Science Fiction Problems: Video Games (The When’s, Why’s, Do’s, and Don’ts) Part II

This is the second part in a series. For Part I, click here.

Hello everyone! We had some very interesting discussions last week in the comments, so thanks to all who participated. We’ve already talked about video games in relation to the recent Supreme Court case, and the possible implications the decision could have for our own future, but this week I’d like to take a look at where some of these ideas came from, and use past examples as a framework to discuss when video games can be most effectively used in your own science fiction story. To begin with, let’s take a look at where some of our ideas about virtual reality and video games came from.

“The story is all about you, and you are in it.”

Whenever I start doing research for these posts, I am constantly amazed at the ways in which the written word has helped shape our reality. So many ideas that saw their manifestation as anything from nations to technologies, first started with a story. Truly, the human mind is capable of working wonders in any medium.

Even with a cursory search (no, not just wikipedia…), I was able to trace the first reference of virtual reality back to a novel in 1948 by Arthur C. Clarke (Against the Fallen Night in 1948, but later called The City and the Stars in 1956) and a short story in 1950 (“The Veldt“, Ray Bradbury). But the idea of a secondary, virtual world back to a short story called “Pygmalion’s  Spectacles” by Stanley G. Weinbaum (from which this section’s title is derived) all the way back in 1935. The general idea of secondary worlds have been around for thousands of years (Heaven, Hell, Faerie, etc.), but back in the 30’s, but Weinbaum seems to be looking into the future:

“a story that gives you sight and sound… taste, smell, and touch…” in which “…you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it”

What’s most interesting to me about these examples, however, is that while these stories offer examples of virtual reality, both were before video games had developed- obviously there was no electronic games to stir the imagination in the 30’s, but in the 50’s the most complex game available was chess, and not to the average consumer. I don’t know about you, but I always assumed that the idea of virtual reality came after video games, imagined as the ultimate immersion experience- but it seems it’s the other way around.

Heh heh... no, this doesn't count.

Beyond the early references, science fiction (as it developed into its own, distinct form of literature) has taken this idea of a secondary, artificial reality, and blended it with the rise of video games and computers, forming itself around the internet boom and its new freedoms of expression and consumerism.  Vernor Vinge‘s True Names, published in 1981, gives us the first reference to what would become cyberspace (termed “the metaverse” in his story), and we have expansions on these ideas in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (which in turn is credited for starting the cyberpunk genre, which I am a fan of) and  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in the 80’s and 90’s respectively.  That takes us into the late 90’s (which I’m fairly certain most everyone reading this was alive for) with The Matrix, and various other virtual reality references which have not developed the ideas drastically enough to mention here.

So, futuristic video games usually = virtual reality, but virtual reality actually predates video games. Neat, huh? By the way, if you want to get a feel for where a lot of sci-fi archetypes came from, the above paragraph makes for a good primer reading list. Check ’em out!

…And Knowledge is Power!!

Second Life- quite possibly the nerdiest online social game ever created- yet very close to the virtual reality envisioned in the idea's inception

So now you know generally where these ideas came from, and the development of the idea of virtual reality,

and how it has essentially become old-hat to us sci-fi fans nowadays. Well, I say that, but we’re all legitimately impressed with any sort of new virtual reality tech that comes around, but it’s been in our stories so long that we almost expect it (hence futuristic video games = virtual reality). How do we keep this idea fresh when it’s been used nearly since science fiction became a genre? If we just put virtual reality in our stories without any fresh twists, we could easily fall victim to clichés, and even a cool idea like a super-immersive video game becomes unimportant background noise. Here are some things to think about to help you use video games in your story:

  • If it doesn’t fit, ignore it– Think hard. Does focusing on the details of the latest online game or social virtual reality network  of your world just distract from what you’re already trying to do with your story? If it doesn’t add a significant dimension to your world, then it would be better to just ignore video games in your setting, and your reader won’t think twice about it. The Warrior’s Apprentice ignores video games for the most part, while Ender’s Game uses them as an integral plot line. Both are fantastic books.
  • Use it as a vehicle, not a background– while you could come up with a singularly unique and interesting version of cyberspace, and this could add a great deal to your story, it would still feel shallow unless you used that world to say something. What do we learn about your world through the virtual one that you describe to us? If you’re going to make your virtual reality important to your story, use the world itself to help you communicate that story, its themes, its philosophy. There are plenty of very interesting discussions to be had in the context of a virtual world- take advantage of that to take your narrative to a deeper level.
I could go on, but this is long enough. I hope you enjoyed my brief primer on the history of virtual reality (as it turned out, anyway). Just keep thinking about how you can use video games to further your story, and work hard to make sure that they add to your story and don’t distract from it.
Until next week, what do you think about what I dug up? Did anyone else find it strange that the idea of virtual reality precedes video games? What are some other novels or stories that defined where the genre went with video games? Let me know in the comments below!

About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on July 6, 2011, in Cliches, Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, science fiction problems, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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