Agency within an environment makes that environment, and the agent, real.
My son, who is 12 years old, and who is more fond of his mountain bike than he is of philosophy, has a directory of computer games in his MS-DOS computer called "FUN."
I named it for him, and made him a batch processing command, fun.bat, which allows him to enter this computer directory from wherever he might be on his 30-meg. hard drive, which is bigger than the hard drive I'm working on now. Even very simple computer games are more byte-intensive than the space it takes to store thoughts about them.
"Supper's ready." I say; "It's just a game, David."
"I know, Dad," David says.
But David is not looking at me. He's staring straight ahead instead, absorbed by a two-dimensional display which blinks back at him in 37 different colors. The machine beeps and squawks as he yanks and pulls on the joy-stick. An enemy of the White Knights is successfully pinned with a laser weapon, and self-eviscerates, just before exploding into pink, shrinking droplets, and then vanishing from the game board altogether.
My son is in control of this cyberspace, I note with some relief. But relief turns to apprehension as I see that there is no safety net. I see David carefully evaluating his present game circumstances, and then making a "move," interacting with the machine. The machine accepts the fresh input, integrates it with other, dynamic system data, and responds with the display of a new and different set of conditions to be reckoned with by my son, the player of the game. The machine, in making its move, drags everything and everyone along into a "future," which it, the machine, creates. The child experiences agency in his ability to condition, or steer, changing system states within the confines of certain rules. Click the mouse and the cannon fires, creating certain results. Click it again to blow up the space station.
Agency within an environment makes that environment, and the agent, "real."
Ago ergo sum.
David is playing a computer game, and will either prevail against the forces of darkness, and "win," or get "eaten" by a snapping cursor – an electronic cookie monster. He can't talk now. There are events to determine. Supper will wait.
A child playing a computer game is wandering around the insides of an artificial environment, interacting with that environment in accordance with certain specifiable rules, or "algorithms." Such a synthetic environment is cyberspace, and the experience enjoyed by the child is, for him, virtually real, as perhaps supper is not.
Games are reality simulators.
The essence of a game, and the essence of reality simulation, is the interaction of the user with its environment. There are no games in which players do not have moves. In fact, it is the absence of moves which, in certain games like Chess, is understood to signal the end of the game. In checkmate, we are returned from a synthetic to a parent environment. "Game's over; wanna drink?"
By the same token, motion picture theaters, in which we sit as passive observers, are not yet reality simulators. The reason is that there is no interaction between the subject and the events transpiring on the movie screen. The end of the movie is often known in advance. It will come to pass whether we approve it or not. There are no moves for us to make. The popcorn machine is real in a manner that the silver screen is not.
All that changes, however, once we are given efficacious moves to make. Once we perceive an ability to alter our surroundings, and see these surroundings responding to our input, these surroundings can no longer be ignored. They become the real world to be reckoned with. Monopoly is such a world. So is Solitaire, and PacMan.
Reality is generated out of personal agency, within a set of rules. All games do it.
Some games are more complicated than others, depending on the complexity of the rules, or algorithms, by which the game, and the resulting cyberspace, are defined. Chess, for example, is more complicated than Checkers, although both are played on the same simple, two-dimensional playing board.
Three-dimensional games are just around the corner, at the New Age Emporium. Strap yourself in, put on the helmet and the playing gloves, and get ready for high adventure.
"Get me out of this!" screamed an unwilling player who had agreed to test out such a device in London, at a recent exhibition sponsored by the manufacturer. This person was able to remember that he had elected to test out a reality simulator, and was thus able to quickly exit a synthetic environment which he found terrifying. Others may remember less well, and exit their synthetic (but very real!) adventures only when they are unplugged.
The ultimate game is of course a Lifegame. More than one player (in fact, millions of them) can play a Lifegame at the same time, using three-dimensional, colorful game boards on which events and processes are machine-driven, yet responsive to moves of the player. Very much as in "real" life. Playing a Lifegame consists in making one's way through these events and processes as a character on the playing board—as a personality within a universe defined by that particular machine, in humanlike relations with other personalities animated by and large by other players.
Lifegame Versions 3.0 and above (256-bit and better versions) will not be played in anything like a movie theater; nor will there be any helmets and control gloves in sight. Players will play fully immersed in the cyberspace, it having been centuries since control surfaces were absorbed into the organism itself, as the result of skillful genetic manipulation. The ultimate reality chamber will have no walls.
Animating a character within a Lifegame will be a very exciting activity, with players able to select particularly glorious careers, in accordance with the levels of difficulty and commitment selected, which careers will be enjoyed in the first-person, with career wins identified in the usual manner; namely, in terms of wealth, power, fame and good looks within the cyberspace game environment. This will be high adventure indeed.
Only, what we call "God" in the game will be in fact the owner of a machine, or a designated Sysop, and what we call "angels" in the game will be in fact machine-driven players in roles for which no human participants happened to be available (Bots), or only partially available (Cyborgs).1
Most punters will prefer white hats and horses, and to overcome the forces of evil, rather than to join them. It will thus be mainly computer programmers, through their machines and their black angels, who will preserve deceit in cyberspace. We already see this in the essentially moralstance taken against the computer programmer authors of alternate realities as crude as Dungeons and Dragons.
As the number of players in cybernetical spaces grows large, and as the sophistication of the Lifegame computer algorithms approaches that represented by current scientific knowledge of the universe, the experiences delivered to the subject-observers (the players) will take on the fine grain, the infinite texture and the ultimate inscrutability of those experiences which we enjoy today, in everyday life.
There will be random occurrences, amazing coincidences, occasionally blurred vision, irony, ambiguity, happenstance, and existential despair in fully-developed cyberspace, and fewer and fewer angels. A fully-developed Lifegame will be indistinguishable from what we now call "The Game of Life."
It is understandable, then, that players may not always know that they are just players—and that their adventure is just a game—so engrossed will they become in their current cyberspatial trek. Taking life too seriously will continue to threaten, even within a machine.
"It's just a game," father-players will whisper from time to time, at the bedsides of their synthetic children, thinking themselves wise, and of great use to their families.
Of course, the elderly—the Mothers and Fathers of the race— have always thought themselves to be in touch, atavistically, with parent environments, and to be able to hint scoldingly at what things are like – really like—outside the game.
That, for example, there exist abiding realities beyond the pale of the here and now, in which we must believe.
That these realities are heavenly.
That, whether we play winning or losing moves in the Game of Life, a return to this better place—this more real place— awaits us all.
That supper is served.
1 Cf., Smith, Jennifer, MUDs and MUDding, for a glossary of terms denominating these and other personalities encounterable in current multi-user computer games.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.