Real World Doesn't Use a Joystick
After a recent three-day binge of playing the Japanese cult hit video game Katamari Damacy, Los Angeles artist Kozy Kitchens discovered that walking away from the game was not as easy as putting down her joystick.
In the game, players push around what amounts to a giant tape ball, attempting to make the ball bigger by picking up any and all objects in its path. Kitchens found that her urge to keep picking things up was not so easy to shake.
"I was driving down Venice Boulevard," recalled her husband, Dan Kitchens, "and Kozy reached over and grabbed the steering wheel and for a moment was trying to yank it to the right.... (Then) she let go, but kept staring out her window, and then looked back at me kind of stunned and said, 'Sorry. I thought we could pick up that mailbox we just passed.'"
While motorists and pedestrians shouldn't worry too much about rogue Katamari Damacy players, Kozy Kitchens' experience with having a difficult time separating her real-life consciousness from that of her game playing is all too common among hard-core gamers. It's so common, in fact, that game publishers might want to consider warning their customers that they may soon be unable to tell the difference between the game and reality.
"The weird thing was that last night in my half-sleep, half-awake haze, I thought I was playing Katamari Damacy, too, and I kept trying to roll Kozy up in my ball," said Dan Kitchens. "I think I got this just from watching Kozy play the game for hours."
Frequent gamer Alfred Weisberg-Roberts said he often feels lingering effects after playing games like Animal Crossing, in which the point is to collect as many animals and bugs as possible from a wide variety of locations.
"Once, my girlfriend happened upon a tree ... kind of like the round, thin trees in the game, and began to shake it -- one in-game way of receiving money, goods and bees," Weisberg-Roberts said. "When nothing fell from its branches, I think she quickly realized how this must have looked to the other hundred or so people in the park."
Chris Taylor, a staff writer at Time magazine and a regular game reviewer, said he thinks driving games and first-person shooters are particularly likely to make players lose track of reality.
"I just knew the first time I played Burnout 2, the crash part, that I probably shouldn't get behind the wheel of a car for an hour or so afterwards," Taylor said, "because you're expending so much effort on deliberately trying to make your car crash."
Taylor also said that after reviewing Quake III he had trouble getting his mind out of the game.
"I'd play it, then walk out into the office corridor and realize I was looking at my co-workers as potential targets," said Taylor. "I was so used to killing anything that moved."
Any addictive game can have a similar effect: The more someone plays, the more likely they are to stay mentally inside even afterward. And immersive games like Electronic Arts' The Sims are frequently to blame, given the countless hours players put into them.
"When I played (it) a lot," said Laura Martin, a devotee of the game, "I remember thinking, 'What percent of my bladder is full?' to decide if it was time to head to the bathroom."
To Robin Hunicke, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University who studies video games, it's no surprise that people can have trouble distancing themselves from the games they play.
"Games are about verbs -- the things you do," Hunicke said. "The verbs are the things that you tend to focus on in a gameplay session. Good games focus that attention in a way that feels really satisfying.... So there you are, in your game world, doing your verbs, learning them, practicing and combining them in new ways. And if you do that long enough, there is a residue. Some stuff kind of sticks.... So later, after you put down that controller, you're walking around your apartment, or going to the store in your car ... and suddenly you do something similar, something that trips an 'opportunism' wire in your brain."
And Hunicke said that at that point, people conjure up the enjoyable experiences they've had.
"Maybe I should access that experience," she said. "Maybe there's some way to connect them and repeat -- or avoid -- the experience I had before."
The phenomenon of having difficulty defining reality after hours in front of the screen isn't at all limited to games.
Martin reported similar experiences after four days on an intensive Photoshop project.
"By the time I turned the project in, I was so sleep-deprived and delusional," she said, "that everywhere I looked I had the impulse to correct things, to move the world around in layers."
And Lisa Hoffman, a graphic designer who spends endless hours using various software packages, lamented finding it hard to determine where her computer ends and real life begins.
"I've been using the computer for so long, and command-Z works for undo in all the software programs," Hoffman said. "So whenever I find something in my life that I want to undo, I reach for the command-Z keys and I find it weird that it doesn't work."