Could Photorealistic Games Be Too Much?
This week, video game publisher Activision was in the news for two seemingly unrelated stories. First, the company announced at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) that it was working on technology that could bridge the so-called Uncanny Valley.
This term was coined by early robotics designer Masahiro Mori in 1970. It essentially describes the range of sophistication in animated graphics, where as human figures at one end look unrealistic and much more like cartoon characters. As animation or rendering moves to the middle it becomes just realistic enough to seem real, but at the same time can be very off-putting for its level of creepiness. A good example of this is the 2004 film Polar Express.
Activision Blizzard announced that it was developing new technology that could get to the other end of the valley and create photorealistic characters. This could mean more realistic experiences in video games, where the gameplay begins to have even more cinematic qualities.
That sounds good for game developers, but the other story where Activision was noted was one regarding Newton school shooter Adam Lanza. The New York Times noted that one person who knew Lanza described him as a, “shut-in and an avid gamer who plays Call of Duty,” a popular first-person shooter published by Activision.
To understand why this is a problem requires going back to understanding the game, and first person shooters in general.
The series, which began a decade ago as a World War II themed action game, has become one of the most successful video game franchises ever. It has spawned numerous sequels. Last fall’s release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 reached $500 million in sales in the first 24 hours.
The game was also being studied for how it could influence future military weapons development, reported FoxNews. It would therefore make sense in that regard that it could benefit from more photorealistic animation.
Video games have long been cited as being a catalyst in these tragic shootings, and while this author will try to remain neutral on the issue, it is worth noting that back at the 1999 Electronic Entertainment Expo, then president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Doug Lowenstein, made a prolific statement. This was just weeks after the tragic school shooting at Columbine, and Lowenstein held up a controller and said that it could no more make you a marksman than it could help you win a NASCAR race.
However, a lot has changed in those 14 years.
Even if there is no connection – and again this writer is taking the neutral ground on this issue – between violent video games and actual acts of violence, a point needs to be addressed; games are not reality. Games are a form of escapism, but what happens when games begin to too closely mirror reality?
If characters can be made to look photorealistic, what does it say about us shooting them? It has been said that many soldiers have a hard time shooting at other soldiers. This author’s great uncle served in World War II and he said in real life it was hard to shoot at the enemy. He wasn’t a coward by any stretch of the imagination; he earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with Valor. Before he passed away in 2008 he had seen the video games and said while he was too old to play them he thought they looked enjoyable. He also said, “War was never easy and it certainly wasn’t fun.”
So, the question is what happens when the graphics start to look less like animations and start to look so real? While troubled people might always do terrible things, the debate over what drives them is only going to heat up. What happens when photorealistic graphics that a developer can create can eventually become photorealistic graphics that can be user generated? Does that mean shooters where gamers can insert their friends – or their enemies?
There is no easy answer to this one. Certainly a more realistic game can create a more immersing experience. The worry is that it could make it a lot easier for shooting at people.
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