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?