I’ve been playing a video game, for the first time in a decade. I spent a brief time binging Skyrim in college, until a friend couch-surfed through and monopolized the game. By the time he moved on, I had kicked the habit.
The current game is fine, I guess. It’s a direct translation of the pen-and-paper game Pathfinder , the spiritual successor to Dungeons and Dragons . It lets me pretend to be a witch and have adventures, which I like. It’s also supremely addictive and I think it’s making me dumber.
I can feel my dopamine cycle warping around this new stimulus. The feedback loop is instantaneous and unrelenting. The craving is almost as strong as when I smoked cigarettes. I can’t stop thinking about it, wondering when I will get another chance for a click of the good stuff.
I sneak around a corner, trailing a cohort of dependable companions, and behold: a terrifying monster! The whole world freezes and a banner unrolls in the top of my vision: PAUSED. I point at the monster and learn its strengths and weaknesses. I whisper magic words and the monster falls asleep. My friends assault it with an assortment of edged weapons and wicked spells. If I win, I search its lair and steal its cache of money and jewels (there’s always a cache of money and jewels). If I lose, I get a do-over. Until I win. At which point I go around the next corner, and find the next monster. Click click click click click.
This is utterly unlike anything I do in the rest of my life. I spend most days spinning plates on poles and hoping a bird doesn’t shit in my eye. I do vaguely defined activities with few data points. The criteria for success are ambiguous and the goalposts constantly receding. I don’t think I’m winning at life. I’m not sure I would know if I were.
When I slip into default mode , I catch myself puzzling on game-world problems. Not so much the interpersonal issues. The AI characters are less than convincing – though I’m told you can date some of them, if you like your fantasies on the romantic side.
More, I think about the rules of the game world. It’s so detailed: you have to rest or get fatigued, hunting takes time but rations are heavy. Sleep spells last for x number of seconds. Everything makes sense.
There are rules in our own universe as well: Shit rolls downhill. Time keeps on slipping. Every attempt to herd a cat will produce an equal and opposite reaction.
But the real world is overdetermined. There are so many possible causes for the effects of our lives. We can never be sure we are pulling the right levers. Or blaming the right villains.
No wonder that gamers love the simulation hypothesis. They spend all their time in constructed environments. How comforting would it be to live in a world made just for you, designed intelligently by some greater power? Your life would be replete with significance. Someone cares enough about you to script your whole life. You are the Player.
The mall is a constructed environment, too, though. The whole city is a simulation, the billboards and the power lines and the concrete concrete concrete. Every piece of it is designed by somebody to do something to your head. Maybe you’re lucky, and you live in a place with real history, where the land and the people are still on speaking terms and your ancestors made their cities into art with you in mind. Maybe you’re worse off than me, struggling for an overpriced bunk in the smoggy canyons of a megacity.
There are intelligences here on the planet that simulate a world. They construct the environment. They guard and invade territory, build traps and lairs and hives. Look around. Whose name is on the biggest buildings? Banks and corporations, religions and governments. The engines of the economy are in turn the engineers of our environments. What we make, makes us back.
Now we live in worlds of persuasion. The TV watches you. It keeps a file and sells your secrets. An ear in every pocket and an eye on every wall: propaganda is a growth industry .
Simulated worlds rely on our suspension of disbelief. They don’t exist unless we pay attention to them. Like prayer wheels, they need to be stroked. Sure, right now everyone stands in orderly lines at the grocery store. Will they do so when the storm comes? Will they stop to swipe their cards through the till when the streets and stores are flooded? Why should they? The game is over. The rules are off.
Video games entice us like lampreys with their dazzling graphics. They drop you into an oubliette of the mind, a sensory deprivation tank, where the body cannot be heard no matter how much it screams. They’re superstimuli, like salt or fat or white sugar. They overload the human senses, they boggle our evolved minds.
But at least they’re artful. People make them! Human people. Like movies or music or any other form of art, they’re designed to invoke a sense of meaning and tell a certain story. The big-budget Hollywood-equivalent games are probably just as trashy as big-budget Hollywood films. But a lot of people are finding their personal expression in games, in this beautiful immersive narrative art.
And a social media app is basically a video game, isn’t it? It has buttons and points and rankings. But it’s not beautiful, it’s not artistic. It’s an advertising game, where you click click click on demographic signifiers and get rewarded with the exact right advertisement for you .
The platform is built for the advertisers, the surveillocrats, and as you play the game it teaches you to become one of them. All rule-sets have a bias. Inevitably, you develop a meme page or a podcast or a side hustle and you find yourself managing your Brand. You have entered the inner circle, says the app. Want to get your posts out there? Just pay a little money. Stop being a sucker. Play at the big kids table.
Suddenly your story of self is polluted with your own branding. You start to believe your own bullshit. Your game has merged with your life, your family, your business. You’re playing with real money.
Money is just another game. Capitalism is a rule-set. It’s a game where the points are everything and the winner goes first. And the stakes are life and death.
If I’m going to live in a simulated world, I’d rather be a witch and have adventures. But that’s not the only option! There are adventures to have in the world right now. It is the apocalypse, after all.
The climate catastrophe threatens to turn this planet into a hot, cloudless rock. Hundreds of millions of people will forced to migrate from their homes – if not billions. The rules by which we play this out will define our century, and our species. The world we build will be so different from today’s that it might as well be Dungeons and Dragons.
If you’re not having an adventure yet, get ready. You will be soon.
Thanks for reading,
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