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Reading fictional stories can change how a person thinks. Researchers go so far as to state that reading fiction tends to improve inter-personal skills, such as empathy (Oatley, 2011). Harry Potter is even used to counsel children through narrative therapy (Oldford, 2011). Real, read, virtual or otherwise, stories affect one’s identity. Engagement with narrative changes who we are and as we change, so too does society.
So, if books can change us, what about video games employing memorable storylines?
Tom Hehir asked this question and endeavoured to explore the impact of immersive video games on society.
Why should we care? Well, last year Modern Warfare 3 generated $1 billion of revenue in 16 days, breaking the previous record set by the film Avatar by a day, while Halo 3 sold over eight million copies within months of its release. Video games are big and so is their effect on society.
Hehir says the “believe” advertising campaign used to promote Halo 3 is a telling example of the interpenetration of technology, personal experience and the human interactions that give rise to culture. He goes on to argue that the relationship that players of Halo 3 develop with the game, when conceived of as “readers” of the game’s narrative, demonstrate an unprecedented development in the history of narrative.
Narrative is a process by which we interpret, understand and form meaning at its basic level. Many modern video games incorporate stories which frame the purpose of gameplay. For Halo, the premise is simple: in the future, humanity comes under attack from a ruthless alien coalition lead by a religiose caste of zealots. Then, the shooting begins…
Hehir states that avatars used to navigate games signify parts of a player’s identity, expressed in virtue of an uncoupling of those parts from the player’s body.
A storyline doesn’t distinguish Halo 3 from other games but Hehir reports players describing the Halo narrative as having “shape”, an indication of previously unseen experiential dimensions of audience involvement in narrative.
Building on pre-existing ideas pertaining to technology, Hehir describes Halo 3 as a “narrative machine”. The game presents a complex world to be explored that simultaneously registers the visual field experienced by players. Moreover, the scope of purpose of gameplay and progressive events within the story induce feelings of accomplishment and validation in players.
In addition to playing the game, players develop a deeper relationship with the Halo world when they engage with what Hehir refers to as “reiterations” of that world in other media, such as Halo books and the recently released Halo 4 television series, ‘Forward Unto Dawn’. Authorship is decentralised – adding another level of authenticity and existence of the Halo narrative. Look closely at footage of the 2011 Brisbane Zombie Walk and you’ll spot Halo’s hero himself, walking safely alongside the undead hordes, proving boundaries are being crossed.
Hehir argues that fragmentation of individual identity corresponds with the advent of multimedia technology and says participation in technology has the power to externalise parts of the self and challenge the body’s ability to unify facets of a person. This expanded sense of identity, he claims, cannot easily be undone. One source of hope proposed, ironically, is narrative itself. That same narrative used by video games to fragment may also be the path to synthesis of disparate parts of the modern individual.
Hehir closes with ambivalence towards the potential for technology to change society, stating that with it comes both “the possibility of threat, and of newfound potential.” For anyone not involved in the diegetic realm of Halo, such a topic may seem like an examination of trivia, but think about this: Video games are a dominant force in the sphere of activities pursued in spare time and they now carry the gravity of sophisticated and immersive narrative many engage with. As virtual experiences begin nipping at the heel of reality in players’ minds, and those players join the company of the living, so too do the stories nestled within.
‘Believe and Be Live: Entangled Experience in Halo’, T. Hehir, 2012, The Philosophy of Video Games Conference, Madrid.
‘The Psychology of Fiction’, K. Oatley, 2011, Scientific American Mind, Nov/Dec issue.
‘The Use of Harry Potter and Fairytales in Narrative Therapy’, L. Oldford, 2011, Journal of Integrated Studies, vol. 1, no. 2.
“BRISBANE Zombie Walk 2011”, YouTube
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn (Episode 1), http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=BfJVgXBfSH8&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DBfJVgXBfSH8, 2012
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