Real, Fictive and Virtual

3 minute read

The concepts real, fiction and virtual get tossed around pretty casually around game studies. It seems that “virtual” is a lasting favorite, used to rescue any ontologically vague situation by slapping a seemingly clear category on it. The problem is that calling something virtual is far from clear, as the whole category of virtual seems to be a mess of different things only vaguely related to each other.

Fiction is not much better. It might be a useful to understand some kinds of things related to literature, but saying that games are fiction doesn’t clarify the situation much. I think I agree with Aarseth here, and think that games may contain fiction, but they are not fiction. Instead, games are just as real as other things, they just happen to be in a different ontological category. A sword in a MMORPG is a real sword, just not a physical sword.

Discussing these things is not easy, as these terms a very much value-laden. Especially the concept of “real” is often used as a rhetorical device, to value something over something else. Often, the thing being devalued is something related to games, as it is “only virtual,” and as such not as valuable as the real things.

However, the concept of real is not so clear-cut either. Just look at the following categories:

Thomas de Zengotita, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live In It

Some people refuse to believe that reality has become indistinguishable from fabrication. But beliefs are crude reflections of the psychological processes that actually determine how we function. Fat people believe they are on the stocky side. Abject drunks believe they are poetical free spirits. Malicious prudes believe they are selfless do-gooders. And a lot of people still believe that, with some obvious exceptions involving hoaxes and errors, we know what’s real and what’s not. We can tell the difference between the Kursk and the Titanic (meaning the movie, of course), for example.

And maybe we can–when specifically focused on the issue. It might take a while, of course, because there are so many gradations when you stop to think about it. For example:

  • Real real: You fall down the stairs. Stuff in your life that’s so familiar you’ve forgotten the statement it makes.

  • Observed real: You drive by a car wreck. Stuff in your life in which the image-statement is as salient as the function.

  • Between real real and observed real: Stuff that oscillates between the first two categories. Like you’re wearing something you usually take for granted but then you meet someone attractive.

  • Edited real real: Shtick you have down so pat you don’t know it’s shtick anymore, but you definitely only use it in certain situations. Documentaries and videos in which people are unaware of the camera, though that’s not easy to detect, actually. Candid photographs.

  • Edited observed real: Other people’s down-pat shtick. Shtick you are still working on. Documentaries in which people are accommodating the camera, which is actually a lot of the time, probably.

  • Staged real: Formal events like weddings. Retail-clerk patter.

  • Edited staged real: Pictures of the above. Homemade porn.

  • Staged observed real unique: Al kisses Tipper. Survivor.

  • Staged observed real repeated: Al kisses Tipper again and again. Anchor-desk and talk-show intros and segues. Weather Channel behavior.

(In the interests of time, we can skip the subtler middle range of distinctions and go to the other end of the spectrum:)

  • Staged realistic: The English Patient and NYPD Blue.

  • Staged hyperreal: Oliver Stone movies and Malcolm in the Middle.

  • Overtly unreal realistic: S.U.V.’s climbing buildings. Digitized special effects in general, except when they are more or less undetectable.

  • Covertly unreal realistic: Hair in shampoo ads. More or less undetectable digital effects, of which there are more every day.

  • Between overtly and covertly unreal realistic: John Wayne in a beer ad (you have to know he’s dead to know he isn’t “really” in the ad).

  • Real unreal: Robo-pets.

  • Unreal real: Strawberries that won’t freeze because they have fish genes in them.

See? No problem. The differences are perfectly clear.

We could do the same to fiction and virtual and see just how clear the situation is.

Thanks Markus for the literature-tip.