Mario isn’t real.
Lara Croft isn’t real, either, neither the triangle-breasted adventurer of yore or the gritty explorer of today. Star Fox has no equivalency in reality. Rivia isn’t a thing, and Geralt of said Rivia isn’t, too. Luke Skywalker is vaguely real, in that a real life person played him in a movie, but there are too many degrees of separation there for Luke Skywalker to be real. Likewise with Mass Effect’s Miranda, whose shared visage with Yvonne Strahovski is purposeful–but it doesn’t make Miranda the character any more real in our world, the one in which we move and breathe.
Our connection to video game characters is well-documented and real, but the characters themselves aren’t. Making a character feel real is one of the great achievements of a developer.
Dragan Bender, however, exists both virtually and not. Bender was born in Croatia and grew to be a giant of a man, a 7′ 1″ behemoth who plays in the National Basketball Association for the Phoenix Suns, ostensibly because he can touch the sun if he gets a running jump.
I have never met this man, who would tower 15 inches over me. But Bender is just the best. I love the guy. I acquired him to play for my basketball team in multiple alternate realities.
Of course, I’m referring to a sports game; in this case, the game to which I am referring is NBA2K17. The game, which I bought on a whim during the Summer Steam Sale, has a mode where you take over as the General Manager for any of the 30 NBA teams or for one of a handful of hypothetical expansion teams.
The great thing about sports games is that, through interaction with an intermediary medium, sports games can forge a connection between the player and a real life person. It’s the transitive property at work: the player likes an athlete in the game, which translates to enjoying that athlete in real life. No other medium allows for this.
I’m incredibly fond of Bender, a spindly man from eastern Europe who can dunk a basketball by barely hopping off the ground. That fondness is a direct result of my virtual time with his likeness. The actual Bender didn’t play for my team (at least I hope not), but rather an avatar in his image.
And that bizarre connection can have very real consequences. Bo Jackson’s legacy is influenced in part due to his godlike status in the game Tecmo Bowl. Troy Aikman and Ken Griffey Jr.’s stardom was solidified by having legit video games named after them.
That video games can in some capacity forge a real fondness for real human beings through a digital avatar of that person is nothing short of amazing. It’s weird, too; don’t get me wrong. But it’s a great insight into the relationship between real people and a fictional world in which they exist, at least in part.