Face Book: A Game+Life Blending

No, I'm not telling you who everyone is

Allow me a small, silly vignette apropos of nothing, but one that I found oddly touching – a demonstration of the place game characters can take in our lives today. Tired of Windows Photo-thingie’s slowness, I finally got around to installing Google’s photo management app, Picasa 3 today. It had itself a good old scour of my hard drive, as is its wont, and duly formed a library of all the image files thereupon. Then I spotted a tab at the top marked ‘People’, which accessed some prototypical technology that scans pictures for faces and attempts to recognise recurring folk.

Clicking it presented an army of neatly cropped and zoomed faces. Family, friends, colleagues, girlfriends past and present, Elvis Presley, random work shots of devs like Randy Pitchford and Tim Schafer… And, included without comment amongst them, a legion of game characters from the hundreds of screenshots scattered across my PC.

Picasa couldn’t or wouldn’t see the difference between real or digital people. Why should it? And why should I think it’s weird that it doesn’t?

These game-people are just as much a part of the last few years of my life as most people I know. Sure, I haven’t shaken their hands or done naughty sweaty things with any of them – hell, I haven’t even had in-game conversations with most of them – but they were people I had experiences with, people I recognised as easily as I would my neighbours (that said, I have absolutely no idea who my neighbours are. London is a deeply anonymous place sometimes).

The eight stars of the Left 4 Dead series, my gaunt-faced Shepard from Mass Effect 2, a once-beloved World of Warcraft gnome, Team Fortress 2’s Heavy, a Warhammer Online dwarf I tired of after 10 levels, a wise old man from Metro 2033, C&C’s Kane, the Force Commander from Dawn of War 2, gruesome experiments with City of Heroes’ character creator, the woman from Tabula Rasa’s box art, a Bright Wizard from that horribly underwhelming Warhammer RTS a few years back, a plastic-faced rendering of Lance Hendriksen from the AvP remake, a raft of Morrowind NPCs in ill-fitting hats…

I’m not mad enough to call pixels friends, but I didn’t draw a blank on any of these faces – they were all immediately recognisable, and each summoned a fond or melancholy or annoyed or contemptuous response from me. I’ve rolled my eyes and sighed at game characters’ voices or faces or animations more times than I could count, but seeing it like this, just faces, was fascinating. These non-people always leave an impression, no matter how convincing or unconvincing their creators manage to make them. That’s because, I suspect, we rarely fail to think of them as people – even the most disastrous NPC is interpreted as a character, not a collection of polygons and sound-files.

It’s just another small testament to how busy our imaginations are in any game, and why the accusations that this medium is a hollow timesink are so off the mark. We’re building worlds and building relationships in our minds whenever and whatever we play. Even more so when we play as characters we’ve created – the faces that most resonate out in this parade (only a fraction of which are in the screenie above) are, inevitably, the ones that I’ve designed myself.

When I load up that parade of faces now, I don’t feel jarred by the proximity of real people and game people anymore. It looks absolutely natural. Why wouldn’t nice old Professor Sakharov from Stalker appear in a pictorial history of people I’d spent time with during the last half-decade?

55 Comments

  1. Miles of the Machination says:

    It would be interesting to see just how much of an influence these characters, that we’ve spent so much time in the company of, has had upon us as people, just as our friends and acquaintances will have.

  2. Samuel Bigos says:

    I’d do that but I’d just get porn.

  3. westyfield says:

    I actually set my desktop background to be a rotating gallery of my Mass Effect 1 and 2 screenshots that I particularly liked. Nearly all of them are people. It might seem silly but I feel a little happier (I’m easily amused) when I turn my computer on and see Shepard or Joker smiling out at me.
    I feel stupid for even writing this, let alone clicking the ‘opinion, away!’ button.

    P.S. I love the way Samara is glancing at Thane (2nd row), who in turn appears to be gazing at – is that Kieron? I have no idea, but the three images in a row look funny (as I said, easily amused).

  4. A-Scale says:

    But they aren’t like people you actually know. Your connections to them are incredibly limited in time and scope. They never have anything new to say. Don’t overstate the similarities.

    • Alec Meer says:

      That’s true. So what’s your point?

    • Veret says:

      I don’t think he overstated anything. The point is that our imaginations give these characters a reality that pixels and sound files would not otherwise have. Besides, I’m sure you have plenty of acquaintances in the real world that have had nowhere near twenty hours of face time in your life, right?

      On another note, Alec, that’s an awfully pasty Shepard you’ve got there.

    • Lilliput King says:

      SNAP OUT OF IT ALEC

      THEY’RE NOT REAL

    • Wulf says:

      I like this Veret fellow.

      My imagination likes to toy around with characters, those which are the creations of other people and those of my own, and I find that they frequently have new and interesting things to say within the scope of my imagination, some which I hadn’t thought of myself. It’s an interesting exercise to toss a question to the constructs of your imagination, because it can open you up to other views that you might not have considered.

      And whatever has a place of importance like that in your imagination can see more true, and indeed more real than reality, leaving people boring by comparison. I often find that people have to put a great deal of effort to say anything half as interesting as what I see/hear in my mind tends to blurt out. And I become attached to such constructs, I want to fashion things around them, write stories about them, and consider them important.

      In my opinion, a character can be just as important as a person, never as important as your mate, or your best friends, really, but definitely more so than acquaintances and people you’ve met only in passing.

    • Veret says:

      Thanks, Wulf! You’ve been very kind to me today.

      I often find my imagination doing similar things to what you described, but that actually wasn’t what I meant originally. I was referring to the way our brains can take only the content that’s given to us–a face made of polygons, a pre-recorded set of lines, and some basic choreography–and connect the dots to form an actual person. That’s all developers will ever be able to give us; just dots (gamers’ imaginations notwithstanding), but it’s more than enough to create a compelling and realistic experience.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      A-Scale: “But they aren’t like people you actually know. Your connections to them are incredibly limited in time and scope. They never have anything new to say.”

      I think you’re over-estimating Alec’s friends.

      KG

    • AndrewC says:

      You shut up Kieron! You’re mean!

      Anyways, A-Scale: isn’t the point that, despite the very limited scope of game-characters, we form such strong connections with them anyway. Just imagine if games were any good!

    • Wulf says:

      @Veret

      Ah, I see.

      It definitely can be compelling, though.

      On a slightly related note, I’m particularly enjoying Champions Online at the moment and I frequently love doing a sort of inverse thing, taking things from my imagination and remaking them in a game, so that my own imagination gives them more presence. I mean, my Nemesis doesn’t look all that terrifying because he looks like an everyday wageslave with a robotic head, but knowing the story my mind cooked up for him, he’s terrifying.

      A particularly insane and very sick tinker created him as an artificial intelligence, knowing it would be able to continue where he failed. His was a desire to see the world made smooth, smooth between the ears, smooth cityscapes, smooth people, with no desires or dreams outside of behavioural norms, since those are abominations, no heroes, no magicks, no art, and no culture, a society where everyone can be happy be they a worker or a hobo because they dream of nothing, they are simply functional, flawless, and smooth.

      As his last work, he decapitates himself to provide his body as a conveyance for this AI, wiring it in to take the place of his own head. The villain is named Mr. Everybody, a dull, colourless, faceless individual who’s a template for what he believes all of humanity should be, and the perfect antithesis to my creative, colourful, and all too eccentric superhero. >.> Without that backstory though, he looks fairly boring, but knowing what he is I make it my job to ensure he never succeeds at anything he attempts to do!

      So there are many ways those pixels can become incredibly compelling, yep.

    • A-Scale says:

      We can certainly have some sort of connection to fictional characters, but our relationships are (as I said) limited by how short lived and limited in scope out interactions with them are. As others have noted, the rest of our so called relationships with these characters is largely generated by our own imaginations. This is certainly some form of interaction, but it is more akin to the relationship one has to a famous actor or the president than the relationships that one has with one’s friends, neighbors, and so on.

      Alec seemed to be implying that the distinctions between real and fictional fade away when we look at a wall of photos interspersed with the real and the fictional, but I think this is to overstate the similarities. I “know” the G-Man in the same way I “know” David Cameron. I see them on the telescreen, they say things that don’t effect me directly, and I think things about them. This is really quite distinct from how I know someone who I physically interact with, who speaks to my real experiences and always has something new and relevant to say to me.

  5. TeeJay says:

    person != character

    • Tei says:

      Is fun that you say that.

      Persona literally means “mask”, although it does not usually refer to a literal mask but to the “social masks” all humans supposedly wear.
      link to en.wikipedia.org

      Persona = mask = Character

      You play a role in a social environment. A gestalt expert would say a persona is a image only visible painted on a social background.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      We all wear masks, metaphorically speaking.

    • Wulf says:

      Sometimes I wish I’d bought into this masks thing.

    • Tei says:

      We all have Avatars*

      *No, I don’t, I have a gravatar.

  6. TeeJay says:

    I thought this was going to be about how some crazy people were doing a kind of web-based virtual cosplay / fanfic where they had created facebook/twitter/myspace profiles for vast numbers of fictional characters and were constructing an alternative reality via status updates, tweets and pokes.

  7. TeeJay says:

    55 mug-shots:

    1. How many are real people?
    2. How many can you name (and/or the game they come from)?

    • Mischa says:

      I find it striking that even with such tiny pictures, we can still see which are the real people. (Even the cut-off bottom row.) Apparently computer graphics did not evolve THAT far…

  8. IdleHands says:

    You know I thought seeing a collection of pictures of real-life people of someones elses friends and past acquaintances was very voyeuristic and a lil’ creepy (well still is really), but even a collection of those digital faces still feels like I’m peering too closely into your life (though not as badly as if they were real). Do I see whats-her-face from sin episodes? Is that a city of heroes character?

    Just from that picture from the top you can tell a bit about Meer, what games he’s played and which characters he wanted to screenshot. Like I say I feel a little like a creepy stalker / voyeur viewing those.

  9. Gap Gen says:

    I am rather gratified by the liberalism with which it determines what a people is.

    • nil says:

      …I don’t see any Legion.

      VITALISTS! ROBOTS ARE PEOPLE TOO!

      (captcha: HK4A. his brother?)

    • Tei says:

      FUN FACTS: Corporations have some person rights, because legally, are persons too.

  10. Oneironaut says:

    I really should take more screenshots. I have so few, less than 20 I think and this computer is a year and a half old. I remember my old computer had some WoW screenshots like when I first found the secret entrance to mount Hyjal and some of my Guild’s first raid kills. There were nice memories atatched to those. So, maybe this will get me to use the print screen button a little more often.

  11. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    Multiple current girls friends implied in this post.

  12. Vanderdecken says:

    The Heavy? I though that was Ross… link to youtube.com

  13. Phineas says:

    It’s interesting how we can discuss the dramatic impact of fictional video game characters and then deny that same power when we discuss the impact of violence committed to them in video games claiming that they’re just a bunch of pixels and sound.

    • IdleHands says:

      Digital characters can deeply affect us and we can form a strange bond to them, but the thing is we can perform those violent deeds and always know we can just load those characters back alive again. Plus looking at those pictures a lot of them are of characters you don’t need to kill and can work alongside, must video game violence is comitted on cookie-cutter characters, ones you don’t form any bonds with.

    • Oak says:

      The moral of this story? If you don’t form a bond with someone, killing them is a breeze.

      I hope you’re taking notes, hitmen-of-tomorrow.

    • Lilliput King says:

      I agree with Phineas. Both the violence directed towards to the characters and our emotional attachments to them are powerful experiences. On the other hand, these aren’t really experiences that have any connection to real life, on both fronts.

      The heavy is an organism like nothing we can ever come into contact with. This is obvious – when the heavy dies, the heavy comes back, again and again. This is because the heavy singular is never really the entirety of the heavy (thus there is no inherent conflict when, for example, we see two or more heavies next to eachother). The same is true for any game character. While we may feel for their entirety as if a human being (to a certain extent) there’s no connection between the violence we may commit to them and the violence we may commit to other (meaningfully bodily composed) persons in real life, because we would be committing that violence to the entirety of the real life person, rather than just to a shade of them as occurs in games.

      Hence, different kinds of emotional input.

    • Wulf says:

      Actually, I don’t like killing. In games, I tend not to kill civilians and I won’t touch a strand of fur on a wild animal’s head. What I will do is defend myself when someone shoots at me first. This is why I like RPGs with choices, because any time I can talk my way out of something, I’ll do just that. That’s just the way I am, that’s just who I am.

      This actually reminds me of something in Wesp’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines patch, too. Wherein, if you kill an innocent civilian you lose humanity, it’s a negative thing to actually kill someone and you’re punished for it by killing a civilian. If they’re shooting at you, it’s fair game, but if you pull a gun on a hobo and blow his head off then as far as the game’s concerned you’re actually less of a person.

      I don’t think it’s wrong that games allow people to kill, what’s more important is the choices they make, and if a lot of killing happens in a game, especially the killing of innocents, then in quite a number of games that’s actually more indicative of the player rather than the game. If someone’s playing VTMB and they’re running around killing everyone and they have 0 humanity, they’re probably a sociopath, but you can’t blame the game for the problems of the player.

    • IdleHands says:

      OK maybe I didn’t quite say that right. Let me try a little better.

      Killing in video games depends on how you view the video game, if you see it as just pixels and polygons then of course you’ll have no problem killing them as you don’t view them as being alive in the first place. Yes that scientist may look human but we know he’ll always be going back and forth between two points forever or mindlessly tapping on a keyboard achieving nothing, acting nothing like a human being would. Infact looking out the window we can see his clone and hear him say the same stock phrases. When we kill them we know we are not killing anything vaguely resembling a real human being, or even living being at all.

      But once in awhile the game will introduce to you an actual character you can relate to in some way or something they say touches you. This character is unique and we somewhat care about them and we form a strange relationship with them. The key word there is strange, it is not at all like another human relationship and we know that full well. Even if we chose to kill that character we know we can just load a save up and they’ll be back smiling away like nothing ever happened.

      Maybe thats a better way of putting, probably not though.

    • Heliocentric says:

      @wulf i’m pretty sure you lose humanity for killing anyone non combatant in the base game. The tutorial even talks about it in voiced lines.

    • Wulf says:

      @Helio

      Not in the original game. There was actually a huge kerfuffle about this, because some people felt that as soon as the player went into combat, anyone killed counts as self-defence. Wesp disagreed, he said what you said about the manual, and he pointed out that you fail the tutorial if you completely drain that human as well. He reasoned that this was a feature that Troika never got into the game, and that they probably wanted to do this and balance it, but because they couldn’t balance it properly they never actually included it. This is why he put a lot of hard work into getting it into the game and balancing it right.

      In Wesp’s version, if you shoot an innocent (a non-combatant) in combat, or if you completely drain a non-combatant in combat, then you lose humanity for it. He had to go through all the NPCs to determine this, seeing which wouldn’t be involved in combat and which would, and then docking the player humanity for killing those who had nothing to do with the fight. And this is one of the reasons I liked Wesp’s patch, because the original game always bugged me with that. In a combat situation once I did try draining someone dry, and lost no humanity for it because I was in combat. So I definitely prefer how Wesp goes about it.

      But yeah, try the game without Wesp’s patch, if you’re in combat in the original game you can kill whomever you like without consequences.

  14. Flatfingers says:

    That’s possibly one of the most insightful comments I’ve read on any gaming forum in a long time.

    Nicely done.

    That said, I also found it telling that I immediately recognized many of those “people” as though they were old friends. “Oh, there’s Miranda — haven’t talked to her in a while.” Apparently giving someone a secondary reality as a character in a world taps neatly into the “relationship maintenance” part of the brain that Facebook has so capably exploited.

    So what computer game was Elvis in?

  15. Carra says:

    I wonder if it would see the difference between an ape and a human.

  16. Arathain says:

    I see some good friends there. Shout out to Heavy! You go, my man. He looks happy. It’s one of the reasons Heavy and I get on. He’s so uplifting to spend time with. Cheerful.

  17. Bhazor says:

    Aww, you have Jim and Kieron on your computer.
    That means you love them.

  18. the wiseass says:

    I would never let Picasa scan my harddrive. That being said, I totally agree with you, Mr. Meer. I share bonds with many fictional characters, not only on games, but also in movies and especially books. Be it my Guild Wars character I carefully raised over these past 5 years, Link, Mario or Gordon Freeman. Be it the Dude from Big Lebowsky, Luke skywalker, Steve Zissou or Dr. Who. Be it Winston Smith, Ender Wiggin, Santiago or David Lurie.

    I’ve shared precious moments with these imaginary people and some of them will accompany me for the rest of my life. I mean 1984 changed my life when I was a little teen, but so did Mario. We are living in a world where media and the real world are narrowly intertwined, fictional characters can be as influential as real life people nowadays and sometimes even more because they are not subjected to any rules or boundaries, except those that are in our heads.

  19. Crane says:

    I had quite a long discussion about the distinction between fictional characters and real people once, and I still maintain that once a real person is dead or gone from your life, their is no difference within your mind between them and a fictional character.

    The only distinction normally is that with real people, the experiences you can have which involve them are potentially more varied, but when that is no longer the case, I don’t think there’s anything left to choose between the two.

    • Arathain says:

      @ Crane:

      You can take that even further, if you want. There’s no difference in your mind between a fictional character and a real one you’re not directly interacting with.

      It’s usually more likely that one knows fictional characters in much more detail, and far more intimately, than it’s ever possible to know all but a tiny handful of real people.

  20. Gabe says:

    (Warning – rare “non-gaming” but on-topic comment)

    Picasa’s “people face” recogniser is very accurate. It’s quite useful if you have kids, for example, and want to make a collage for a birthday.

    And beyond Alec’s “finding game characters” experience, I found it would pull the blurriest, most distant face off a billboard, in the background of a photo.

    IT HUNGERS FOR FACES, IT HUNGERS FOR FACES!

  21. Pandaemonius says:

    Picasa does indeed hunger for faces. (Random aside: I find it odd that Chrome’s spell-check doesn’t recognise the name of a Google product, or even ‘google’)

    Unlike you, Mr. Meer, I found it unsurprising, but mildly annoying. Once I noticed it was doing that, I told it to only catalogue folders where I had put photos myself.

    I’m not a big fan of screenshots or even photos, though, so maybe that’s where the difference comes in. I didn’t think they were intruding on realspace or some such, just that I didn’t care to have them catalogued…

  22. Griddle Octopus says:

    I do like ex-PC Gamer editor and now Blizzard bigwig Ross Atherton’s eyebrows raising themselves to creep in just above the crop… is that Joe “Kane” Kugan I’m next to?

  23. The Sombrero Kid says:

    i think they are more accurate simulacra than tom cruise.

  24. Tom OBedlam says:

    So I had a play with this, when it pulled up face I got one bizzare false positive…

    link to b3tards.com

  25. DK says:

    I think it’s interesting it still recognises very in-human frog-aliens as “People”.

  26. Leafcutter says:

    Don’t you have an EVE toon?

  27. nutterguy says:

    On a side note… There is no point tagging faces with Picasa because it stupidly doesn’t write the tags to the photos.
    Where as at least Windows Live Photo Gallery does that, even if it does’t actually have facial recognition, just detection.

    TL;DR: Same thing happened to me with Windows Live Photo Gallery. Picasa is stupid.

  28. DaveyJones says:

    Want to have terrifying epiphanies regarding personal relationships with video game characters? Play The Sims for a while. I’m sure most of you have at least dabbled with it. Yeah, you’ll set a few on fire. You’ll “forget” to build the ladder. You’ll starve one, and let the others do their own thing. But then, one will be late to work, and for some reason, something inside you clicks, and you’re a little bothered by it. Maybe even angry about it. You make sure that Sim is happy, fed, and rested. It doesn’t take much time or effort. The next morning, that Sim makes it to work, readily and happily. You smile, because you know that you made that Sim happy, and your work has been rewarded. And that’s when your brain steps back a bit, and you question that entire thought process. Made… Sim… happy. Made… virtual character feel an emotion? Nah. It’s all bits and bytes. But the more you think, the more you realize the brilliance behind it. Your brain has assigned an emotion to a physically non-existent video game character so that you, the player, are given motivation through that character’s happiness. Or sadness. Or whatever. Kind of amazing. I still play the first The Sims, from time to time. Going back and seeing those broken families… large groups of polygons with many (sometimes disturbing) memories attached :P