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Attack of the Pixels

What will happen when technology no longer augments our reality, but overthrows it?

The invasion begins surreptitiously: somewhere in Brooklyn, an old TV—maybe it's pretending to be broken—is taken out to the curb as trash. Soon, it crackles to life, and its static clears to reveal a fizzing bomb. When it ignites, the screen explodes, a swarm of pixels breaks free and streams toward Manhattan, unleashing chaos on New York.

But there's something benignly nostalgic about this onslaught. The cubes morph, becoming characters from 1980s arcade games. Pac-Man munches his way through subway stations. Space Invader creatures drop lightning bolts. Atop the Empire State Building, Donkey Kong imitates his filmic inspiration. And Tetris blocks slowly fall from the sky, interlocking with Seventh Avenue's skyscrapers. Another huge bomb is revealed, sitting astride one of the city's wide streets. It unleashes a blast of colourful blocks, and soon, whole neighbourhoods become cubist abstractions. The infection spreads. Eventually, the entire earth is one giant pixel, careening through space.

French videographer Patrick Jean may not have predicted that his short video, "PIXELS," could serve as a metaphor for its own virality. Within a few months of being posted to video-sharing site DailyMotion this spring, "PIXELS" had earned several awards, a screening at Cannes and a Hollywood bidding war over the rights to adapt it into a full-length feature film. Stories in which obscure artists suddenly find offline fame are hardly new. What's significant about "PIXELS" is the way it embodies a crucial change in the always-shifting boundary between virtual and reality. In the video, that line is smashed when the pixels burst from of the TV. It's as if, in that moment, the possibilities of cyberspace escape their technological cage, and are now finally capable of interfacing with—if not overrunning—the physical world.

"PIXELS" isn't the first depiction of a merger between these planes. It picks up on cultural themes that have been percolating for over a decade in other viral videos: Tetris played on a Berlin housing block, South Korean soccer fans coordinating their movements to resemble a digital billboard. In a way, the art of digitized reality has been around longer than the tangible emergence of that reality. But "PIXELS" came along in a moment when the integration of computerized and real seems nearly at hand. We can see this in the rise of "augmented reality" (AR) software that links physical things to electronic information. One of its first uses was the insertion of computer-generated ads onto the playing surfaces of televised sporting events. More AR buzz followed the jump in smartphone ownership, which made portable the vast bank of information on the web.

Apps for recognizing song melodies are common, and one fast-developing concept allows mobile devices to pick up digital information by reading bar codes. A much-talked-about example last year was Esquire's 3D cover for the film Sherlock Holmes, in which Robert Downey Jr., came alive onscreen if a user pointed a web cam at his image.

An even more powerful form of AR leaked into the consumer mainstream earlier this year: Google's Goggles application, which can translate a photo taken by a smartphone into data related to whatever the phone "sees"—linking the information it reads in the photo to material available online. In early tests, Goggles was able to recognize a picture of the London Eye Ferris wheel, for example, by converting a photo of the landmark into a Google search for its name.

Other applications of AR include restaurant reviews available by photographing a café's façade, and downloadable "public art" that's only visible when a phone's camera display is held up to a certain location. Meanwhile, MIT researchers are developing a portable device called SixthSense, which beams images or other data onto any available surface, and allows the user to interact with the projection using fingertip sensors. Such technology would allow near-total immersion in an internet/reality continuum; the web fully touchable, our every gesture constantly streamed online. An event called Gold Rush, which debuted at Amsterdam's Nuit Blanche this summer, gave us a preview of the possibilities. The game used an actual city as its platform, taking players on a smartphone-enabled scavenger hunt that moved between online and physical spaces (think Pac-Man meets parkour).

But what might happen when the exceptional characteristics of virtual play begin to infiltrate our real-world identities? Irishman Gavin Kelly's popular and surprisingly affecting four-minute film, "Avatar Days," raises just this concern. In it, we watch four World of Warcraft gamers go about day-to-day tasks in Dublin in the guise of their online personas, or avatars (sitting forlornly at his computer, for example, is Turn, a hulking Tauren druid). In voiceovers, the avatar creators are frank about why they play Warcraft: defeating hordes of zombies or turning men into sheep helps overcome their sense of quotidian powerlessness, and redeems their unsung and undifferentiated existences.

"Avatar Days" reminds us that internet fantasy worlds are popular because they offer flight from reality—calling into question our ability to exist in both realms simultaneously. What are the consequences of merging individuals' digital and real lives? No technological advance, after all, has come without potential for abuse, and an increasingly digitized culture could lead to standards of behaviour more common to anonymous multiplayer games.

With their flippant representations of digitized gore, computer and video games are constantly accused of desensitizing players to aggression and violence.  This problem didn't begin with digitization—analog board games like Battleship reduced the deaths of hundreds to geometrical abstraction—but video games' graphic characterizations of violence make the most reprehensible war crimes seem inconsequential. And the sense created by games—that real-world rules don't apply, and, more troublingly, that the only moral imperative is to win—is even more disconcerting when applied to agents of the state. The relationship between games and state violence, especially warfare, has a long history; most recently, for example, video game publisher Ubisoft collaborated with the US military to create a game called America's Army, a thinly-veiled propaganda exercise that even directs online users to a virtual recruiting office. Video games are attractive to the military because they dehumanize opponents. But the desensitizing extends to the rest of us as well. Let's not forget how, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, US broadcasters thrilled to the video feeds embedded in "smart bombs." The footage was frequently compared to the onscreen interface of a computer game.

Paradoxically, video games' increasingly detailed rendering of their characters makes imagining violence against human beings even more possible; it helps break down the distinctions between imagined "people" and real ones, once they are rendered, pixelated, on digital screens. "It felt like I was in a big video game," one American soldier told the Washington Post, discussing how he mowed down an Iraqi fighter in Mosul. "It didn't even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!" The increasing use of technology to aid warfare means that real people—seen through night-vision goggles or the cameras of Predator drones remotely operated with joysticks—look and seem almost completely like the mere creations of a gaming studio.

On April 8, just one day after "PIXELS" premiered online, Wikileaks, an investigative organization devoted to exposing government and corporate secrets, released a long-hyped US military video of soldiers using Apache helicopters to carry out the targeted killing of twelve Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists. "The behaviour of the pilots is like they're playing a video game," said Julian Assange, Wikileaks' founder and spokesperson. "It's like they want to get high scores." A blogger at the gaming site Kotaku made the metaphor even more vivid, writing that the video would be "visually familiar to anyone who has played [the] most recent Call of Duty games," and observing that the pilots' glib rhetoric was similar to Modern Warfare 2's "in-game dialogue."

While arguments over the influence of games on real-world violence have gone on for decades, they will take on a new significance as the electronic universe becomes increasingly confused with the actual. We may be able to stop ourselves when the influence of computerized reality on our behaviour seems in danger of crossing absolute moral frontiers. But those who have found solace in the online world's escapist fantasies will need another safety valve. Something will have to give. Patrick Jean's video may not just be a metaphor for a viral meme, but for the violent clash that could occur when digital culture unleashes itself on the analog world. The pixels will not necessarily come in peace.

See the rest of Issue 37 (Fall 2010).

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