[Note: see below for a way to win a free copy of the author's book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks!]
I wrote about the appeal of Avatar in a previous post ("Avatar's dream of the ideal self"). But the movie is so rich a source of cultural commentary that I couldn't resist adding a Part II to those ideas.
Avatar has been compared to a video game for good reason: it wouldn't exist without role-playing games (RPGs) having blazed the jungle trail first.
The film's visual design alone echoes what game developers have achieved in creating believable digital worlds. Devoted gamers already accept that pixels are as palpable as a Hollywood set. Increasingly, as more directors marry actual and digital performances and landscapes, the look and feel of the pixel will also feel real to the average moviegoer.
Both games and movies must be believed to work their magic. Seen in 3-D, "Avatar'' feels immersive --- more so than most films --- and provides the same high excitement, danger, and adventure of a game. It might be the most "game-like'' movie yet.
But no movie, no matter how richly textured, offers the same immersion as a video game. An RPG or first-person shooter (FPS) isn't passive escapism. Players are participants, choosing their own adventures, telling their own stories, taking action. Role-playing lets players trash-talk, boast, and celebrate their victories. The rush that paraplegic Jake Sully feels in his Na'vi skin is the same World of Warcraft players sense, controlling the actions of level-60 night elf hunters. Whereas movie audiences can talk back to the screen, but that's about as far as the interactivity goes at your local cineplex.
Avatar --- like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars --- also exists as a tie-in Xbox 360, PlayStation, and Wii video game experience. Why? The savvy franchise holders want to make money. But they also want to sate movie viewers' thirsts to explore Pandora themselves.
Avatar takes this gamer dream a step further. It doesn't stop at the vicarious heroics or gloss-over this desire to be the hero. The wish to transcend the limitations of the self, the idea that hovers at the edge of gaming culture, is utterly explicit in the plot. The movie's very title speaks to the desire to be uber-powerful; an avatar, literally, is the manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth.
Indeed, who doesn't want to be superhero-shaped (if not blue-skinned); better, faster, and more instinctual; lithe and running low to the ground one moment, jumping from vine to fantastic vine the next; riding six-legged horses and flying pterodactyl-like beasts.
Of course, we can't do these things. And the "real life" of living in the jungles of Pandora would be a slog. The reality of that fantasy life would be brutal. We'd be dead in a second, eaten by some jaguar-Trex hybrid or poisoned by a cute looking lemur dart frog. We'd never actually survive on Pandora --- or if we did, we'd have to be willing live with half of our children never making it to adulthood. As 21st century humans, we would never make it without modern technology that, of course, is an irony of the film: Cameron had to use a arsenal of whiz-bang gadgets and digital effects to craft his tree-hugging, environmental message.
The point is not we all should become Luddites. But there's a reason why that tribal, Stone Age way of life seems superficially attractive. The alluring fantasy life presented by Avatar would not be feasible in "real life." Yet it remains attractive because it IS fantasy --- unobtainable as Unobtanium. We can pretend, make believe, project ourselves in our imaginations. We can escape there for a couple hours, knowing that our warm beds and fast food await back home.
Still, sitting in the multiplex, 3D glasses draped on our faces, we're asked to role-play a little, to fantasize like Sully about how we were meant to live, hunting the forest, enacting meaningful rituals, taking charge of our destinies. Forget our selves as post-industrial, post-blue collar office workers stuck in our civilized ways. For, like Sully, we are effectively paralyzed as well, chained to our desks and DSL lines, far from Eden, far from nature, far from the magical thinking of yore. We yearn to break free. If only in our minds.
It's a similar dream offered by Tolkien's Middle-earth --- to be peaceful, nature-bonded hobbits, quietly growing crops, smoking pipes, drinking ale and laughing. An alluring fantasy life to be sure. And one perhaps worth fighting for, and to defend from the marauding hordes of orcs or bulldozers.
But here's another irony. Sully says he feels more alive as his avatar, while his real self lies supine on a bed, stuck in a trance state. "Everything is backwards now,'' he says, "like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.'' The self is split, and it haunts him.
As role-playing games cross new frontiers and become more integrated into our leisure lives, and as movies become more like games (and vice-versa), the question becomes: When is it time to hit the pause button?
World of Warcrack players, not to mention mere Facebookers, beware your various selves aren't spread too thinly across cyberspace.
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Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks:
An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.