For all their crustiness about new features, videogame fans seem to have enthusiastically endorsed one particular Newfangled Idea: selfies. Last year, the joyous Spider-Man allowed players to turn Peter Parker's lens on himself, with Spidey throwing peace signs or boastful jumps depending on where the shot was taken. 1 Meme fodder , no question; also, as it turns out, just a teaser.
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When Kingdom Hearts 3 launched in late January, selfies weren't simply for enrichment—they were sewn into the game. Sora, the protagonist, could take selfies to complete various quests in the Disney worlds, and the game's loading screens featured shots of in-game Disney characters in an Instagram-like photo app . Fans loved it , and the internet did what the internet does. A Sora-selfie subreddit popped up. Parody tweets flourished. Achievement unlocked: #relatable real-world resonance .
But not even Sora's goofy narcissism represented Peak Game Mechanic. Just this week, the makers of Pokémon Go (hey, remember Pokémon Go ?) announced that players would be able to take AR-enabled selfies with the creatures they find lurking in the world.
Despite the faddishness, all these cheesy poses represent a telling evolution. So-called "photo modes" have been a part of games for more than a decade, letting players capture the world as they see it. Capturing their avatars was the inevitable next step, but it's not the final one. In-game selfies aren't about the hamfisted leveraging of social sharing—they're prelude to a world in which virtual and real inextricably coexist.
Bars and squares. Videogames couldn't handle a world built of much more than that. So in their earliest days, programmers angled into the action. Looking into a screen, you saw down onto the game, a god by dint of some unseen periscope. Pong , Combat , Berzerk , and Pac-Man : flattened arenas of evasion and confrontation.
Eventually, we found ourselves inside those arenas—first as the same proxy puppeteers with a different angle, then, with the rise of 3D graphics, as the puppets themselves. Strings cut, the world shifted. The social fun of gaming has always been other people bearing witness to your journey, seeing what you saw, the vicarious indistinguishable from the lived. With a first-person perspective, though, the experience became intensely personal. Someone could watch you traverse a landscape or outlast an enemy, but their pulse wouldn't quicken the way yours would. How could it?
Meanwhile, role-playing games had begun pushing you to the ends of their worlds. Go here, get this, bring back; now do it again, with a different "here" and another "this." Universes grew, and quests did too. In time, fantasyscapes were so large, so varied, that "pics or it didn't happen" invaded game narratives. Taking photographs of various objects became a nearly standard quest, one that ostensibly would reveal hidden bits of a game's story. One mission in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild tasked you with capturing images at 13 specific but unmarked locations—in a realm the size of Manhattan.
More than mere screenshots, these were a means of documenting your experience, of bringing an artifact back to the real world so that others could feel what you felt. But they lacked one thing: the experiencer. Even when photo modes arose that could capture your character in combat or transit, they could only pause the action. They couldn't package it. We pose for photos to telegraph our interiors. Awe, happiness, silliness. Turning the in-game camera on oneself gives our player-selves, our real selves, the chance to communicate our joy through our characters. It's an emotional wormhole, erasing boundaries and flattening the puppet show into a single self.
Videogames aren't the only place memento has become crucial. You could describe to someone what it's like to hang out with friends in VR platforms like VRchat and High Fidelity, simulacra that resist conventional description, or you could snap a photo and send it to a friend. The sustained community growth of Rec Room, the social VR world, has led to users creating platform-specific Instagram accounts—a virtual username and avatar the only markers of identity necessary. Still, the experiences, as with any Instagram post, translate. Posing together after a virtual paintball game or sitting around a user-created campfire establish a sensory link to activities that only "happened," at least by conventional definition, in your brain.
Building madeleines out of memories will only become more important as our lives begin to play out in multiple layers. The real, the virtual, the mirrorworld. At any given moment, your experience and mine may be distinguishable not by the naked eye but by a data-thin ply that only one of us can see. For now, we bridge that tiny gap by taking selfies on top of a Midtown skyscraper, or one with Goofy and Donald Duck—and then sharing that with others so that they, too, can feel what we felt. Soon enough, we'll all be pokémon.
1 Spider-Man wasn't the first game to encourage selfies so specifically —Watch Dogs 2 allowed similar behavior, and Dead Rising 4 before that—but it was the first to cross the blood-brain barrier into the popular imagination.
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