game of life
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
Agency within an environment makes that environment, and the
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;
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
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 boardas a personality within a
universe defined by that particular machine, in humanlike
relations with other personalities animated by and large by
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
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 moral stance 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 playersand that their adventure is just a
gameso 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 elderlythe 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 likeoutside 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 placethis more real place
awaits us all.
That supper is served.
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.