Zombie apocalypse games often carry an element of society torn asunder, and the environment reflects that. Sometimes you’ll see a plume of smoke billowing from a recently burnt-out building or streets overgrown with vegetation. Everywhere people are dead or dying and human suffering is the currency of everyday life, but these are all real elements used to create a fictional world. So what happens when you take a person used to being surrounded by such things and tell them to play a video game? That is what Time magazine did, and the results were pretty fantastic. All images come from the Time magazine article.
Just hearing about this, you have to wonder at the motivation. What are they trying to accomplish? Gilbertson likened it to a series by Mishka Henner called No Man’s Land where Henner used Google Street view to document the prostitution problem in Europe. Gilbertson talks about a few things that I know only too well: having to play through each level to get to points where you are able to get a good shot, dying repeatedly for a nice screenshot, and, in this case, he played for days to get some good pictures. I find it very interesting and a little funny, especially since he says it is harder than in real life. But then again, you can’t just flash press credentials at in-game zombies, I guess.
At some point, playing The Last Of Us started taking a physical toll on Gilbertson, which is why he moved to the above-pictured Time office. A colleague, Jash Raab, apparently ended up playing through the “game” sections where zombies needed to be fought so Gilbertson could focus on the job of taking pictures. Honestly, it just sounds like the poor guy has rarely had the experience of holding a controller and needed someone to play for him. On top of that, if you aren’t used to the pumping action and visceral visuals of zombies games, I can see how they would be jarring.
An intriguing feature of Gilbertson’s work is that he says the pictures ended up being very clean and perfect, and he often found himself battling the photographing system to get more imperfect and “human-looking” shots. These considerations are very intriguing, and I feel a lot of reviewers do the same thing, steering away from creating advertisement images for the game itself. Thing is, many players might be completely happy with a “perfect image” of whatever action they’re engaged in, and might even strive to make each screenshot look really good.
Gilbertson is a man who has been to Iraq during war and many number of other terrible scenarios. A perplexing element of his critique of the game was that the characters did not express distress. In the above photo, he was trying to replicate a photo like that of a refugee through a dirty bus window at the border crossing, but he lamented that Ellie was not displaying what he felt was a very distressed expression. Now, Gilbertson knows what distress looks like, but he also said that he was previously feeling physically ill while playing too long. To me, Ellie looks pretty distressed here, but I have never been in some of the situations he has. I would assume that human suffering is a pretty universal concept, however, living in a first-world country might distance one from the reality of such emotions and what they really look like.
Another factor at play is that the people in these games might not always freak out and run at the sight of zombies. If you are constantly under the threat of being mauled to death by wolves, you might get startled by a wolf-sighting, but you would expect it to happen sooner or later and be prepared for the encounter, mentally and tactically. I would also suggest that the level of distress Gilbertson was feeling might have made the expressions of virtual characters (as he often references the characters of the game) seem somehow more pale by comparison. I mean, if he isn’t used to seeing things like this and they make him feel really ill, who’s to say that this isn’t affecting his own personal judgment of the situation? And then on top of that, if you aren’t used to identifying with in-game characters, you might not have that mechanism to feel them on a deeper level?
Gilbertson ends his experience on a note that I think summarizes the reason video games are not yet considered art by the greater elements of society. Let me quote him here.
“[…] I left the experience with a sense that by familiarizing and desensitizing ourselves to violence like this can turn us into zombies. Our lack of empathy and unwillingness to engage with those involved in tragedy stems from our comfort with the trauma those people are experiencing […] I came away from the experience having learnt a couple of things: that the work I usually do is an antidote to the type of entertainment this game represents and that I suck at video games.”
Gilbertson says here that associating oneself too closely with the type of violence found in these games can turn you into a zombie, but I have yet to see anyone walk around biting someone’s face off ’cause they are gamers. Now, I realize he is using this as some kind of poetic mechanism, and people have, in rare cases, perpetrated violence with some slim relation to video games. In the cases, however, it is found repeatedly that the true cause of the violence was rooted in the real world, and that the virtual world was a place to relieve stress and escape the unforgiving rigors of reality. I know that is something we can all identify with.
Another thing he says here is that people playing these games are comfortable with the tragedy people are experiencing in the game. This sounds like something that a person who doesn’t regularly play games would say. I would argue that we do identify with the characters closely and that this triggers a deep discomfort with the reality they find themselves in. Through this mechanism we then face the challenges of their world and side-by-side help them to fight their way out of it. It is much more interactive than seeing real people suffer because you have the ability to change their situation. Not so much with Gilbertson’s usual subjects of photographic journalism. He claims, rather self-righteously, that his work is the antidote to games like this, but again that just seems like the feelings of someone who literally does not get it. He admitted to not being able to play through the game and had to hand the controller to his colleague. Playing as the characters puts you in their situation in some small way through the miracle of Suspension of Disbelief. You set yourself aside and accept the reality that you are involved in, only then are you able to engage in the experience that you have purchased. Gilbertson just seems to be projecting his own inability to identify with the characters and lack of immersion onto the gamers that are common to this type of game. If the case was that we were disengaged from the situation of the characters, the game would not even sell. It would just be a vaguely interactive horror movie. The fact still stands, however, that this game has sold enough copies to warrant being remastered for the recent generation of gaming consoles. People like Gilbertson show just how irrelevant they are to gaming as an art and how badly we need someone to step up from this digital generation to solidify this reality.