned when (back in the real world) my wife and I recently bought a single-family house for ourselves and our two children. Moving into our new home, however, I quickly realized two things:

  1. We own a lot of crap, and most of it is very heavy to lift.
  2. The countless hours I've spent playing games like The Sims and Minecraft have led me to very seriously misjudge the amount of time, expense, and effort required to establish a suitable residence for oneself and one's family.
Hey, if it can hold up a Honda Civic, then it should be able to keep my cabinets from falling off the wall, right? (Yes, this is really how I fixed my kitchen cabinets.)

In other words, it appears that owning all these video game houses has done fairly little to prepare me for buying an owning a house in the real world. Upon reflection, I've realized part of the problem is that certain key parts of the homeowner experience have not been adequately represented in gameplay.

For example, despite the province of Skyrim's incredibly low real estate inventory (which apparently consists only of five houses), I didn't have to engage in any multiplayer battles against other prospective buyers who were all competing for the same property. When playing Fable III, buying a property in Albion never involved filing a mountain of paperwork in order to get a mortgage, whose underwriting inevitably would have unlocked entire new dungeons full of paperwork for me to navigate. And don't even get me started on the lack of a plaster repair game mechanic in Minecraft.

I suppose what we're really talking about here is a question of immersion. Video games often talk about being more "immersive", but to be honest I'm not always sure what that means. In a truly immersive version of Skyrim, for instance, upgrading the blacksmithing perk would have required the Dragonborn first to complete a five-year apprenticeship, and exploring the frozen mountains of Winterhold would probably have involved less enchanted loot and epic battles with dragons, and more crushing loneliness and frostbite. With these changes, I'm not exactly sure what kind of game Bethesda would have ended up with, but somehow I doubt it would have sold 10 million copies.

Here's an MLS photo of "Breezehome", a little place I own in Whiterun. It's an historic Scandinavian-style cottage in a great school district, provided you don't mind your children occasionally being eaten by dragons.

My point is that people like video games not because they provide some sort of alternative "virtual" version of reality, but because they provide something far better than any virtual reality: distilled reality. Like the corresponding physical process, the distillation of reality that video game designers perform removes the impurities of the real world (like taxes and wallpaper removal), leaving us with an invigorating aqua vitae chock full of action, mass murder, puzzles, instant gratification, and bizarrely athletic plumbers.

Regrettably, like any libation, distilled reality must be consumed in moderation, lest its side effects lead to unfortunate consequences. In my case, getting drunk on booze or reality both result in similar kinds of behaviors, including (but not limited to) unpredictable fits of anger, horniness, and the firm belief that I would probably be able fight a dragon. Nevertheless, there's nothing like a bourbon Manhattan and some Gears of War deathmatch to take the edge off at the end of a tough day... and like my distilled spirits, I don't expect I'll be giving up my distilled reality anytime soon..

Posted by Pie

Nice blog. So when we take everything we don't like out of our reality we are left with nothing but mass murder

Posted by Apocralyptic

@Pie: Well, mass murder and Pokemons.

Posted by AssInAss

So what you're saying is we need a house hunting sim made by German developers?

I like your thesis that we take the most fun parts of real life like stuffing you house with loads of crap and none of the mundane busy work. It's called gamification I think.

Posted by Zenogiasu

I take it you wouldn't like the first few hours of Heavy Rain, then; you shake orange juice cartons via QTEs. You know, so it can be fresh. For your character.

In all seriousness though, I do think there's something to be said for portraying the monotony of everyday life in video games--art imitating life and whatnot. It is all contextual, though. A fantasy RPG like Skyrim or a simple 2D platformer like Mario wouldn't be any better if they were injected with realism. But in a game like, say, Metro 2033, which subjects the player to the harsher realities of a post-apocalypse world, realism is a valuable tool to enhance immersion. Most great games like to make the player feel like they're extraordinary heroes, but sometimes it's refreshing to be weak, vulnerable, and human.

Edited by Nonapod

Distilled reality is a variation on basic escapism, the phenomenon that attracts so many people to virtual words to begin with. It's interesting to speculate how much different (better?) our lives would be if they functioned more along the lines of video game logic. What if large swaths of the boring periods in our lives could be skipped like a cutscene in a game, like the waiting in line at the DMV or the driving periods to and from work? What if our conscious brains could be turned off during such periods? What if something like learning a new language was simply a matter of purchasing the knowledge and having it instantaniously inserted into your brain? Who knows, maybe some day in the future we'll have cybernetic implants and computers in our heads that'll make that sort of thing possible

Posted by Lokno

I like to use a term from AI research myself: Toy problems. Video games invite us to solve toy problems, which may still be complex, but nevertheless we know from the outset that they are solvable and sandboxed. I guess you can still all that escapism, since it gets your mind off real challenges. Virtual Reality is an oxymoron anyway.

Posted by Gringus

@Nonapod said:

Distilled reality is a variation on basic escapism, the phenomenon that attracts so many people to virtual words to begin with. It's interesting to speculate how much different (better?) our lives would be if they functioned more along the lines of video game logic. What if large swaths of the boring periods in our lives could be skipped like a cutscene in a game, like the waiting in line at the DMV or the driving periods to and from work? What if our conscious brains could be turned off during such periods? What if something like learning a new language was simply a matter of purchasing the knowledge and having it instantaniously inserted into your brain? Who knows, maybe some day in the future we'll have cybernetic implants and computers in our heads that'll make that sort of thing possible

OMG I would pay to be able to skip waiting in line at the DMV. What a horrible place to be.

Posted by Apocralyptic

@Nonapod: Popular wisdom tells us that every moment of life is a gift, and philosophies like the Buddhist concept of mindfulness say that we should live in the present (even when the present presently sucks). I've often wondered if this is such a great concept, or if we'd be better off with your brain fast-forwarding idea :)

Regardless, I actually thing that smartphones have gotten us a large part of the way there. I know that whenever I'm somewhere I don't want to be, I immediately jump on my iPhone and start browsing.