Ponderings on Reality, Virtuality and Games

by rexplorations

When I was in college, I was a compulsive gamer. The virtual landscape of three dimensional games and two dimensional strategy games set on a landscape, provided a field of play for my mind. The rules were often clear, there was enough variety and novelty to suck me in, and the artificial environments were more intriguing and beautiful than my real life as a student. You could make decisions that mattered in these games, because the landscape was well known, and you’d learn the outcomes. You’d always get second chances. Or third chances. Or fourth chances. There was no compulsion to play them that was existential – you’d get a temporary high from finishing a difficult level, or getting past a boss fight, or rediscovering that you remembered where one of the several hundred secret areas in Quake 2 were in a specific map. There were persistence of memory, recollection of strategies and approaches upon demand, and well known strategies in different situations. Over time, you’d get to know your enemies. Over time, you’d start winning. Over time, things don’t change a great deal in your landscape, but you know better.

Human imagination is limited, given our limited brain power and the limited resources and ideas at our disposal, so there are always tradeoffs in human endeavours. Computational power is limited (definitely was more limited when I became a gamer) and there were tradeoffs here too. As a result, the games I played were generally best possible solutions by the developers to a problem concerning some kind of gamified alternate reality. I played my games inside their games, inside the landscapes they designed. The game’s aspects were immersion, incentives for actions and the flow that makes the game natural. Its successes were staid and predictable. Its moves acquired the tenets of a ritual – repetitive, abstract, at an interface for ideas and action. Its failures were obvious, tangible and non-existential. That tiny 14″ screen on my Pentium 500 MHz PC was enough for me then to discover the vibrant world of Unreal or the dingy cellars of Quake 2, or the martial and minimalistic Vadrigar descendants of Quake 3. That computer was my portal to an alternate history of civilizations where the actors and objects were well known, where my role was to micromanage resources and people with limited characteristics, immutability and limited protocols, where the landscape was simplistic and certain, and the game play was sure footed, even in conditions when other humans played the game. I loathed the real world because there were many unknowns (just as I loathe some of my sentences because of their conjunctions).

As a gamer, I was absorbed by the need to experience fluidity, control and familiarity. Challenges in the real world are different from the challenges of the virtual world. There is no one clear objective, nobody fires the starting gun. There are no clear players, and there is no clear landscape. If there is, you’re seldom aware of the boundaries. The rules aren’t obvious, or apparent. The actions we perform have a sense of finality, because this moment in time, and all the parameters and situations leading up to it, can never be replicated. In the real world, small changes permeate everything. The landscape is unimaginably vast, and the parameters and situations are so arbitrary as to not matter to anyone. Objects are divisible and negotiable, and indistinct when compared to the virtual world. Motives, rules of play and performances can never be scripted.

Ritualism was a bygone era’s game. The propitiation of this deity or that, the performance of this act or that, was seen as yanking a thread of causality. Rituals apparently brought some train of inevitability to a rumbling halt, transformed the mundane into the ethereal, or allowed the resumption of one’s life from where one left it, with some sense of enhanced simplicity about its landscape, as if some newfound assumption in a vast mathematical problem suddenly presented itself. While we know that ritualism never worked, would it work in subtle ways in the landscapes of reality? How can the real world be made to bow to a ritual? Can agents that subscribe to a code of rules, incorruptibly, enforce this? If they did, would a population of such agents, be they human or otherwise, represent a predictable landscape? Furthermore, if such agents already exist, are the patterns we see in the behaviour of individuals and crowds distillations of these codes of rules, postulates and theorems of some unerring mathematical certainty, that persists in the middle of the chaos that are individuals and actors and agents and the objects that they use? Will a knowledge of such postulates allow us to discover more fundamental rules about reality, society and the landscape of our real world actions?

Postulates of gameplay and patterns of behaviour unfurl when we see real world games – the kind that engage, excite, and foment deep passions amongst millions. Protocol has replaced the instinct to survive and success is now some kind of predefined objective function. In a game of cricket, each team takes turns to outscore and/or outlast the other. In a game of football, teams compete in real time to dominate a field of play. In a game of chess, strategic turn-by-turn domination and the effective use of the specialization built into the moves of pieces dictates who wins. These denouements of strategy are no different from the virtual games I once experienced. The opponents are often harder and more real, there is a sense of personal exertion in these games, as mental exertion is common to virtual worlds, but there is a crucial difference. The rules tend to be bent a bit more. There is more ambiguity. There are many unwritten rules that aren’t populated by assumptions. In a game of Sokoban, there are many possible trajectories that can solve one virtual scheduling problem, but in a game of cricket, where you’ve to use five bowlers so as to have the maximum impact, there are many more variables. The rulebook doesn’t make statements about the environment to a great deal in real world games. The rule book converts uncertainty to assumptions in virtual games.

The real world, in truth, seldom offers certainty. Our lives are more arbitrary than we think. This arbitrariness is what sustains Per Bak piles of wealth and circumstance and love and chance and beauty and the other things we value. There is uniformity and predictability at higher levels of abstractions about our species, such as the rich and the poor, the economics of nations, intellectual potential, the difference one or a few innovations in the right place make, and so on. The world is full of Nicholas Taleb’s extremistan, in other words. The resources that one has here are more arbitrary, rather different, and there is never more than one chance. The lack of repetitiveness and the diversity we see around us encourages not certainty and predicated progress but helps evolve diverse outcomes to scenarios, from the unlikeliest of places.

There is no real comfort here in the real world, only the triumph of circumstance. There is no certainty but for the self-sustaining electro-chemical reaction that skims along on the surface of a delicate planet (and perhaps others apart from this one). There were only new ideas, no rehashes of old ones, and if there were, they were seldom effective. Comfort always lay in certainty – the certainty of periodicity and predictability, the certainty of love (most times, anyway), the foreknowledge of things and the control we exercise as actors on our landscape. The approaches to life we evolve are an  ever-changing amalgam of our habits and our landscape. We are driven more than our landscape than we imagine just as some real life Taguchi design may be driven more by noise factors than we often imagine. The real world is more like a game than we think, and yet, extremely different. Perhaps there are many games. And games playing games. And games with minds of their own, and actors at levels of abstraction beyond what we currently comprehend, like why the constants of nature are what they are. One researcher in the social sciences remarked recently that we know and ponder more about the origin of our universe than we know and ponder about how our societies work, and in the context of games, at least, that ritualism is indeed obscured to us. We cannot see the postulates alluded to, and perhaps we cannot aspire to even know the axioms.