Let’s Think Deep: The Virtual Utopia

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Where can we see the ideal society? We need look no further than video games for that answer.

Today’s Let’s Think Deep is going to be a little different than usual. Usually I’m just writing for this site. However, the following is an essay I wrote for a class I’m taking abut Utopian literature and thought, hence why the tone is more formal. To make things simple, I’ve also included the Work Cited/Referenced page at the end, Amazon links included if you get curious.

The Virtual Utopia

To be blunt, the only viable medium that can offer the true understanding of either a utopian or dystopian society is the video game. Virtual worlds such as those found in video games provide not only an insight into the perceived Utopian vision of society but also a completely realized Utopian world all their own. How is this possible? By means of immersing players in a story, giving players the opportunity to create utopias of their own, and by progressing society into a real-world utopia, or rather the virtual component of such.

Saying that video games have evolved since the days of Pong and Donkey Kong is putting things lightly. Video games have progressed to a stage where they’ve managed to tell elaborate stories or represent larger concepts than something as simple as “Princess gets kidnapped.” While the majority of games don’t necessarily have any inherently utopian or dystopian qualities to them, a handful stand out that seem to point toward that exact relation.

One such series that tends to show both is the Legend of Zelda series. The parallels are easily made, for instance, in the world of Termina from Majora’s Mask. In this particular society, few people live an unhappy existence caused by most factors prevalent in the real world i.e. poverty, health concerns, or serious crime. The reason for any strife in this world is a direct result of a magical force causing the moon to slowly fall onto the main town.

Granted, if you looked out your window and saw this, you are given license to freak the heck out.

The same holds true for Ocarina of Time and the land of Hyrule, the usual world seen in the Legend of Zelda series. Hyrule’s populace seems overall content with the only outliers being considered odd and therefore not part of the society, such as a teenager who feels out of place with adults. Although the multiple races of the land, the Hyrulians, Kokori, Gorons, Zora, and Gerudo, live in mostly segregated areas, they share one unified language and one unified currency, the Rupee. Oddly enough, shops all over the land consistently charge the same amount for goods as all other shops, meaning there is a certain amount of regulation placed over consumer goods apparently agreed upon across all races. This implies that no one race is ultimately favored.

Perhaps one of the most important themes the Legend of Zelda series demonstrates is the loose class system in place. Paul Brown states in his essay Hyrule’s Green and Pleasant Land: The Minish Cap as Utopian Ideal:

“Hyrule, then, is something of the Platonic ideal… there is no slavery and, as indicated by Princess Zelda’s high status, there is absolutely no ambiguity regarding sexual equality. The greatest positive departure may be Hyrule’s porous social structure. There may still be no firm movement between classes, but there is a sense of easy integration… This is reinforced by the fact that a “lowly” artisan such as Master Smith can deliver goods to the King in person.”(Brown, 168).

Brown continues on by explaining how Princess Zelda, royalty, has an established friendship with Link, a blacksmith’s apprentice, which carries all the way from childhood. Such freedom of classes to converse and share relationships (the relationship between Zelda and Link has been hinted as being mildly romantic on multiple occasions) shows that this society is functional as an example of a social utopia, similar to that seen in Looking Backward, insomuch as everyone has a job in the society, but no one has a job viewed as necessarily “above” or “below” that of anyone else. Basically, no one shows any real signs of discontent, nor is there ever any mention of someone criticizing the royal family for any reason. In fact, the only individuals who ever view the royal family with spite are those seeking to take the power for themselves, ultimately showing themselves as the villains of that particular game and therefore outsiders to the society.

A world where all races freely trade? That doesn't sound too bad.

The prime example of this character is the series’ usual Big Bad, a Gerudo man named Ganondorf (or in some cases simply Ganon). Ganondorf’s first direct encounter with the Hyrulian royal family occurs in Ocarina of Time where he attempts to overthrow the king and usurp the kingdom so that he may steal Hyrule’s greatest treasure: The Triforce, a gift from the three goddesses that created the land. Ganon is consistently the only individual to seek this treasure, an item capable of granting its owner whatever his or her heart desires, despite the common public knowledge of this item’s truthful existence. Only Ganon ever feels the need to obtain the Triforce, feeling that with this new power he will gain full control over everyone. Remember, he is the only person ever depicted in these games as ever feeling he must have the Triforce’s power. Rather odd to consider.

A Direct Link to Utopian Literature of the Past

While the Legend of Zelda allows readers to see the usual utopian society under attack and ultimately restored, another game immerses the player in a world that has gone from that of a utopia into a state of dystopia where no such hope of reversal exists. This series is BioShock, a game released in 2007 that has currently sold over 4 million copies, not including rentals or used copies sold. Those figures enough are impressive, but what stands as even more impressive is the means through which BioShock’s story is told.

More appropriately, the story of BioShock is actually the story of Andrew Ryan and his underwater city of Rapture. Where to begin the relations between BioShock and utopian literature is difficult to decide since they are so closely linked. Andrew Ryan, a character that the game’s creative director Kevin Levine has stated gets his name from Ayn Rand, is originally a Soviet citizen who fled to the US to pursue the chance to freely invent without restrictions. He eventually creates a method of manipulating water molecules in order to compress and expand them, an invention he believes would be best used to bring water to places of the world in desperate need of such. However, the US government decides Ryan’s invention would better be utilized as a weapon for military purposes. This prompts Ryan to choose a different option. As he states when you first enter Rapture:

“I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘It belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘It belongs to God.’ ‘No!’ says the man in Moscow, ‘It belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose…Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.” (Quoted from BioShock by xg3 of Game FAQs).

Ryan’s idea was to build a city underwater in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and only open its doors to the best the world had to offer, allowing artists and scientists full range of expression without fear of oppression. And for a time this works great. One scientist, Bridgette Tenenbaum, discovers a type of sea slug capable of generating a form of stem cells, soon dubbed “Adam,” that has amazing qualities in both the medical community as well as the supernatural community. Adam is altered further until the Eve serum is created, a substance that can be injected to alter an individual’s genetic structure allowing them to gain abilities such as telekinesis or the power to create fires by snapping their fingers. The more these serums are used, the greater the genetic distortion becomes, eventually leading to mental instability. Further complicating the morality of Adam and Eve serums, a method of extracting 20-30 times the Adam from the sea slugs is discovered, though the method requires the sea slug be implanted in the stomach of a young girl. These half-children are called Little Sisters, and while they cannot be killed, they retain very little humanity. Eventually, a method is crafted for Little Sisters to harvest Adam from deceased Adam-users, so another half-human is created in the Big Daddy, a hulking bodyguard that protects the Little Sister he’s assigned to. Both are conditioned heavily to remove any sense of a free will. Little Sisters are compelled to harvest Adam from “angels,” as they see them, and Big Daddies, which the Little Sisters refer to as “Mr. Bubbles,” will instantly attack anything that even remotely looks at their Little Sister.

Also, this greets you in the first few moments of the game as you enter Rapture.

While all of this backstory seems fairly straightforward, the history behind it all is anything but. As the player, you arrive in Rapture years after Ryan’s departure from the US, after Rapture is built, after Little Sisters and Big Daddies are created, and after the city has fallen due to a civil war broken out between Ryan’s inner circle and Splicers, a term used to describe citizens strung-out on Adam. Every bit of backstory is given to the player via recordings found throughout the game. The basic story can be completed without ever really knowing the full history of Rapture. At the beginning of his plot summary, xg3 states:

“90% of the facts stated in the account of Rapture below are taken from the things you hear, see, and experience in BioShock. 5% are taken from reliable outside sources. Ryan’s backstory was taken from an interview with Ken Levine, creative director of BioShock, on CultofRapture.com. The construction of Rapture was taken from a magazine ad someone had transcribed on some forum… Per the disclaimer above, some events (the last 5%) are implied and not directly spelled out for the player. BioShock’s story is a big puzzle. I merely put together the pieces.” (xg3 via GameFAQs).

Despite sharing much in common with books such as 1984 (Big Brother looking over everyone’s shoulder), and Brave New World (genetic engineering and extensive conditioning), the method for conveying the story is entirely different. If the player chooses to forgo exploration or listening to audio diaries, they can completely excuse themselves from the experience. If, however, they actively participate in the “puzzle,” as xg3 calls it, they are rewarded with a deeper sense of connection to the material, as well as their own understanding, to a certain extent. Whereas a book presents a world and tasks the reader with envisioning the world of the novel, a video game such as BioShock does the work of fully showing the world to them, but tasks them with completing the story and finding the inherent meaning.

Gamers Building Our Own Society

BioShock is unique in how closely it is tied to overt utopian/dystopian literature, but other games move the story aside and purely challenge the player to create the proper utopian society. Probably the best example of this is the game Sim City, a city simulator, as it’s generally referred to. In Sim City, you play the role of the mayor/city planner in charge of all executive decisions surrounding the city, starting with the most basic choices. Would you prefer to build a nuclear power plant or a coal burning plant? How close to water do you want your city? Are residential areas built next to each other or spread out? All these choices are left open to the player with no definite correct answer. The city will prosper or flounder based upon their decisions, so if the yearly taxes are low, citizens are happy, but this may cause trouble with funding for police, resulting in higher crime rates. Sim City puts the burden of ruling the perfect society on the player’s shoulders, only interjecting to give advice when a clear problem has appeared, such as fires, earthquakes, or traffic congestion.

Dang it, who put that volcano right there?!

Interestingly enough, Sim City gives the player all the needed tools to craft an ideal utopia, but it also has a menu that allows them to inflict disasters on the city, from something as simple as floods to something more devastating like a monster attack. At any given moment the player can decide to take their bulldozer and destroy the only power plant near the city, leaving the populace without power until further notice. Complete control is granted to help as well as hinder this society. The entire experience builds up to a realization that running a functioning utopia, even a simple one, is incredibly difficult.

The connection between the utopian ideal and video games is easy enough to make when looking at story and concept surrounding a particular game or series, but video games as a whole present the opportunity to not just show a fiction, but create a reality with an actual utopia, albeit a virtual one. All games tend to follow the same set of rules, the first of which is that all gamers are created equal. Though it is possible in some games to cheat, everyone by default begins at the same state of neutral at the very beginning of the game. No one can be born into a class where they begin Super Mario Bros 3 in world 6, nor will they be granted an extra life for anything more or less than exactly 100 coins. Everyone plays by the same set of rules regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, or any other number of factors.

A further example of a real (virtual) world utopia is seen in Blizzard’s Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game World of Warcraft. This MMORPG is currently the world’s most avidly played with supposedly more than 11 million subscribers worldwide. Here again is an instance where everyone is equal in his or her roles. When a player starts a new game, they choose a character they’ll play as for months at a time called their “avatar” and start, just like everyone else, at level 1. There are no exceptions. Players can choose different races, such as Elves, Humans, or Orcs, and different classes, such as Warriors or Sorcerers, but everyone is offered the same chance to succeed as everyone else. No one class is given a clear advantage and no one player is freely offered a pass to be the best. Players must work for their success equally as hard as the next player.

Utopian society in a nutshell.

This may not seem like much, but consider the real-world players of these games. It is entirely possible for a 20-year-old female in the prime of her life to play with a 50-year-old overweight male, a 16-year-old teenager in a wheelchair, and a 35-year-old mother of two, and each of them is fully capable of running about, fighting monsters and carrying out tasks for their guild’s quest, unhindered by any restrictions they’d find in the real world. This theme is touched on in the 2008 documentary Second Skin where the idea of an online community allows anyone to be capable of things they wouldn’t normally, where a boy in a wheelchair is a powerful warrior or an awkwardly shy individual is capable of talking without fear of reprisal.

World of Warcraft sets about to give players the chance to go on magical fantasy quests, but another game, loosely termed, is Second Life, more an online community than anything else, a place where essentially anything the player wants can happen. In Second Life there are no limitations and the focus isn’t on things playing out as a game but just about creating a virtual space for you to inhabit. Your avatar here is whatever you choose it to be, so it is routine to see an avatar in a tuxedo chatting with an avatar shaped like a carrot. The only thing holding the player back is their own creative limitations as anyone can program anything they choose into the game, as obscure as it may be. One user created a cannon that fired video game systems, just because he chose to. Nowhere else is the concept of a utopia capable of realization than in the realm of a video game. Nowhere else can the idea of the “no place” be realized than in a location that doesn’t physically exist.

Video games may not be a perfect society all their own quite yet, but they offer a close connection to that oft-sought ideal of the Utopian society. They provide a means to tell a story in a way no previous forms of entertainment could and assist in demonstrating the world of perfection and the world of ruin represented in many utopian/dystopian texts. They allow the player the opportunity to build and manage their own utopian societies. And finally, they stand as a place where all gamers are created equal, allowing for the virtual landscape to experience the chance at a true Utopia. This is all from just 30 years of progress in the medium. Just imagine how much closer to the perfect world the next 30 will bring us.

Work Cited

Brown, Paul. “Hyrule’s Green and Pleasant Land: The Minish Cap as Utopian Ideal.” The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy. Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 2008.

xg3. “BioShock: Plot Summary.” GameFAQs. Version 1.14 (07/22/09). 18 May. 2010 http://www.gamefaqs.com/xbox360/931329-bioshock/faqs/50049.

Work Referenced

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York, New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1996.

BioShock. Boston/Canberra, Australia: 2K Boston/2K Australia, 2007.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York, New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Kyoto, Japan: Nintendo, 2000.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. Osaka, Japan: Flagship (under Nintendo), 2004/2005.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Kyoto, Japan: Nintendo, 1998.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York, New York: Penguin, 1981.

Pineiro-Escoriaza, Juan C. Second Skin. Pure West films, 2009.

Second Life. San Francisco: Linden Lab, 2003.

Sim City. Emeryville: Maxis, 1989.

World of Warcraft. Irvine: Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.

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Chris was the former Head Writer/Editor of Toy-TMA. He did a great job overseeing the site and getting new content published regularly. Always more than willing to respond to a comment or two, but pitiless with trolls! He has since moved on from TMA, and we wish him the best.

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