“Play, Games and Disappearing Reality”
Published: March 13, 2010


Considering Play was co-written by Eric Zimmerman, the biggest Ludic Century advocate I know, the short film presents a remarkably ambivalent vision of the future of gaming. Almost nothing in the film is clear, and it revels in this ambiguity to good effect. The viewer is left with space to play with the plot even after multiple viewings. I’ve seen it three times and still can’t figure out who the protagonist is, what the game being depicted is, or what kind of “real” world the film is set in. And all that, maybe, is the point.

Play is a film featuring virtual reality games. Each scene turns out to be a game played by a player character in another game. Each time the viewer thinks she’s watching the player end a game, the world starts to come undone, and the supposed player is revealed to be yet another avatar in another challenge. The film opens with a GTA-esque urban rampage game followed by a Japanese school girl pillow fight fantasy. Higher levels include a man in a restaurant meeting a series of blind dates trying to discern the proper opening lines and a senator navigating an onslaught of pushy reporters questioning him about various scandals.

The film takes a confusing turn, however, when in the next scene we see a woman lying on a psychiatrist’s couch describing her experiences in the different game sequences we just watched. In this situation, however, it’s the psychiatrist who is now the player, selecting appropriate questions from a digital clipboard.

Eventually he prescribes the woman a placebo and moves on to play his own video game. As he looks through his game cartridges we see a number of titles that clearly identify the games seen earlier in the film. It’s a confusing moment. Was he the player all along and his patient merely referenced games he’d played, or are these simply common games which the patient was struggling with and which he also plays?

Eventually a little boy wearing a cowboy hat and sheriff’s badge who seems to be a VR game Clippy the paperclip enters and hands the psychiatrist a game labeled “Exit.” Playing it, the psychiatrist emerges into a beautiful green forest as a young woman, and wanders past all the characters from past games (and a cameo by Eric) sitting in wooden chairs with flashing lights on their foreheads apparently playing some kind of VR game.

She encounters herself also playing a game like this, they make eye contact, and then Sheriff Clippy appears again to give her a glass of water and congratulate her on making it to the next level. The film ends with the same hard driving techno music that played during the opening GTA game and the Senator level. The viewer is left puzzled.

I really appreciate the well thought out subtleties in this film. In the opening GTA scene the camera angle just behind the hooligan character—whose face we never see—is clearly referential of a video game perspective. The hooligan comes upon a baseball bat lying on the sidewalk oddly lit by a spotlight, and then walks through the street carrying it at that awkward outstretched angle that video game characters do. After the character is maced and the level ends, the screen goes dark and a menu appears with the options to play or end the game.

We see “play” is selected and then watch a Japanese girl removes a VR helmet. The first viewing I didn’t notice this, but the second time it’s a clear indication that we’re not yet in reality. The scene with the Japanese girls is equally odd. It’s a bunch of girls in a white brightly lit loft basically empty except for a large bed and pillows. It’s a completely unnatural setting and yet perfectly video game-esque.

I also appreciate that Play represents a range of game types. The GTA game is violent and transgressive fantasy, while the pillow fight game is sexual and plays with gender identity fantasies. The next three games are all training games, from the personal dating sim to the professional Senator and psychiatry games. If we understand Play as depicting one giant game, than it is a full life sim, albeit one that takes place in multiple personas. To succeed, the player must navigate a broad range of contexts through a variety of identities. It’s a fascinating idea.

We also see a variety of experiences with video games, including many that are unpleasant. In the pillow fight game, one girl sits on the bed crying while the other girls wail on her, which reminds me of Eric’s game SiSSYFiGHT 2000. Maybe she’s just an NPC or maybe she’s another player in a multiplayer game. In the Senator game, the player is visibly agitated at the end, overwhelmed and fighting to get out of the game. “I’m not enjoying this!” he calls desperately. The final scene in the woods shows at least one player on the verge of tears while others laugh giddily.

The patient in the psychiatrist’s office asks questions that apply as much to our current world as to the games she’s discussing, and can be seen as responding directly to Jesse Schell’s vision of the future. “Always some task to do. Never enough time,” she laments. “What do we do with all these points? What do we win?” This is the hell I think Jesse Schell described at DICE, a world lacking intrinsic motivation, all actions driven by the quest for meaningless points.

I’m also reminded of an article about video game addiction from Cracked.com, which periodically tumbles into juvenility, but is basically sound. I think video game addiction gets over hyped by critics, but when you have parents neglecting their own children to the point of death while caring for virtual children, there is clearly something powerful and dangerous about immersive interactive worlds.

The Cracked.com article describes how some game designers (cognitive psychologists really) make games like WoW into virtual Skinner Boxes to keep players engaged beyond all rational limits. The result is obsessive playing to the detriment of other aspects of their lives. I see hints of this in Play. The Senator character goes from enjoying his game to desperately trying to exit it, the psychiatry patient considers the suffocating futility of game play but makes no indication she will stop playing—instead gratefully accepting pharmaceuticals as a solution—and the psychiatrist selects a game called “Exit” only to continue to the next level when given the option to stop.

In the end, I wondered who the protagonist really is. Is she the woman we see in the last scene, or is that just one more skin obtained because she pre-ordered the game or earned enough achievement points? Even more intriguing for me, though, is what is the real world like? Is this the Matrix, and outside is desolation and robot holocaust? Is this the future of school, and humans live/play games 24 hours a day until age 18? It is notable that these games depict such banal experiences. It’s true that dating sims are popular in Japan, and we have Cooking Momma and other “everyday” games, but in general the video game world is populated by impossible fantasy. By and large, players want to be epic characters like Solid Snake or Kratos or mustachioed Italian plumbers. In what kind of world would games about being a psychiatrist predominate?

Like all good science fiction, Play succeeds by creating a world that uses the exotic to illuminate unseen facets of the familiar. In some ways, we already live in the world of Play, and always have. There has never been a stout barrier between fantasy and reality. The words of the bards, the scenes in our imaginations, shape-shifting memories, and physical truths all commingle to make reality like painted dots in a pointillist landscape. How real was Holden Caulfield to me when I was 15? More real than most adults I met. How well have I known comic book heroes? Better than the average US Magazine reader knows Angelina Jolie, I’d wager. And how tangible are the processes of our federal government to most people? Those systems are known more by hearsay than by observation, and that hearsay can both give and take power away from those systems.

In Play, we never see an objective reality, and perhaps there never was one. It’s like a postmodern ludic Rashomon where it’s not clear who’s a player and who’s an NPC, let alone what’s “really” happening. Maybe in the future, games will mingle with reality to such a degree that each of us may identify not so much as a distinct self who assumes a number of alternate identities for fun, but as a collection of identities digital and physical, collaborative and contradictory. Reality will pixilate, our vignetted responsibilities played out in a dizzying array of contexts. I find this possibility utterly horrifying and completely familiar.