It’s (Not) the Real Thing

[ I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. This one’s from Issue #23, in September 2019. ]


I’ve been playing Fallout 4’s Nuka-World DLC. Hoofing it through postapocalyptica with a customised robot companion and shooting raiders in the face has always been fun, but I was surprised to find that Nuka-World, though vast, actually felt constrictive. It’s a bit like being an ocean tuna transported to a very nice aquarium. It’s chock-full of specially constructed tuna-tainment, but the coral’s all plastic.


Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Nuka-World is in a separate area from the rest of the game. There’s not much interaction between Nuka-World and the Commonwealth. It got me thinking about partitioning in games, and particularly – as I rummaged through another bin full of clinking, thinly-veiled allegories for corporate America – about the partition between games and real life.

Games are at once very separate and very close to the real world. On the one hand, we no longer believe that violent video games encourage actual violence, or that pouring 300 hours into Final Fantasy XV has any demonstrable effect other than reducing the amount of time you spend with your friends. On the other, we see games we’ve been binging behind our eyelids when we go to sleep. Nuka World does have something to say about the emptiness of mass-consumerism. And when I visited the thirteenth-century Duomo in Florence, the first thing I thought was not how glorious and ineffable the architecture was but ‘I climbed that bit as Ezio’.


A number of Black Mirror episodes highlight the uneasy relationship between games and reality. The dystopian plots usually revolve around the negative possibilities of integrated tech, like the rules of relationships in VR or the dangers of using biotech for a responsive user experience. However, you’re reading an article by possibly the world’s only Google Glass fan. So I’d counter that there is so much positive stuff that comes out of merging games and reality, whether that’s encouraging people to exercise with Zombies, Run! or the huge entertainment value in League of Legends’ AR opening ceremonies, or just the spicing up of a tedious commute to work on the tube.

So games seem to be trending towards a more integrated game/reality experience. Oddly, the industry still seems rather separatist. We’re connected to neighbouring industries like film and TV through organisations like BAFTA, but there’s far less overlap than you might expect. Most people outside of the industry, including gamers, have little to no idea how games are made, and most developers know people who Just Don’t Get what the hell we do in our jobs. Operating on our own terms has both good and bad effects: the good is that there’s a lot of new and exciting things going on, while the industry itself is healthy and expanding. The bad is that we don’t yet have the structure to ensure everyone gets treated well, resulting in everything from crunch to low salaries to mistreating each other without much established process to help. 

I suspect the industry will follow its tech and become more connected with the wider world. So I wonder what this will do to its products. Will we see our narratives change, focusing on subtle human dramas rather than fantasy playgrounds? Will tech really trend towards wearables, and will AR defeat VR because it integrates rather than partitions the real and the unreal? I’d guess at least that we’ll see a wider variety of games, as the industry starts incorporating a wider range of influences, with shifting target audiences of complex psychographics rather than ‘RPG fans’ or ‘likes shooters’. Now, though: back to rummaging through bins.

2 comments on It’s (Not) the Real Thing
  1. I remember spending way too much time playing Oblivion, then going out for a walk and spotting a nirnroot! For just a moment I was back inside the game, then of course reality reasserted itself.

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