One of the better selfies taken in Grand Theft Auto V. Image: GTA Screenshot
Barricaded behind the walls of expensive and overcomplicated devices, video games often seem like they're cloistered off from the rest of pop culture. But in this, the year of the selfie, games began to make a curious appeal for their cultural relevance: they started letting players photograph their own avatars.
The most famous example of this is Grand Theft Auto V, which has already inspired many a listicle to document the pictures that its legions of players have captured in the past two months. And if you think about it, having selfies in GTA makes perfect sense: the game is meant to be a twisted recreation of every perverse facet of modern American life. It's already a fictive universe where people—psychopathic killers though they may be—all have smartphones similar to the ones we use.
Other examples become far more abstract, however. Nintendo's remake of the GameCube-era classic The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker added a new feature that lets players pull and prod at Link's face to tweak his expression before snapping a shot of the iconic hero.
Image: Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker screenshot from @Linkstagram
Tearaway, the new game from Media Molecule (creators of the phenomenal kids series LittleBigPlanet) gets even weirder as it tries to eke out extra functionality from every pore of Sony's poorly selling mobile console, the PlayStation Vita. There's a "tap the selfie button" cue that appears every so often that prods you to mark your progress as the adorably twee papercraft character that is the game's protagonist. But the game takes things a step further: it uses the Vita's front-facing camera to film your face and pop it onto an image of the sun, atop the game's scenery.
For all the ink that's been spilt about selfies this year, it's really not that hard to explain why people like to take them. Whether they serve an archival or purely social purpose, photographs has always helped us document and make sense of our lives. Taking pictures of yourself in a video game, however, poses another question altogether. If the "selfie" truly instrumentalizes our inherent narcissism, video games would seem like an odd vehicle for doing so. The connection to one's self in a game is already tenuous. You might be controlling this particular Trevor (or Franklin, or Michael) in GTA V, but he looks an awful lot like the other 30-million-plus Trevors that are out there jacking cars and killing people.
Maybe that's the point. One night shortly after GTA V was first released, my friend Jake called me up to say he was in my neighborhood and not-so-subtly invited himself over to try the game out. I'd been tearing through the game in an attempt to review it, and actually having another human being sitting next to me while playing it was unexpectedly comforting.
"You need to have someone else here," Jake said when I pointed this out to him. "To see all the crazy shit that's happening."
A moment later, we both gasped audibly as the car Jake was driving flew straight off a cliff and dove precipitously towards a shimmering lake.
This moment helped me realize an uncomfortable, if somewhat obvious truth: playing video games, particularly as an adult, is a lonely endeavor. There's a good reason why most other kinds of games — chess, football, boxing, what have you — take place in real time between two or more human opponents: play is a type of social behavior. Why do you think we shame masturbators by referring to it as "playing with yourself?" Selfies are a way that gamers, isolated behind their separate screens, can fashion themselves into part of a rich mosaic that starts to feel like an actual community.
When I asked Mike, a GTA player who requested I only use his first name, why he took selfies with a friend in the game's online multiplayer mode, he answer was simple.
"The same reason you take selfies in real life," he said. "We were making memories together. I believe we were on top of a giant mountain overlooking the city. Plus my character was dressed super gay: white bandana, aviators, kevlar vest, no shirt, never-nude cutoff shorts and bright white sneakers. So it was funny!"
Selfies are similar to the "Let's Play" videos that many gamers post on YouTube in this sense: they help unify an experience by personalizing it. But as the recent kerfuffle over that service's copyright bots shows, even capturing footage of video games and posting them to YouTube can be a complicated task, both legally and technically, for many players. By making photography an actual gameplay feature, a company like Rockstar or Nintendo democratizes this process.
Tearaway selfies. From the trailer, YouTube screenshot
In this sense, selfies are also the natural conclusion of a selfish impulse gamers have when compared to other kinds of pop culture fiends: the feeling that they can expect certain things from video games because they've invested so much time in playing them. Entitlement like this can have some strange outcomes, such as in 2012 when Mass Effect 3 players beat BioWare, the game's developer, into submission last year simply because they didn't find the ending to its 100-hour-plus sci-fi trilogy satisfying.
It's hard to imagine a Belieber demanding that Justin Bieber change his next album because he's been a mega fan of the singer for his entire career. Similarly, if you take a selfie at a concert, you're simply documenting your experience. Whether or not Beyoncé joins in is purely her decision. In GTA, if you want to frame a selfie in just the right way, you can manipulate your surroundings at your leisure—and even murder someone to do so. Taking a selfie in a video game establishes you not just as a citizen in this virtual world, but its master. Or, as one Wind Waker player put it when I asked him: "selfies are inherently a way to claim ownership of your surroundings."
But the thing is, we don't actually own these surroundings any more than we own the meatspace around us for our real-life selfies. But it's a lot easier to think we do in a video game. In reality, our existential sense of freedom gamers have only runs as deep as the game's developers allow it to. At a certain point, selfie or no selfie, there are still terms of service and creative limits that only let us do certain things, like drive and kill people in Grand Theft Auto rather than run around hugging everybody and kissing them on the cheek.
Maybe that's why my favorite video game selfie of 2013 is the one from Tearaway— the front-facing camera that occasionally plops your face into the game as the center of the sun.
As a game, Tearaway makes sure to stroke your ego. Like many kids games, its narrators tell you you're the key to the entire story. Even the marketing materials promises to give you "a world entirely in your god-like hands." But then it flaunts the Vita's peculiar ability to film you, to photograph you, to take a selfie that's not really a selfie at all because it's ultimately out of your control. So who is the real god in Tearaway? Seeing my own face broadcast back to me, it certainly didn't feel like me.
I kept taking selfies anyways, but just because the game told me to.