Digital Déjà Vu

Musician/artist/writer David Byrne recently mused on how Ikea is like a video game (link via Boing Boing). He explains that the way everything is tagged with a label, the seeming meaningfulness of props, the tools at your disposal (e.g., tape measure, employees), and the implied task of finding appropriate stylistic combinations all amount to something like a real-world video game.

I wasn’t struck by the videogame-ness of Ikea upon my visit there, but I was hugely disoriented and amazed by the many living room worlds it had on showcase. David Byrne is right, though, that Ikea is a simulation of sorts, a kind of hyperreality. I can’t help but wonder if he plays enough games that it was invoking in him that feeling that so many gamers seem to find familiar—the déjà vu for the digital age, where you wonder for a moment if there was just a glitch in the Matrix, or if you’ve simply been playing too much Grand Theft Auto.

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. Sometimes, it’s immediately conscious. My first time skiing, I remember looking through my orange goggles at the world flying by me, thinking, “This is just like a video game”—and then, immediately after, feeling very foolish. The simulation was more familiar than the reality here because, previously, it was all I had access to.

At times other times, such as when one has been playing a particular game for an extended period, it might take a moment for our conscious recognition to catch up with what we are feeling. It’s just a momentary impulse you don’t act upon but, again, probably feel silly for experiencing. One of my younger brothers confessed that after playing GTA games for an extended period of time, he occasionally notices things while driving and thinks, “That would make a good ramp.” And once, after playing Bioshock for hours, I heard a low car engine a block or so away as I walked to a friend’s apartment. It sounded so much like the groaning of one the game’s enemies that I immediately wondered if I should change my course to check it out. The thought process only lasted a fraction of a second—not long enough to actually change how I behave, but certainly long enough to know where the feeling came from (and, again, to feel kind of dumb).

I think this happens more with games for me than with any other medium, but I know it can happen with other media we have been sufficiently immersed in. My friend Tom, for example, recently wrote on Twitter: “birds swarm past my office window and my immediate reaction (although not fully formed into a thought) is ‘nice algorithm’. crap.” When I asked for permission to quote him on this, he further confessed that playing lots of the Tony Hawk game once got him assessing how effective surfaces in the real world would be to grind on with a skateboard.

My most personally embarrassing example relates to a very specific director’s movies. Once, while walking down the street alone, I was approaching a man in a long coat walking in the opposite direction, toward me. Just as I neared him, a light-colored pigeon suddenly flew between us, and it triggered the feeling that something intense was about to happen. Again, just a split second, and by the time I figured out what that feeling was—a memory of so many movie gunfights that break out between strangers as doves fly by—it was already gone. Perhaps this is a particularly geeky phenomenon: A number of xkcd strips similarly refer to getting distracted by patterns in the world around us. Sometimes, in our bored moments, we might even play out scenarios in our minds long after realizing that what we’re seeing in the world was simply placed there by our imagination.

I know this is fodder for media effects researchers to claim that games and movies make thoughts of reckless driving and killing chronically accessible, thus making us more dangerous people. That’s certainly worth studying, but I think focusing on that may miss the point here. Everything I’ve mentioned is a far cry from actual aggressive behavior. If this phenomenon—weird, conscious, nonviolent, and mildly embarrassing split-seconds of disconnection from reality—is the grand culmination of so many years of playing games and watching movies, increased aggression may not be the most likely or noteworthy psychological effect demanding researchers’ attention.

Is what I have just described a sign of spending too much time away from the “real” world? This seems the easiest explanation, but I hesitate to make this conclusion. Our world includes our mediated environments. This is a simple fact of contemporary life. And, if this is in fact especially common among scientists, programmers, engineers, and researchers, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a chance that there’s something positive about brief flashes of pattern recognition. This may be deeply connected to certain kinds of problem-solving ability.

Returning to the example that began this post, parts of our world may already be designed (intentionally or not) to take advantage of how we solve problems and navigate other sorts of environments. There is something very surreal about Ikea, but it probably taps pretty effectively into a game playing impulse that’s already there for so many of us. I don’t feel like the boundaries between the real and the simulated have broken down entirely, as some would claim, but I’m finally sensing enough of a crack that I wonder what we can yank through from the other side.

There’s probably a paper in here somewhere, but I’m not sure I have time to brush up on my Baudrillard to write it just now.

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