A room of one’s own

The brain of a gamer

Ever since the lafftastic 1982 Tom Hanks vehicle Mazes and Monsters, social critics have lambasted fantasy games and video games for making kids “unable to tell the difference between a game and reality.” I’ve always thought that is transparently untrue. Indeed, that attitude seems less like an indictment of the brains of gamers than the brains of the critics: The latter are clearly so unaccustomed to using their imaginations in vivid ways that they immediately regard anything fantastical as being too much for the brain to handle. (It’s the same way with the weirdly naive, overenthusiastic reception of The Matrix by clueless mainstream pop critics, who were clearly similarly unaccustomed to talking about even rudimentarily philosophical ideas. “Wow! What if the whole world were an illusion? What a … wild new idea!” <mount high horse> Yeah, well, pal, if you’d looked up once in a while from your diet of toffee-nosed kitchen-meandering literary fiction, Friends and celebrity gossip, you’d notice there’s this thing called science fiction that’s been around for about two hundred years, in which the basic premise of The Matrix is so well-known and well-discussed that it is nearly hackneyed. Oh, and, yeah, while you’re at it, here, you can borrow my copy of The Republic, asshole.)

Anyway. </mount high horse> The point is, I’ve always disagreed that video games render you unable to distinguish reality from a game; the only people who believe that are ones who don’t play games themselves.

However, it is true that games sometimes do some pretty weird things to your sense of perception. Anyone who’s stayed up until 4 am playing a game knows that when you try to lie down at night, you can still see the game: You’re still there, running through the corridors of Halo 2, peering down on the isometric Sims, or watching the Tetris bricks fall through the infinite Euclidean freespace of your brain. And this sometimes happens in waking states, as a story in today’s Wired News points out. The reporter interviewed several gamers to get their weirdest or most embarassing moments of elision between the game world and the real world, including …

After a recent three-day binge of playing the Japanese cult hit video game Katamari Damacy [pictured above], Los Angeles artist Kozy Kitchens discovered that walking away from the game was not as easy as putting down her joystick.

In the game, players push around what amounts to a giant tape ball, attempting to make the ball bigger by picking up any and all objects in its path. Kitchens found that her urge to keep picking things up was not so easy to shake.

I was driving down Venice Boulevard,” recalled her husband, Dan Kitchens, “and Kozy reached over and grabbed the steering wheel and for a moment was trying to yank it to the right…. (Then) she let go, but kept staring out her window, and then looked back at me kind of stunned and said, ‘Sorry. I thought we could pick up that mailbox we just passed.’”

My experience of game/world blending doesn’t work quite like that. I’m more prone to simply think of far-off objects as being more proximal to me — as if I could reach out and touch them, and have them transform into something else, or release their essence, in the sort of Mario-born idea that powerups are locked within everything around you.

I actually think this mental state can be kind of lovely.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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