One day in Philadelphia about three years ago, Michael Highland had spent most of his waking hours playing the hyper-realistic but still fantastic (in a literal sense) urban “Grand Theft Auto” on his PlayStation. After almost eight hours straight, he decided to leave his place and walk down the street to pick up some food.
“I had finally shut it down around 10 p.m. I had been playing quite a bit,” he says. “Penn has a major hospital very close to where I lived, and I was hearing police sirens and a med chopper right above me. Now, I’m a pretty mellow guy, but I almost had a panic attack. For a minute, I thought I was back in the game. I don’t think I would have fired on the chopper if I had a bazooka or anything, but the instincts had crossed over from the video game to the real world.”
That’s when he knew he had been playing video games a little too much. “I realized that games have had a little more impact on my life than just entertainment,” Highland says.
But it also inspired the now-22-year-old University of Pennsylvania senior to make a movie about his love for, and experiences with, video games. His 22-minute film, “As Real As Your Life,” is an exploration of the pervasiveness of the video-game culture among people primarily in their teens and 20s.
The film chronicles Highland’s own addiction to video games — he is unabashed and matter-of-fact about that addiction — and “aims to start conversations about the ways in which virtual experience may come to supplant real life,” he says.
“As Real As Your Life” will be screening at the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, July 31; Highland’s film debuted at the Princeton Student Film and Video Festival last year, which takes place this year on Wednesday and Thursday, July 18 and 19. According to Susan Conlon, teen services librarian, who oversees the festival, 65 filmmakers from high school to college age submitted entries to the festival, now in its fourth year. Many entries were from the Princeton area, but others came from other parts of the U.S. and one from Canada.
“The festival is intended to encourage and support the creative work of youth filmmakers,” Conlon says. “Our festival provides local student filmmakers with the chance to share their work with an audience as well as a chance to see the work of other student filmmakers, and hopefully to inspire one another.”
Among the filmmakers to exhibit their films on Wednesday, July 18, are the Cranbury brothers, Sam and Bob Venanzi, who will be showing “Dungeon Master,” which also has connections to the gaming world, as well as Brendan Dean, a recent Princeton High School graduate, who will show “B.A.C. Man” on Thursday, July 19.
Highland was born in Princeton and raised in Skillman. He graduated from Princeton Day School in 2003. His father, Joseph, runs an environmental consulting business. His mother, Dorothy, is an assistant district attorney in Mercer County. He has an older sister, Rebecca, and a younger brother, Vladimir, who is originally from Bulgaria. The two, predictably, play lots of video games together.
As a kid, it was Highland and his sister, Rebecca, who played a lot of video games. The family had a Nintendo, a PlayStation, and an Xbox. Pretty soon, says Highland, video games “were becoming a pretty important part of my daily life.” He liked action games and simulations, as opposed to other genres such as sports games.
At one point, Highland said, he was nationally ranked in “Quake.” Nationally ranked in a video game? “I was, most of the time, in the low 100s. At one point I got as high as 11th,” he says. Highland was fascinated with computers and machinery, and he liked taking apart machines and contraptions.
Growing up, Highland wanted to be a pilot, and he worked on flight simulators and one game that allowed him to “build” his own airplane and plug it into a realistic flight simulator.
He is also drawn to games like “Sim City,” the city-planning simulation which Highland had been playing with Vladimir the night before this interview. He says the game “allows you to change things and see the impact of your actions. That is a very empowering experience.”
Highland also learned to work the family video camera and then began making experimental short films at home and in school. At PDS, he created a senior project that was a mockumentary on go-kart racing.
When he went to Penn, Highland found video games and gaming to be a source of comfort in a stressful, alien environment. Although many of his other fellow Quakers were video gamers, most people did so in the privacy of their own dorm rooms, in online communities, interacting with others only virtually. “I turned more toward video games than ever before. It was sort of a place I could go where I knew I was a winner,” Highland says. “I left my PlayStation on all day, and I played it any time I had a free moment. At my peak, during my freshman year, I was playing six hours a day.”
Now Highland plays about six hours a week. But his real life, and his video game life, soon came together when he started making student films. “As Real As Your Life” was originally a nine-minute short, filmed in Highland’s dorm room and on the Penn campus. Highland pulled a Spike Lee and starred in his own film. Lots of the movie’s footage comes from video games themselves.
Highland says he had to do some acting outside of his normal personality, because he was focusing on a younger version of himself — the addicted, shy, scared freshman. “I did have to go through a sort of change — reinventing myself to go back to who I was freshman year. I had to get back into that mindset.”
In two years, the movie has been shown at several film festivals (including a side festival at Cannes) and has been hyped across the Internet, thanks to Highland’s trailers on YouTube and the Internet gaming site allgames.com. As an addict who has turned into an artist and expert, Highland has been called on to comment often about the connections between gamers’ real lives and their virtual ones.
A person’s real life, Highland says, “definitely affects their virtual life, and vice versa.” The video games a person plays, the way they play those games, and the decisions they make in those games “make you look inside yourself, and give you some insight into who you really are.”
Highland will graduate from Penn in January with a bachelor’s degree in digital media design. But he has already made inroads into his chosen career path. Last month Highland returned to Philadelphia from Hong Kong, where he was working at the MERECL Design Lab at Hong Kong Polytechnic University developing video games.
MERECL stands for “Multimedia Entrepreneurial Research, Education, and Creativity Laboratory. The lab’s acronym is pronounced “miracle,” and the lab is a multimedia, multidisciplinary place that creates digital media for a large array of academic and business clients.
“Just living there was quite an experience,” Highland says of the South China city-state. “It was a great test for experiencing what it would be like to be a game developer.” He is trying to develop a documentary about video gaming and is continuing to work on his school projects at Penn.
Ultimately, Highland says, “I would like to bridge the gap between film and video games, to harness the emotional power of both media.”
Student Film and Video Festival, Wednesday and Thursday, July 18 and 19, 7 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, princetonlibrary.org or 609-924-8822.
Also, film and discussion, Tuesday, July 31, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Public Library. Screening of Michael Highland’s “As Real as Your Life,” about the effect of video games on players. Highland’s film was first screened at the 2006 Princeton Student Film & Video Festival at Princeton Public Library and has been screened at several film festivals since. 609-924-8822.