Thursday, 7 July 2011

Signs and Symbols In Video Games (A Teabagging Article)

“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth - it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true”
Baudrillard explains in 'Selected Writings' that Simulacra refers to signs and symbols in culture and media that society have become so reliant upon, that we do not realise their existence. A simple example of this is washing one's hands. Experiments have taken place in which people are told to wash their hands, and when approaching the hand basin, both taps are clearly plumbed into the same pipe, and yet nearly everyone tested naturally chose the tap on which was a red ring, rather than the blue ring.
The letters S,W,N,E may mean nothing, but a simple arrangement to N,S,E,W begins to look more familiar, and when arranged into the shape of a plus sign,it becomes obvious to anyone over five years old that this is a compass.
In this article, I plan to use Simulacra and Simulation to demonstrate the societies, subcultures and language surrounding the world of online console-based video games.

In 1947, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray made the world's first interactive electronic game, on a cathode ray tube, in which the player launches 'missiles' at on-screen targets. Many games were designed this way until 1961, when electronic games moved from analogue to digital displays, with 'Spacewar!' being programmed on a DEC PDP-1 computer. This led to more games being created using a raster-scan display so they could be displayed through an average computer or television screen, as this was cheaper and more efficient than previous designs. As the systems became easier to build en mass, gaming moved out of the arcades and into the household, with the first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, being released in May 1972.
Arguably the first truly successful games console, one could argue that was revolutionary, was the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). It sold 60 million units worldwide, the 5th best-selling system of all time.
It was cheaper than anything else on the market at the time, and it's "sequel", the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) led the way practically unchallenged until 1994, when Sony released the Playstation. Gaming had jumped from 8 and 16-bit processing, in which all images are completely two dimensional, with a maximum of 24 simultaneous colours on-screen at one time, and totally monophonic sound, to 64-bit, which could play stereo recordings of real voices, and began the race for total realism in gaming.

During this time, games were still very much single-player entertainment. Occasionally a game would include a second player, but it would be very rare to get any more than two players.
By this point in technological history, the internet was constantly gaining popularity, and by the mid-1990's, desktop computer-based games were starting to be played by connecting to servers, usually amongst around a dozen friends in the same university, or living in the same house. It wasn't until shortly before the Millennium that games were being specifically made to play over external servers with other gamers across the continents.
As the 'MMOFPS and MMORPG' (massive multiplayer online first-person shooter and massive multiplayer online role-playing game) market became more popular on computers, console game-makers were paying attention. Of course, at this point, computers were much faster, and more powerful than consoles, but this was soon to change at the dawn of the millennium. In 2000 and 2001, the 6th generation of games consoles came on the market, all of which featured online play. The Playstation 2, the Xbox and the Gamecube all had the ability to connect, through a modem, to the internet, and play games with anyone else with a connection.
The final generation, considered to be the 7th, came in 2005 and 2006, with the Wii, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. An interesting side-note is that the Wii, manufactured by Nintendo, uses a motion-sensitive control system, rather than the standard button-based controllers, which allows it much more accessibility outside of normal gaming culture, and so is less affected by an online gaming sociological hierarchy.
This 7th generation of games consoles have been more successful regarding online gaming than the past incarnations, because the consoles are much easier to connect, needing only to plug a cable into the wall, without needing to route the connection through a modem and proceed with a fairly advanced setup. This in itself has led to a subculture in online gaming circles, referred to as 'Christmas Kiddies'. This comes from a nickname to newcomers to BBS (Bulletin board systems) in the late 1980s, caused by the fact that many people would get a modem as a Christmas gift, and so after Christmas, the boards would receive a surge of new members, who did not have the experience of older members.
In the modern online console gaming culture, these 'Christmas Kiddies' are also given the name 'n00bs', a derogative form of the slang 'newbie'. Not only does it mean someone who is inexperienced, but more specifically, someone who doesn't realise that their lack of experience affects them, and so pretends to be incredibly good at the game they are playing, and then throw abuse at competitors when they are beaten.
This abusive temperament leads on to a 'buzzword' around video games at this moment in time, violence. Concerned parents the world over are worrying that violent video games will lead their children to violence themselves. This brings in the main simulacrum surrounding video games at the moment, the sense of reality. Video games have not become more violent. 'Frogger' was released in 1981 and shows a frog being run over by a truck. In 1985's 'Super Mario Bros.', your means of attack is to jump up, and use your body weight to crush your opponent! Games have contained guns, crime and death since their conception, remember, the first game ever, as already mentioned, was about launching missiles. The only difference between then and now is that now, after more than 60 years, the deaths on-screen are beginning to look real. When we shoot someone, they no longer dissolve or vanish, instead blood runs down their body, and they slump realistically to the floor. What must be remembered is that this is not death. It is a representation of death, it is a symbol of death. No matter how accurate the representation is, it is no more than that.

Online gaming society deals with 'death' in different ways, depending on the game. Arguably the most popular online multiplayer console game ever, Halo, has developed its own, fairly unique, way of celebrating the slaying of a fellow player. Obviously the characters you portray in the game have been created by a team of designers, and then programmed by a team working on the game, and so, no matter how realistic the game is made, the characters only have a set amount of movements and responses to anything that happens, and so without a microphone or text input, it is very difficult to celebrate victory. In Halo, if you 'kill' another player who has been alive for a long time, and so is very skilled, a l33t or in English, elite player, (the gaming equivalent of a pawn taking a queen) or perhaps the player has been obnoxious, or rude, a payback has been introduced that has become very popular in nearly every online FPS (first person shooter) since. This is called 'teabagging'.
When playing a shooting game, it is beneficial to have a button which makes your sprite (on-screen character) duck, so as less likely to be shot. This has been utilised when playing online so as when you successfully take down the player, you run over to their 'corpse', stand roughly over their head, and then press the 'duck' button repeatedly. This action, on-screen, resembles your character pressing their crotch over and over into the dying opponent's face. This is not mature, this is not clever, but it is a very powerful symbol of defeat, being 'pwn3d' (owned, thoroughly beaten) an online gamer might say. It is the 21st century online equivalent of biting one's thumb at an opponent, simply with a heavier involvement of the testicles.

My conclusion is simple. The more technologically advanced and realistic online games become, the more involved simulacra becomes. The game being played becomes the reality, as, to an extent, it is the reality. The player is playing, the character is following the players commands, there is nothing fake about it. You become the person on-screen, playing other real people. It is a society, and so open to its own symbols, and even its own language.

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