Reconstruction 6.1 (Winter 2006)


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little gods and little heroes: Hyperreal Ethics in god games and Online Gaming / G. Christopher Williams

Abstract: Media critics, notably Jean Baudrillard, have suggested that the environment of simulations are to be defined as something "more real than the real," or, in his terms, "hyperreal." If hyperrealities are indeed the way that we can define the environment of multimedia technologies like video games, what sorts of ethical considerations should exist in a place that gamers conceive as "more real than the real"? This essay considers what ethical considerations are worth contemplating as gamers begin to take on the roles of gods and heroes in multiplayer video games. The little gods and heroes whose identities gamers have begun to assume have evolved through a long history and experience of single player games. By examining this evolution it becomes clear how these single player experiences have helped to shape how gamers have come to see themselves in relation to the monsters and other non-player characters that they encounter in these games. The perceptions of a long-standing gaming culture continue to define encounters with these "others" that are a part of these gaming worlds as non-ethical –- the player may do as they will. So, how might ethics play themselves out in gaming worlds in which it is no longer pixels driven by limited artificial intelligence that these little gods and little heroes must contend with, but other players hidden somewhere behind the screen? In his discussion of such, Williams interrogates the efficacy Baudrillard and other media theorists hold on the virtual world of gaming in the twenty-first century as well as the deep interaction of real and virtual life.

I - Baudrillard and Radical Negation

<1> There is a scene in the Wachowski Brother's The Matrix (1999) which did not appear in the original script. In the scene, Morpheus, the leader of a rebel band of humans attempting to break the control of machines who have imprisoned these people in a virtual environment, tells Neo, the film's protagonist, that the other victims of the simulated world of the Matrix are for all intents and purposes his enemies. The reason that this scene was added in the final production of the film seems relatively clear. Without this scene, Neo's actions later in the film could only be viewed as entirely deplorable. The Matrix, while eventually coming to create a hybrid relationship between the real and the simulation, initially does create a very clear distinction between the two. The people in the Matrix are real in that while they are existing in a simulated environment their avatars represent real people in the real world. If they die in the simulated environment, their bodies will shut down and die in reality. Without the addition of the scene where Morpheus explains that everyone in the Matrix is an enemy, the thought of Neo and Trinity killing these people en masse, as they do later in the film, would be extremely disturbing. Thus, Morpheus explains to Neo this sense of these people as "villains":

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But, when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters, the very minds of the people we are trying to save. But, until we do, these are still a part of that system and that makes them an enemy. You have to understand most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

These people are innocent and ignorant players in the simulation, but by casting them in the role of the enemy, they become disposable, and Neo's actions become less problematic. The fact that the computer programs called Agents that appear in the Matrix as avatars dressed in black suits and sunglasses can "possess" these people by hijacking people's virtual "bodies" equally obviates the ethical considerations involved. At the same time, though, this justification of Neo's action causes a negation of the referential quality of all avatars in the Matrix itself, beyond himself and his companions. Neo has become the gun platform in the old Atari arcade game, Space Invaders (1978), blasting meaningless pixels, rather than people, to oblivion.

<2> Justifying Neo and Trinity's actions may seem an odd concern, given that so many Hollywood films contain gratuitous violence and high body counts. John Rambo in the Rambo trilogy (1982, 1985, 1988) kills a staggering number of opponents with no need for the justification of this behavior. Nevertheless, the Wachowski brothers seemed compelled to add this scene to do just that. The reason for this seems to be related to the very nature of a simulation like the Matrix. The Rambo films are clearly fantasy narratives, again pure simulation, like Space Invaders, in which death exists in a negatively referential manner. But the nature of The Matrix's themes calls such questions into account in the viewers' minds by clearly marking a distinction between real and simulation. Likewise, Rambo's justifications are embedded in the film itself. He is the hero, they are the villains. Villains and space invaders lack real humanity, thus the audience of The Matrix needs to be cued into the villainous nature of those subject to the Matrix. Killing villains becomes a condonable action because villains lack the referential quality of "humanness" in simulated environments like video games and other simulations like the Rambo films.

<3> Such negation of referentiality is a concept observed by Jean Baudrillard, a social critic whose ideas underlie The Matrix [1]. Indeed, for Baudrillard, in contemporary culture the media that reflects culture have become hypperreal or, as he says in Les Stratégies Fatales (1983), "more real [to us] than the real" (9). The hyperreal that Baudrillard claims that we value, though, is an ontology of radical negation. In "History, A Retro Scenario," he claims that the hyperreal is constituted by images and ideas that are infinitely reproducible but that lack a "real" original and that "they no longer resemble anything, except the empty figure of resemblance, the empty form of representation" (45) [2].

<4> Other media critics would seem to agree with Baudrillard's assertions. Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter (1986) similarly asserts that the "age of media . . . renders indistinguishable what is human and what is machine" (146). Kittler's claims that the "advent of the computer age" signals "the end of history, like nothing else" as humanity becomes subject to the encrypted communications mechanisms that it has created--the human spirit and the now imperceptible human body subsumed into a series of 0s and 1s. Akin to the equation of inhumanity and villainy with a lack of referentiality to the human being seen in The Matrix, Kittler sees within these systems a sense of humans becoming "strange, ugly, unknown, terrible, ghastly, mean, in brief, "nothing" on the screen (150). Both Baudrillard and Kittler seem concerned with how simulation distances humans from meaning based on this crisis of signification that has been signaled by the mediation of technology and human culture.

<5> Such alarmist perspectives are pervasive in the debates concerning current computer and online technology and their potential ramifications. From Sven Birkerts's comments in the Gutenberg Elegies (1994) about a loss of meaning and signification in an electronic age in which "all of the old assumptions are under siege" (3) because "reading and writing come to mean differently" (4) to Clifford Stoll's laments in Silicon Snake Oil (1996) that he misses "the closeness of a real letter or the warmth of a voice across the telephone line" because his "electronic screen just isn't as friendly [as more familiar means of communication]" (79). Most of these arguments concern the fear of a growing artificiality that will separate humanity from the real. There is a growing understanding and fear of the sort of negation of referentiality that new technologies seem to suggest. It seems to me appropriate then to consider the ethics underlying this situation.

<6> In War of the Worlds (1995), Mark Slouka warns that "technological innovation has its own logic, often separate from questions of values and ethics" (15). Slouka, like Birkert and Stoll, fears an inhuman and hyperreferential reality in which meanings associated with human existence, like values and ethics, evaporate. Assuming that Baudrillard's and these others'claims are true, this brings up a number of interesting questions about the evolution of video gaming in a culture so comfortable with simulations.

II - The Roots of Video Gaming

<7> The earliest computer games (barring the very first mass-produced arcade game, Pong [1972], for a moment) tended to be single-player games whose goals were predicated on destroying some opponent. Space Invaders is a particularly good example of this sort of gaming experience, in which a simple horizontally moving gun platform fired upwards to destroy rows of descending aliens. Such an experience really lacks an ethical component. It truly is a simulation with no true referents. Destroying the descending aliens in the game means nothing and lacks a referential value. The player destroys pixels, representing nothing. It is intriguing that these initial games' goals were merely to rack up points. These points would sometimes earn a player an additional life, another chance to kill more aliens, but this reward highlights the particularly meaningless exercise of the game. The reward is an additional chance to kill a foe that has no actual value in order to get the opportunity to earn more lives to continue this potentially endless cycle. Likewise, later games, like Doom (1993), were more complex technologically and more sophisticated in terms of their visual representation; however, players who explored the three-dimensional environment of hallways and corridors of Doom from a first-person perspective found themselves gunning down monsters as they approached, just as players of Space Invaders gunned down the aliens slowly descending toward these players. Goals and values remained relatively unchanged as technology advanced in gaming. Real referents to the opposing enemies simply do not exist in these kinds of simulations.

<8> Multiplayer gaming complicates this equation, though, and suggests the idea that there could actually be a referential quality present in computer gaming opponents. Games like Pong or Atari's Combat (1977) created an antagonistic environment where two players sitting side by side would battle it out to see who could score more points than the other. The tennis- or ping-pong-like Pong, or the battling tanks or airplanes of Combat, lacked the open-ended qualities of games like Space Invaders. A time limit brought the game to an end, offering a clear purpose akin to any sport: the object is to beat your opponent. That opponent could be clearly seen, though. He or she was clearly real as you sat next to one another pushing joysticks and mashing buttons. In fact this physicality reminds the player clearly of the distinction between real and simulation, both in terms of knowing that each tank in Combat represented a player and his or her opponent on the battlefield, but also that the space invaders faced in a single-player game were merely pure simulations that lacked real referents. For the early video gamer, those opponents that were unseen were clearly referents to nothing.

<9> As players could distinguish between the real and the simulation through physical presence (the opponent or player next to the them as opposed to the opponent or non-player character on the screen), the advent of online gaming and a virtual environment based on the interaction of avatars is problematized given the principle of the unseen opponent. The distancing effect afforded by the Internet only complicates this matter, as not only is there no fellow player sitting immediately next to an opponent, but, in general, there is no sense of the physical location of other players at all. The effect of this dislocation is not unlike observations about the evolution of warfare. There is a decidedly different sense of the humanity of your opponent as you stab him through the gut with a sword and feel his blood warmly trickle across your fist than there is in pressing a button to launch missles that kill thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people hundreds of miles away at a location probably only remotely known on a map.

<10> However, before jumping fully into the ramifications of what this "Space Invaders mentality" might mean, it is important to note that this destructiveness is only a single aspect of single-player gaming. There are other goals in games and the ability to create is as prevalent in gaming as the ability to destroy. Indeed, the desire to create and the act of creation in simulations has allowed players to take on the role of gods in the activity of "simming." Sims--or the aptly titled subgenre of these games, the god game--came into being considerably later in video gaming history than the simple shooters, like Space Invaders or Combat. I will begin and end my examination of these games with those created by the pioneer of god games, Peter Molyneux.

III – The god games

i - Populous

<11> Molyneux's first immensely popular game, Populous (1989), put the player in the role of a god. This god was not represented by an avatar on the screen. Instead, the perspective of the player-god is a kind of third-person omniscient viewpoint that allows the player overlooking an empty ocean to manipulate land and the people that he or she will generate later in the game. The lack of an avatar is significant in creating this omniscient viewpoint. The aforementioned Doom also did not allow the player to see him- or herself, but the perspective looking out on a world from the height of a person's own eyes, coupled with the clear interaction of creatures and environment with the player, make the player clearly aware that the avatar is intended to be presented from a first-person perspective. Likewise, the overhead, side-scrolling, or three-dimensional perspective of the player's avatar or avatars (if the player controls a team of characters) smacks of a kind of third-person limited perspective, allowing the player to view his or her avatar or avatars objectively while still limited to the perspective of that character or those characters alone. The perspective in Populous is very much akin to the narrator-god of the Victorian narrative or James Joyce's objective artist-god paring his fingernails in the background of the drama. The player-god has control of the environment and his or her perspective, moving smoothly around the game world without being affected "physically" by the world beneath him- or herself.

<12> Instead, the player in Populous is given a toolbar with which to manipulate the world beneath him or her, again, creating land in the waters of his or her world (in clear parallel to the God of Genesis whose bodiless spirit first moved across the surface of an expanse of water before creating the land) and then populating it with his or her followers. The object of the game is antagonistic. A rival god (also unseen) creates lands and followers at some other place in the gaming environment, and eventually these followers and the followers of the opposing god will meet and one group must conquer the other, killing or converting the opposing side's followers, leaving a single god to reign over that piece of reality; the object of Populous is to create and then possess the simulated reality of the gaming world. This objective is crucially important to understanding the manner in which gamers approach the worlds they enter through games, but an understanding of this purpose through a game like Populous lacks the more complex relationship between real and simulation that can be found in newer games. These observations will suffice, though, to serve as a kind of metaphor for the impetus to create and possess ontologies and certainly represents one of the first clear efforts in this medium to acknowledge that desire within the culture and to attempt to capitalize on it.

ii – Black &White

<13> More significant blurrings of the boundaries of real and simulation can be found in Molyneaux's most recent god game. While the game Black & White (2001) does return to the antagonistic creation and conquest model of gaming within its fantasy setting of the world of Eden, many of its features are so purposefully designed to break down the boundary between real and simulated world that it is tremendously more "real" than the environment of The Sims.

<14> In Black & White, the player takes on the role of a god who, while overlooking the world in a manner similar to the perspective of a game like Populous, also controls a creature that performs surrogate actions for the god, an avatar. At once, the god must build and develop the lands within his or her control, but at the same time must train and utilize this creature to help with micromanagement of villages, farmlands, and people. The creature has an astounding artificial intelligence, which allows it to learn both through a reward and punishment system and through observation of the player-god's actions.

<15> The first method of training a creature creates a tension between reality and simulation as the mouse pointer, shaped like a hand, is used to stroke the creature slowly when it does something appropriate or, by moving the mouse more rapidly, to "slap" the creature, punishing its inappropriate behavior. The mouse becomes a tool acting as an extension of the physical hand. The hand physically performs the onscreen action. Likewise, by gesturing with the hand the god is able to cast spells. By tracing the shape of a heart with the mouse, the god heals the creature or villagers in the game, whereas making a "W" motion creates a water "miracle" of rainfall to nourish crops and trees. Again, this parallel behavior signals a strange lack of distinction between the real and the simulation. As a reviewer of the game, Li C. Kuo, describes in PC Gamer, "I loved the gesturing system because it made me feel like I was actually performing magic" (53).

<16> The spell-casting system, though, brings us to the second method of training the creature in the game, which equally, if not more thoroughly, suggests the dissolution of the boundaries of the game world and the player's world. The creature is able to observe the gestures of the player-god as the god attempts to cast spells and will mimic the gesture with its own hand. With practice, the creature will learn how to cast spells both effectively and at appropriate times through observation. This behavior is one of the most thoroughly hyperreal encounters designed in a computer simulation, as the simulation under observation and control suddenly turns its gaze outward, "learning" from the physical/simulated act of the player's gestures.

<17> This kind of interaction with a creature that can learn and whose behavior can be modified through conditioning may seem mechanical, but that mechanization is softened by the personality traits of the creature. The creature will react to situations, emoting anger, sadness, and happiness as it goes about its daily activities (indeed, with training the creature will go about these activities without intervention on the part of the player-god). These reactions signal personality, and, again, the observations recorded in the review mentioned earlier show the depth of the real connection between the player and this simulated "pet": "Eventually, you'll feel a bond with your creature, almost as if he were a real pet" (54).

<18> The creature's very appearance will reflect its personality as well, its features changing as it begins to reflect the player-god's game-play style. For it is in this representation that the game derives its name, Black & White. The player may choose to train his creature to manage the god's domain through positive activities (healing villagers, fertilizing fields with its own waste, dancing with villagers to improve morale, and to increase the player-god's magical power through ritualistic worship) or negative activities (eating villagers, destroying buildings, and defiling water supplies and temples with its own waste), and his or her creature's appearance will coincide with that behavior (growing more lovable and cute through positive behavior or more feral as it performs negative actions). In essence, the player-god can rule a people through the creature's compassionate or terrifying aspect, and the game's name suggests an ethical component to both concepts. But, at the same time, any ethical component that might be implied by favoring black over white or white over black is negated by the nature of the game itself. If the goal of the game is simply to "win," either option is an equally viable way to do so. Ultimately, as god, the player is not subject to any kind of judgment or consequences: regardless of whether his or her creature becomes a loving and compassionate friend to the player's subjects, or a twisted horror that enacts the wrath of the player-god, the problems the player is to solve can still be satisfactorily resolved.

<19> The experience of Black & White becomes an experience not merely familiar to the player, like that of The Sims, but one in which the player's physical environment and physical actions are seemingly literally represented. One option within the game allows a player using a computer that is currently online to customize weather settings that will cause the game to seek out websites with local weather information, which are then mimicked in the game's environment. Thus, while the player plays god, the simulated environment parallels the real environment. Environmental changes, the physicality of spell-casting, and the interaction with the player's creature have physical referents. Players are immersed in the game's environment through their very real gestures to cast spells and because the gaming environment's climate mirrors their own real-life climate. Their actions, though, exhibit only negated referents to moral or ethical aspects of human action. Being black or white makes no difference.

IV – The Ethics of Online Gaming

<20> The implications of these ideas become significantly more complex as we look to the addition of avatars that exhibit both real and godlike capabilities in the simulation. Given the manner in which simulation has grown through single-player gaming, my analysis of multiplayer gaming and how avatars interact with one another will continue to focus on these ethical concerns and particularly the ramifications of placing the player in the position of a sort of god through narrative creation and possession of that narrative. While many of these online narratives are not under the complete control of the player, the ability of the player to gain control over game narrative continues to grow as games are packaged with world-building tools. Such tools allow a player the ability to script levels or environments within which the player (now become a game's narrator) or others can become the central figure or figures within an environment of their own design. In addition to these world-building tools, dynamic gaming environments increase the effects that players themselves can have on a world that they choose to participate in and interact with.

<21> I wish to focus now on those dynamically changing environments and what they can mean in regard to this larger issue of ontological possession in the simulation through a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called Asheron's Call (1999). An MMORPG is generally seen as a virtual setting (usually a fantasy setting) in which players take on the roles of heroes who fight monsters, battle one another, and perhaps practice some trade skills (for example, alchemy, archery, and fletching in Asheron's Call) in order to improve their characters' skills, attributes, and status. These aspects of the game are not unlike paper-and-pencil role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, but, unlike those games, which might involve three to maybe a dozen characters playing a given scenario under the control of a game master who has scripted the adventure, these games allow for thousands of players to interact in a single world with no game master guiding their tale. The first of these games were textually based, but, as technology improved and connection speeds were enhanced, games like The Realms (1994), Neverwinter Nights (1991), and Meridian 59 (1995) surfaced, allowing a few hundred players to interact in a graphical environment. Not until the advent of Ultima Online in 1997 did these games begin to grow to populations in the thousands. PC gamers were attracted to Ultima because of its familiar title [3], but, additionally, technology had again improved to facilitate such a large number of users to play together in a single persistent world. The problem with these games from the perspective of narrativity is that they were static. The world was generated and players created online personas to interact with that environment, but that environment would not change.

<22> With the release of Asheron's Call in November of 1999, virtual worlds suddenly became dynamic. Asheron's Call is "patched" on a monthly basis (and occasionally more often) with updates to content, including the addition of new monsters, seasonal changes, and natural disasters. These changes are an effort on the designer's part to create a dynamic realism (in terms of seasonal changes and natural disasters) as well as an evolving story in an online gaming world, for attacks by creatures on towns could result in the destruction of a town, the death of an important Non-Player Character (NPC), and the victory of the forces of order over chaos or vice versa. There is a tension, of course, between the plotted narrative and player actions (for the plot to go in the direction the designers intended, certain events must occur), but it creates a sense of the potential for players to impact their world. Indeed, many of the games currently in the planning stages will allow an even greater fluidity between player actions and the narrative, sketching out the opening chapters of plot and then scripting later chapters as game designers see how players choose to act and react to the plot.

<23> At once acted upon as well as agents within the world, players of a dynamic game of this magnitude find themselves within a tremendously realistic and even familiar environment that adds to the simulation a real sense of purpose that more static simulated environments do not allow. In Ultima Online and Everquest, while players aspire to higher levels and increased skills, the purpose of the games becomes akin to that of Space Invaders, racking up points to grow stronger in order to rack up more points. In Asheron's Call, and its successors, the potentiality to become a kind of "little god" or "little hero" becomes more possible because the environment is subject to the players' actions, just as the players are subject to it. Its players make more of their world, and that world makes more of them.

<24> This notion of the reciprocal relationship between real and simulation within the context of online worlds is different from the ideas presented in films like The Matrix. This form of the simulation of history and reality suggests not pure possession of the simulation and reality, but an environment quite similar to that of reality itself. However, there is still some sense of possession inherent in becoming a hero in these simulated worlds and through the relationship between players and their own avatars. In a document on The Zone (the site that hosts Asheron's Call) are several interesting records of experiences that player's had near the end of the closed beta-testing phase of Asheron's Call [4]. Many of these documents concern events surrounding an "apocalypse party" that occurred prior to a necessary "server wipe" during the prerelease testing of the game. This server wipe would delete all previous character data that had been stored on the server up to that point. In other words, characters who had been developed up until that point in the beta test would be destroyed. One of these documents called "Apocalypse Party Chat Log" is a lengthy "recording" of chat just prior to the servers being brought down for this maintenance. The chat log describes an odd ritualistic gathering of beta-testers that formed in an effort to deal with the trauma of having their virtual identities stripped from them. In this transcript of in-game chat, jokes and ritualism intertwine as one of the players generates a priest to conduct a kind of funeral rite in reaction to their creators' decision to do away with them. Another of these documents is called "Shreck's Final Hour," the story of one individual's reactions to the server wipe, the apocalypse party, and a seeming moment of escape from the wrath of the "gods."

<25> While I have been increasingly vague about defining simulation and real-- particularly in the Baudrillardan paradigm that I have cast them in--this vagueness occurs when parts of the simulation seemingly having real referents while others blur into the hyperreal negation that Baudrillard suggests is our sense of reality in this Age of Simulation. I would like to critique Baudrillard's claims to some degree, and this material will illustrate that critique.

V – Baudrillard and Radical Negation Revisited

<26> I contend that not only does the simulation have the potential for radically negating real referents--as in my example of Space Invaders and The Matrix--but at the same time it often calls attention to real referents in a very meaningful way. Witness Shreck's observation about the "end of the world party": "I know it's just a video game, but there was something very human in this final gathering in which we were all about to watch our characters pass into oblivion." Certainly oblivion is the fate of the avatars who would be wiped from the server permanently--yet there was a very real sense of loss in this gathering, something Shreck defines as "very human." I think that this sense of "humanness" can be located in the players' acknowledgement of separation and its equivalency to death and oblivion. Shreck's descriptions of loss focuses on his lack of the ability to communicate with his fellows and how his fleeting moments of "eternal life" are ones in which he is still capable of speaking:

"Why is everyone so quiet?" The message registered in the chat window. Surely someone would answer. No one did. It seemed Shreck had somehow been missed in the wipe and was going to live on forever.

And how Shreck ceases to exist when a literal communication connection is lost: "'Server Connection Lost.' Dereth [the fictional world] had disappeared and, 'poof,' Shreck was gone."

<27> But, it is more than this parallel between communications and death that is very simply "human" about the whole scenario. Reading through the chat log of the "end of the world party," it is easy to find in it both humor and a very serious human ritual performed to prepare for coming oblivion and the potential separation of Shreck and others, not from a host of avatars lacking a referent, but clearly from and for people who will be missed: "There were dozens of farewell wishes and promises to meet again in the next life. Epsilon and I will certainly meet up again and fight on in the new Dereth." The ritual is, as any human ritual normally is, supremely referential and symbolic, with references to both religious texts and science fiction narratives that refer to this little death, this communication disconnect. The shedding of clothing as an offering and the calls to the "gods" (both the character Asheron from whom the game takes its name and to administrators of the game--referents to both simulated and real "gods" of this world) all carry appropriately symbolic references to a real apocalypse in which avatars will be destroyed, players will be separated from one another, and items of value will be lost.

<28> This last observation may be an odd one, considering that the virtual equipment lost is seemingly without a real referent, yet a few minutes' glance at eBay will show that items and equipment in online games have a very real monetary referentiality and value [5]. This may seem absurd as money itself is referential in nature, but in America it refers no longer to gold and silver but to human activity. Money is representative of some work that has been performed. Frankly, even when money was claimed to have been representative of gold or silver in the United States, that gold and silver also acted as representations of those activities.

<29> Thus, someone in an online game who steals an object from someone else and attempts to justify such action as "role-playing a thief" is making an absurd claim. An object with a marketable value has been stolen. Role-playing in this sense is not merely "pretending," as such a justification would seem to suggest. The victim of such theft does not lack a real referent as would be the case in a pure simulation. It is perhaps in this space that we can most clearly see the danger of those who have fallen prey to the distancing effect that a simulation can perpetuate in the mind of it's user. Such actions suggest a belief in the negation of referents of hyperreality (perhaps because of the imaginary qualities of the environment that they exist in) in order to justify a behavior that is clearly unethical.

<30> Yet, players of such games seem resistant to the idea of a negation of ethics. The events described in Julian Dibbell's influential article on the creation of law in a simulated environment, "A Rape in Cyberspace," serves to highlight how ethics grow necessary to those creating and taking part in simulations of this sort. Dibbell's subtitle, "How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society," punctuates the hyperreality of such situations. Dibbell's narrative of the events concern how a MOO (a Multi-User Dungeon, Object-Oriented; a text based predecessor of MMORPGs) sprang up on the Internet in 1993 that intended to allow its visitors full freedom of expression with no rules of governance or discipline. When a user called Mr. Bungle discovered that he could hack the system and speak for people through a simulated voodoo tool--making them speak his words and not their own--the members of the MOO had to reconsider their feelings about an anarchist society and soon discussions were underway on whether or not Mr. Bungle should be "toaded," a slang term for deletion. Mr. Bungle's actions compelled a MOO to simulate further by generating more complex structures of governance. These considerations about ethical repercussions demonstrate that such situations in the simulation provoke a confrontation with reality. The simulation is made eminently more real than it ever was before by creating very real social structures out of very real communities.

<31> It is unsurprising perhaps, that Dibbell's descriptions of his MOO take on more and more realistic and less fantastic qualities as his narrative of the Mr. Bungle incident progresses, since the environment of the MOO was indeed becoming more real. Note the physical sensations described by Dibbell within a room created by a user named Evangeline as the members of the MOO met to discuss the problem of Mr. Bungle's actions:

Peaking in number at around 30, this was one of the largest crowds that ever gathered in a single LambdaMOO chamber, and while Evangeline had given her place a description that made it "infinite in expanse and fluid in form," it now seemed anything but roomy. You could almost feel the claustrophobic air of the place, dank and overheated by virtual bodies, pressing against your skin. I know you could because I too was there, in one of those pivotal accidents of personal history one always wants later to believe were approached with a properly solemn awareness of the moment's portent.

Dibbell's acknowledgement of a "physical" experience of the simulated environment allows us to realize that his responses to a simulation have moved far beyond abstraction. It is this level of reaction that permeates a growing sense of the reality of the simulation. Mr. Bungle's ultimate deletion became equivalent to a very real termination of existence, or, too not to be so euphemistic, a very real death.

<32> Such a concept may seem truly absurd; yet, artifice is innately human, as rhetoricians throughout the ages have attempted to demonstrate, and as more recently developed academic fields like sociology have reiterated when making claims about how performance is a natural human behavior [6]. Human interaction has always been simulated and artificial. Creating avatars or masks for ourselves under appropriate circumstances is really not a new human behavior. We all have an avatar that represents us when we are with our families, at our jobs, at a social gathering, etc. In this, Baudrillard's claims seem to be somewhat alarmist, considering how natural simulation is to human life [7]. I do not think that Baudrillard's claims can be seen that simply, however, because the distancing effect of the simulation from reality has a real potential to create the delusion of the hyperreal in an environment clearly referential, yet at the same time human beings are more than used to dealing with artificial representation and signs in dealing with one another. I believe in some way that the behaviors of the players in the Asheron's Call beta in part substantiate the claim that people do recognize the meaningful referentiality inherent in online avatars. Despite the masking and distancing effects of the simulation, they still recognize the "humanness" of other players.

<33> In Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle quotes a player of online and offline games who is comparing the roles that he played in these two different types of games: "Nintendo has a good . . . [game] where you can play four characters. But even though they are very cool . . . they are written up for you." Turkle comments that the player recognizes how these characters "seem artificial" in the Nintendo game in contrast to online games which the player sees as "for real" because "there is nothing written up." Turkle concludes that this player "feels free" in an online environment and that for him "MUDs [Multi-User Dimensions] are 'for real' because you make them up yourself" (236). It seems to me that the player's observations about the difference between the two gaming experiences suggest a subtle and probably unconscious recognition on the player's part of the humanness of an avatar designed to represent the self. The characters in the Nintendo game represented human beings--human beings physically sitting in the same room with each other around a television--enabling them to recognize the relationship between themselves and their avatars. I think that Turkle's player does not merely see MUDs being "for real" simply because he has made them up himself, though. That would actually reveal a slippage on his part between his sense of what is real and what is imaginary. What it seems to me that he is recognizing is how a prewritten character is fictional, but an avatar is "for real" because it is an extension of the self. The online avatar is designed to represent the human in another environment and has an identity based on the player's choices or what the player "writes up." It becomes "more real" because it does tend to reflect the personality of the player who has designed it rather than simply being a static and fated character in a video game narrative.

<34> In other words, for this player, the avatar does have referential qualities despite all the distancing effects of the online world or becoming a being composed not of a body, but of a series of 0s and 1s. In an interview with Matthew Griffin and Susanne Herrmann, even Kittler who fears the disappearance of the body in such code has acknowledged the meaningful activity of creation on "the screen":

Have you ever had the experience that what you write on paper actually happens? When you program a computer, something is constantly happening. It's almost like magic. You write something, strike "enter," and then what you just wrote, happens.

This connection between action and outcome, acting and "happening" reveals the meaningfulness of the symbolic activity of creation and representation. Kittler is seeing the supposed "nothing" on the screen, not as nothing, but as a "happening." The problem that underlies Kittler's prior statements as well as Baudrillard and other critics of technology is grounded in an assumption of the radical negation of signification.

<35> This crisis of signification that plagues poststructuralist thought is brilliantly handled by Umberto Eco in The Limits of Interpretation (1990) as he discusses the possible interpretation of a letter received by the wrong person that contained the statement, "In this Basket brought by my Slave there are 30 Figs I send you as a Present" (2). While Eco is willing to question whether the meaning of the statement could be interpreted in a multitude of ways due to the seperation of the statement from its utterer and even an inappropriate receiver, he falls back on the common sense notion that "[i]t can mean many things, but there are are senses that would be preposterous to suggest" and further that "I thus assume that Everyman would first say that a fig is a kind of fruit" (6). Eco's point about signification is adequate to undermine the basic premise on which Baudrillard and Kittler ground their claims. Radical negation is based on the notion that meaning is infinite. When meanings become infinite, obviously nothing means anything because signs can no longer be understood. They mean nothing. The compelling necessity of such obvious constraints on the meaning of signs reveals the lack of crisis in signification and meaning--hence, my desire to show how ethics and values can be and should be placed on artificial bodies and identities.

<36> As these examples from online gaming show, people recognize the symbolic aspect of their avatars. They recognize the humanity that is referred to by the sign. They do so despite the artificiality of the symbol. Indeed, by nature, symbols are artificial. The problem seems to be in how one views the simulation: as Baudrillard fears, becoming more real than the real, or as an environment of artifice, in which case the simulation should be treated as an ethical environment that is just as real as the real.

Works Cited

"Apocalypse Party Chat Log." MSN Zone. 18 August 2001. http://www.zone.com/asheronscall/news/ASHEnewsapoclog.asp

---. "Apocalypse Party on 6/29/99." MSN Zone. 18 August 2001. http://www.zone.com/asheronscall/news/ASHEnewsapocalypse.asp

Asheron's Call. CD-ROM. Westwood, MA: Turbine, 1999.

Baudrillard, Jean. "History: A Retro Scenario." Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Nicola Dufrense. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.43-48.

---. Les Stratégies Fatales. Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle, 1983.

---."The Precession of Simulacra." Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Nicola Dufrense. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.2-42.

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Black & White. CD-ROM. Redwood, CA: Electronic Arts, 2001.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "Of Exactitude in Science." 1960. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998. 325.

Combat. Cartridge. San Francisco: Atari, 1977.

Doom. Diskette. Mesquite, TX: id Software, 1993.

Eco, Umberto. The Limits of Interpretation. Indiana UP, 1990.

Everquest. CD-ROM. San Diego: Verant, 1999.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

Griffin, Matthew and Susanne Herrmann. "Technologies of Writing: An Interview with Friedrich Kittler." New Literary History 27 (1996): 731-742. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/new_literary_history/v027/27.4griffin02.html

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.

Haynes, Cynthia. "prosthetics_rhetoric@writing.loss.technology." Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet. Eds. Todd Taylor and Irene Ward. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. 79-91.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. 1986. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wurtz. Stanford UP, 1999.

Kuo, Li C. "Black & White." PC Gamer. June 2001: 52-54.

The Matrix. Dirs. Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski. Warner Brothers, 1999. 17 April 2001. http://bellarmine.lmu.edu/~jkasmith/phil160/matrix.txt

Meridian 59. CD-ROM. Hong Kong: Archetype Interactive, 1995.

Neverwinter Nights. Diskette. Alexandria, VA: America Online, 1991.

Park, Robert Ezra. Race and Culture. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1950.

Pong. Video Game System. San Francisco: Atari, 1972.

Populous. Diskette. Redwood City, CA. Electronic Arts, 1989.

The Realms. Diskette. Oakhurst, CA: Sierra, 1994.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Shreck. "Shreck's Final Hour." MSN Zone. 18 August 2001. http://www.zone.com/asheronscall/news/ASHEnewsshreck.asp

Slouka, Mark. War of the Worlds. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

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Notes

[1] Baudrillard's book, Simulacra and Simulation, actually appears briefly in an early scene in the movie and Morpheus quotes Baudrillard's essay "The Precession of Simulacra" (1981) from that book almost verbatim when he welcomes Neo to the "desert of the real." This phrase is Baudrillard's own description of the barrenness of the real in contemporary culture. In describing Jorge Luis Borges's "Of Exactitude in Science" (1960) as a "fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory [of the world] exactly," Baudrillard is able to explain metaphorically his view of the primacy of simulation over the real in contemporary culture: "Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory--precission of the simulacra--that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself" (2). This desert motif is likewise borrowed from Borges's fable, but interestingly, he has inverted that image. It is the real that rots away, not the map as in Borges's story: "In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unsconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography" (325). The Wachowski brothers appear to adopt this same inversion of Borges's theme, which seems fitting in a film so obsessed with inverting traditional thematics. [^]

[2] Word processing is a marvelous example of this concept, as originals of documents no longer exist in electronic form--instead just an infinitely replicated model of a paper or story or poem exists. Even a first draft is quickly subsumed into the binary coding of computers as a file is closed on a computer, only to reemerge as a reproduction when it is opened on disk or computer desktop. [^]

[3] The Ultima series consists of nine single-player games published over the past two decades. [^]

[4] A beta test is performed following the initial testing of a piece of software by the company that designed it. In a beta test, the game is released to testers outside the company (usually unpaid volunteers) who play the game in order to test it for bugs and other problems. These "betas" are sometimes released as downloads available to anyone to try out (an open beta test), but usually only after a smaller, more limited group of testers have play-tested the software for a period of time (a closed beta test). "Shreck's Final Hour" occurred in the closed phase of beta testing for Asheron's Call. [^]

[5] As I write this note in February 2002, there is a pack of 24 Singularity Keys available on eBay for a minimum bid of $15.00, a Diamond Shield for $40.00, and even a level-92 Mage character for $400.00. All of these "items" are virtual objects or characters that exist only on the servers which host Asheron's Call. A quick perusal of the "Internet Games" section of eBay at any given time will yield a host of similar items available for a number of online games. [^]

[6] I am thinking here in particular of the work of sociologists like Robert Ezra Park or Erving Goffman who concern themselves with the nature of performance as a natural group behavior. In The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold claims that "the authenticity of human relationships is always in question in cyberspace, because of the masking and distancing of the medium, in a way that is not in question in real life" (147). While this observation may seem intuitively accurate, given sociological claims about how human beings typically mask themselves from one another and distance themselves through cultural signifiers like clothes, cars, etc., cyberspace seems little more than a new venue for an older pattern of artificially mediated human interaction. In Race and Culture (1950), Park observes that the etymology of the word "person" reflects the artificiality of identity: "It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition that everyone is always and everywhere, playing a role" (249). Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) is almost a proof of this thesis as it examines human interaction as "performance." This performance is defined by what Goffman calls "the front." This social mask is one that he claims we all create in social situations, or, as he puts it, the front is "that part of the individual's performance which regularly functions in general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those that observe the performance" (22). He goes on to categorize various other aspects of the front, including what he calls "appearance" and "manner." Goffman says that appearance refers "to those stimuli which function at the time to tell us of the performer's social status," while manner refers "to those stimuli which function at the time to warn us of the interaction role the performer will be expected to play in the oncoming situation." Thus, the front can consist of a variety of both artificial and natural stimuli, including "insignia of office and rank; clothing; sex, age, and racial characteristics; size and looks; posture; speech patterns; facial expressions; bodily gestures; and the like" (24). As I suggest these ideas are strikingly similar to classical notions of rhetoric in which the ethos of a speaker is determined by similar natural and artificial stimuli in terms of a rhetorical performance. In both rhetoric and modern theories of performance we find an acknowledgement of the naturalness of the artificial trappings of identity and the need for them in human interaction. [^]

 

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