Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thoughts on Virtual Worlds

So Guild Wars 2 recently released a fake April Fool's joke:  the Super Adventure Box.  I need to stress that this is a fake April Fool's joke, by which I mean that it looks like an April Fool's joke, but is actually entirely real.  I promise I am not making this up.

For the month of April, players will be able to use Moto's Super Adventure Box, a training device for young children learning to make their way in the world which uses games as a form of educating with entertainment - edutainment!  Of course, it's only "for young children" in the game world of Guild Wars 2; for players in the real world, it's a nostalgic romp through a neo-retro mashup of old video games united with a decidedly Minecraftian aesthetic.  Fuckin'... sign me up!  Why am I writing this and not playing right now?!


Look, they even made an 80s-tastic commercial for it!

Oh, right, because I thought about it for two seconds.  And now I have to write those thoughts down, or pretty soon they'll pile up and my head will explode (yes, this is actually why I write).  Then I can play.

And what will I be playing?  I'll be playing a game... which will be about my character playing another game.  I suppose this is just another mini-game in a way, but what got me thinking was considering it as not "just another mini-game."  Yes, yes, there are plenty of games with mini-games wherein the character you play then plays another game (a game within a game), and this is nothing special.  What's special about this is that I'm entering a virtual world, and in that virtual world, my character enters another virtual world.

It's not just a game within a game, this time; it's The Matrix within The Matrix.

OK, so a couple of caveats first.  This isn't actually The Matrix within The Matrix for two important reasons:

1)  I don't have complete neural immersion, and
2)  This is actually just another part of the first Not-Really-The-Matrix.

Point 1 should be about as obvious as a Charr trying to infiltrate the Arcane Council (...if you don't play GW2, that means "really fucking obvious").  Point 2 bears a little bit of unpacking:  a genuine Matrix-within-a-Matrix would be a simulation-within-a-simulation, i.e. a mechanism built within a simulation which in turn generates another simulation.  Here, I want you to watch this video real quick:

Seriously, it's less than four minutes.  Just press play.

This is a fully-functional digital clock built inside the popular sandbox game, Minecraft.  You can get the gist of that in the first hundred seconds, but the rest should be pretty eye-opening.  Now, in reality, we can compress the circuitry and display for a digital clock, oh, I'd say ten-thousand-fold, give or take an order of magnitude or two.  But what's important here is that this is an elegantly-constructed and efficient precision machine, built entirely within the rules of an overarching simulation:  this guy didn't make a mod that programmed the mere function of a clock ("from outside") into an object within the game world, he used the rules of the simulation itself in order to go and build a fucking clock with nothing more than what the game provided ("from inside").

Using this clock as a proof-of-concept (the ability to construct reliably-timed circuitry), I'm gonna go out on a limb and predict that computers ten years from now will be able, in Minecraft, to simulate the computers of forty years ago (albeit on a much more clumsy scale, akin to the vacuum tubes of aaaaancient hiiiiistory).  Seriously.  Modern computers that can be purchased by consumers have, give or take, eight gigabytes of RAM, a terabyte hard drive, and 3-4 GHz parallel processors in gangs of four - simulating a simplified physics engine with the speed and scale to replicate a machine which could choke on kilobytes should be child's play in a decade.  The point here is that with, say, a fully-functional arcade machine built entirely upon the physics principles and materials of Minecraft, a player could truly play a video-game-within-a-video-game - i.e. a video game built within the "physical" constraints (and not merely subsumed under the overarching program architecture) of another video game.  (Yay for recursive ambiguity!)

OK, so that's what makes Point 2 important:  the Super Adventure Box is really just "another place" in GW2, and not actually a video game within another video game.  But I'm going to blithely disregard Point 1 (the lack of complete neural immersion), choosing instead to go with the metaphor of what the game represents:  a chance to live in another (digital) world.  Given that, I see no reason not to give Point 2 the same treatment, and favor the metaphor over the reality.  We are talking about games, after all.  :)

With points 1 & 2 out of the way, we can get to the meat of this discussion:  what the metaphor represents.  To make things crystal-clear, let me just spell out what I'm saying here:  I'm regarding participation in the virtual world of Guild Wars 2 as "Matrix-like immersion," and I'm regarding participation in the Super Adventure Box as immersion on top of that.  While neither of those is literally true, I think we can regard them as metaphorically valid based on the principles of suspension of disbelief and extended metaphors (if that's not too meta for you).

When I read a really good book, or play a really good game, my disbelief is all but fully suspended:  I am able to accept the protagonist's role and acknowledge the plausibility of the world, and I am at least emotionally immersed (if not neurally immersed) to the point that I emotionally interpret the protagonist's experience as if it were my own.  When we extend this metaphor to the Super Adventure Box, I'm simply saying that I can allow that immersion to go one level deeper with no loss of emotional fidelity:  I can still accept my on-screen character's experiences as my own, even though they are once-removed from me by way of the game interface and twice-removed from me by way of the two-layer metaphor.

Got that?  Good.  OK, now let's talk about the nature of human perception.

We live, in a very real sense, entirely within our own heads.  We are, in terms of our senses, primarily visual creatures - and the sorts of perceptions our eyes give to us tend to bear a high degree of fidelity to reality.  Think of distances, of shapes, of sizes.  But then there's color.  In reality, there's no such thing as "color," there is only that narrow band of the EM spectrum that tends to bounce off of things.  Adjust the frequency too low, and it's infra-red; adjust it too high, and it's ultra-violet.  While a few animals can perceive EM radiation in the outer reaches of these spectra, it's not only difficult to imagine, it's downright useless in day-to-day human life (going by the ancestral condition, that is).

But let's take another step away from the familiar and look at our sense of smell:  there is, in reality, no such thing as scent.  What our sensory apparatus reacts to in the act of "smelling" is the shape of molecules suspended in the air - and our perception of those inputs is nothing like that.  With taste, it gets even worse:  not only do we have molecular shape-detectors in our tongues, we have ion pumps that tell us that acidic things taste sour and basic things taste bitter.  What the blue fuck is up with that?!

Then there's our sense of temperature, whereby fast-moving molecules are detected as hot and slow-moving molecules are detected as cold, which makes no goddamned sense at all.  It gets even worse when you look at kinesthesia, the sense of where your body is located in and/or moving through space, through the filter of dysfunctions such as phantom limb syndrome:  your body does not have a part, and yet your brain insists that your body should have that part, and the absolute lack of baseline stimulus to the motor cortex is interpreted as pain (which... I mean... that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish altogether!).

My point here is that our sensory apparatus is a machine for representing reality to us, and those representations are often positively laden with fudge factors.  Like, beyond all fucking recognition as to what those qualia even represent in the first place (in some cases).  The world, as we experience it in our minds, is at least a step or two removed from the world "as it exists" in reality - this is what Kant gestured at with the ineffable ding an sich (the "thing in itself"), and the sort of distinction Locke aimed for with his "primary" and "secondary" qualities (the former bearing some resemblance to reality independent of our perceptions, such as distance and shape; the latter bearing no resemblance at all, such as taste and smell).

What I'm trying to establish is that our lives as we experience them are virtual worlds constructed by our brains.

You doubt me?  Consider the fact that there's no such thing as "yellow."  There's only what your brain tells you is yellow.  Now check this out:

OK, seven minutes this time... I'm upping the ante.  But I promise it's worth it!

I'm not making some argument for Matrices-within-Matrices - but what I am arguing for is a counterargument to the canard that tasks accomplished within a game aren't "real," in the sense that they don't "count."  If we get down to brass tacks, nothing we experience is "real," it's always at least a step removed as intermediated by our sensory apparatus - as devastating as that is for our perceptions of the world, it goes doubly so for our conceptions of the meanings of things that happen in the world.

What, then, to the most common objections to a Happiness Machine?  I'm not entirely sure.  After re-reading that last link, I believe my points about alternatives still hold in a strong sense, but only for a narrowly-defined sense of "meaning" which definitely departs from the broad sense I meant in the previous paragraph.  Maybe "not being sure" is the way to go here.

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