Thursday, July 23, 2009

Making Stuff Up

Medical doctors and outdoorsmen alike refer to the rule of threes. You can live for three minutes without breathing, three days without drinking, and three weeks without food. Outside of these limits your continued physical survival becomes dubious, although the precise limits vary significantly with environmental factors. Obviously, there are certain secondary affects such as waste removal and bodily motion implied in the above. Nevertheless breathing, drinking, and eating are the three things that every human being must do to prevent rapid biological death. All else is fantasy.

I

This is the definition of fantasy used by the psychologist Carl Jung, who not coincidently was a medical doctor. Jung despised the tendency in Freud and Adler to concretize or reify the personality. He was fond of saying, “The object of psychology is to get the individual to play with their own personality.” Play being the operative word. Unlike most other psychologists, he didn’t regard role playing or fantasizing as an activity limited to childhood; he considered it the acme of human experience.

Buried in a post a few months ago Gevlon made a remarkable comment. “Reality,” he said, “is just what we chose to focus on.” This has certain implications that Gevlon didn’t explore; I going to because it’s essential to contextualizing the World of Warcraft.

There are two different ways to interpret Gevlon’s comment. One way is to conceive of reality as preexisting; the human mind uncovers it in the act of choosing focus. The other option is that reality is created in the process of choosing; the choice to focus is the choice to create. Those of a theological bent will understand this as the rephrasing of the age old question as to whether believing is seeing or seeing is believing; those of an academic bent will understand this as the distinction between modernism and post-modernism; those in physics will understand this as the difference between a closed and an unfinished universe.

I go in a different direction. If everything beyond crude biological functioning is fantasy then reality and fantasy are indistinguishable in most cases. This is so because things are one at the level of the mind. The distinctions between what we label “fantasy” and what we label “reality” are distinctions made in the mind first and reside in most cases in the mind only. What we call the self, what we mean when we say “I,” is a label stuck on a process of fantasy.

Eye

The eye is a beautiful example of this. We don’t see with the eye; we see with the brain. The eye is a physical organ which, through a complex chemical process, light is turned in electrical neural impulses. It is these neural impulses that the brain then translates into the images we see in three dimensions. As Shakespeare said in a Midsummer Nights Dream 400 years ago “Love sees not with the eyes but with the mind/and therefore wing’d Cupid painted blind.”

The eye translates light into electricity through a biochemical protein based process. Because this process is not instantaneous, when you shift focus from object to object you get fading or accommodation affects. The brain’s response to biological lag is to predict what you see up to a full second in advance based upon prior experience. In the first milliseconds after looking at a new object, you actually see what the brain thinks you should see and not what’s actually there. As a consequences of the speed discrepancy between protein synthesis and neuron transmission the reality we choose to focus on just is fantasy; every single time your eye focuses your brain fantasizes. If this wasn’t the case any type of improvement in manual dexterity, any type of skilled crafting or athletic accomplishment, would be biomechanically impossible.

In this sense, both the eye and the I share a common ground as instruments that mediate realities. The core of the psychological insight is that the mind is a medium; it is that part of reality that mediates between other parts of reality. The mind’s eye is the I. In the same way that the brain weaves together neural impulses from the eye to create three dimensional visions which we call “sight” the psyche stitches together spiritual, emotional, logical, intuitive, and sensory experiences to form the self that we identify as “I”. The precise connection between the physical brain and mental consciousness—between eye and I—remains an enigma despite advances in psychology, medicine, and philosophy. But that there is a connection is indisputable, as has been recognized for thousands of years.

Aye eye I

In 2005 Ralph Koster published what has become the well-known article entitled “The Evil We Pretend To” about colonialism and genocide in video games. There have been a variety of responses and replies to that post yet all of them overlook what seems like to me the salient point. What’s so pretend about it.

Because if the reality/fantasy distinction breaks down upon close examination at the level of the mind then we are left with two choices. One choice is to see everything that happens as a product of fantasy. Our cultures, our legal systems, our religions, our family and friends are as ephemeral and wispy as a dream. They are no more real than the pixel Horde. As Napoleon once said: that’s what emperors do, they play with people. It’s why chess—with all it’s symbolic humans—is called the sport of kings. It’s what Ecclesiastes meant 3000 years ago when he proclaimed “all is vanity.” (The Latin root for vanity is “empty".)

On the other hand, if that perspective bothers you; if you wish to insist that what happened during the genocides in the Balkans or Rwanda was not a cartoon graveyard but something real, that the living and the dying were real dramas happening to real people about something truly important; then the war against the Horde is also the same. Our participation in the genocide of the Horde is not the evil we pretend to; it’s not make believe; it’s the evil we actually do.

22 comments:

Raph Koster said...

Nice article. :) Completely agree with your conclusion, and explore it more fully in "Avatars Aren't Tokens":

http://www.raphkoster.com/2009/05/06/avatars-arent-tokens/

Klepsacovic said...

The evil is in the refusal to see the humanity in other humans; the games of chess with humans arranged in armies or the spreadsheets with humans as numbers.

"On the other hand, if that perspective bothers you; if you wish to insist that what happened during the genocides in the Balkans or Rwanda was not a cartoon graveyard but something real, that the living and the dying were real dramas happening to real people about something truly important; then the war against the Horde is also the same. Our participation in the genocide of the Horde is not the evil we pretend to; it’s not make believe; it’s the evil we actually do."
Look at the other side of the potential evil. Do the people on their way to mass graves see a problem with their situation? I'd imagine they do. Does the NPC care? No. They're not programmed to care and the programming to do so does not even exist, AI hasn't reached that point, all they can do is pretend. Do the other players care? Yes, but not the same as the victim of genocide. My virtual death is much different from my real death. Why?

It's about my perspective: I don't RP permanent death and I believe strongly in my real persistence regardless of my virtual life or death.

Most of life is not fantasy, but more of a distorted reality with constructs layered on top. Social rules are not 'real' but they influence the world and are not mere fantasy. Color isn't 'real' but it is a distorted perspective or sensation of photons of certain wavelengths entering our eyes. Life isn't as real as so often thought, but it is hardly fantasy. In the same way though, the fantasies which we create are at least as real as any other human mental creation and should not be dismissed as quickly as they so often are.

Draxi said...

I loved the post!!!

IMO games allow us to do things that we cannot do in real life but would like to. War is one thing, driving really fast is another, mindless murder, saving the princess, exploring, down to solving puzzles.

Most of these actions in real life carry real consequences ranging from inconvenience to suffering and death for ourselves and others. So instead of moving to Rwanda and participating in rape/murder/looting we load a game and do it there. With real consequences out of the way we can kill as many imaginary characters without guilt and risk.

In real war however, the consequences are real. The victims really suffer and if we want to ever call ourselves civilized we need to eliminate it. What happens in games is mostly harmless the victims don't exist and all actions taken there don't really count. Even if you could wipe out an Orc vilage forever all we do is set some variables in a server.

To equate reality to virtual reality is something that no survivor will like very much. In war real lives have been destroyed, in a game there are no consequences and this vastly changes everything.

Joe said...

This is pretty deep. A great article and good read though.

In terms of consequence/perspective, these being that which supposedly seperates real from fantasy, how can we tell if this is true?

If we say consequence is not an issue to an NPC, because in reality an NPC being killed is the change from a 1 to a 0 on a server, then isn't the same applicable to "us" with the way we see and feel, via electrical impulses to the brain, simplified, can be read as 1's and 0's.

Ultimately distinguishing reality from fantasy is entirely based on opinions, and perspectives. As a social group these are either debated or accepted. Both of which lead to consequences.

Anyho, the guy playing "me" has decided I should go drink some beer, so i'm off down teh pub.

Dàchéng said...

"On the other hand, if that perspective bothers you; if you wish to insist that what happened during the genocides in the Balkans or Rwanda was not a cartoon graveyard but something real, that the living and the dying were real dramas happening to real people about something truly important; then the war against the Horde is also the same."

Well, as a native of Stormwind, I'm not sure I know where the Balkans or Rwanda are; perhaps they're in Kalimdor, I don't really know that continent too well.

However if those killed in those genocides resurrect at the nearest graveyards just a few seconds after being killed, then you're right - it's the same as the war against the horde. If they don't then I'm afraid your argument doesn't hold water.

Copernicus said...

I believe that what we do in video games is what we'd do if there were no social construct that we needed to follow. It brings out our base elements and lets us explore them in a realm where the consequences are not real, or are minimal.

HokieJayBee said...

There is no spoon.

Elnia said...

@ralph. I don't follow your blog and was only tipped off to the 2005 post by a comment posted at PPI. Curious that we should be thinking about the same thing though at roughly the same time.

@Joe. That last note made me laugh out loud. Fair enough, fair e-nough.

@Dàchéng. Ah, but how do we *know* that the victims of genocide don't in fact resurrect at the nearest graveyards just a few seconds after being killed.

We Fly Spitfires said...

Awesome article. Very fascinating and interesting :)

Pangoria Fallstar said...

It's the ability to distinguish from the fantasy generated by our imagination, and the "fantasy" generated by our interpertation of our senses that separates a "healthy" mind from a "psychotic" mind.

With that, in mind, let us not forget that this "genocide" of the horde that you talk about is nothing more than a construct in a program environment. What you are seeing and doing is the result of this construct and not the result of actual physical beings attacking each other. It's a simulation.

On the other hand, the genocide in Rwanda etc., are things occuring in our physical plane of existence. They are both real in so much that both have occured, but one is real in that it happened in the physical world, and one is real in that it was simulated in a virtual world.

The question you are asking is, answered in the Matrix. Our brain doesn't know that we're not really eating steak, it only knows the signals it's recieving from your senses. Therefore, the Matrix is as real as our brains make it.

Good article, as I've come to expect from you Elnia, but sadly it's a matter that has been discussed and you didn't really bring anything new to it. Try looking up studies of how playing violent videogames can temporarily cause a person to treat others less nicely, and how prolongued exposure to such videogames promotes the desire to play more like it, or to take it a step further.

Lets not ask if our brains see a difference between killing an orc or someone from Rwanda. Let's instead ask if our "self", is affected by it. Let's ask if it makes it easier for us to kill, or is the act of simulation so far from the act of reality, that our thinking selves can distinguish the difference?

Will it take virtual reality helmets and motion control interactions to get us to the point where the simulation is too close to reality, or will it take an integration with the mind equal to the Matrix for us to reach that point, the point where the healthy mind can no longer distinguish simulation from reality.

Bristal said...

IMO there really is very little "real" difference between a fantastically & beautifully animated MMO environment and any simple board game. I'm trying to "defeat" those opposing me and fulfill some pre-determined goal. It's an activity created to focus my and my opponent's attention which is generally referred to as "having fun". There is also a pre-determined agreement between all "real" participants concerning rules and consequences of "play".

That is pretty damn far from the "real life" consequences of war, genocide, or any of the countless horrible social ills that humanity doesn't seem to be able to evolve away from.

I was briefly in Army ROTC in college many years ago. We "played" outdoor "wargames" over several weekends. It was exhausting, frightening and demeaning. I would never confuse even that tiny sliver of pretend wartime experience with sitting at my computer hacking away at trolls.

Tesh said...

No tangents into the Anthropic and Weak Anthropic principles? No Schroedinger's Cat observations? No Descartes?

Still, nice article. :) Fiction and "what if" scenarios are important because we can learn from them. Fantasy and imagination are how humans learn anything beyond our immediate experience.

Aaaaand now I have Paul Simon's "If You'll Be My Bodyguard" stuck in my head. Bonus!

Tesh said...

Bristal (and others), you're missing the point. The question isn't about how humanity at large is unevolved or barbaric, it's about how you perceive reality, and what "reality" really is.

Does China exist if you've not seen it? Does it really exist in those first few milliseconds where your brain is making stuff up? Are those people dying elsewhere real if you don't know them personally?

How objective is "reality" when the physiological and psychological response to fantasy is identical?

There are levels of abstraction and imagination that we employ just to function in a world where we are not omniscient. Learning to discern "reality" is more often than not choosing a subset of input and accepting it as more authentic than another subset. It's important to define those subsets well, and prioritize them intelligently.

The notion that all input is valid and has an effect, including fantasy, is a solid one. We are the sum of our experiences, imagined or otherwise. That's the danger of games, especially anonymous ones; you really are making those choices that your avatar carries out. Are the results the same when tallied in the "real world"? No, but that's not the question. The question here is what do those choices teach you, the person who made them? How do those "fantasy" choices mold your psyche and character?

Those neurons making connections do so regardless of whether or not the input prompting such are objectively "real" or not. (And how does one settle that objectivity? Only true omniscience can define "reality" with any objectivity, and none of us have that.)

It's very much like a computer; garbage in, garbage out. We have "higher level" processing that helps us filter those experiences, but on a basic level, input is input, and it would behoove us to know what we're tossing into the blender and why, so that we might understand what effect it has on us.

Elnia said...

@tesh. "The question here is what do those choices teach you, the person who made them? How do those "fantasy" choices mold your psyche and character?"

aye, those indeed are questions I ask, how good of you to see that.

@Pangoria Fallstar. I'm not sure that my goal is to bring anything new to it beyond the fact that I am new to it.

Pangoria Fallstar said...

@Elnia,

Sorry, reading over what I said it came out a little harsh, sorry about that. I meant only that what you said was really just the beginning. I was trying to send you in other directions so that you could explore more :D

@Tesh,

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? Yes, because of all the energy transfer that occurs. Simply stated our world exists whether we're aware of it or not.

Thing is unless something is giving a direct input to our brain, or we have a chemical blocking parts of or brain (similar to what marijuana and other drugs do) or a malfunction in how our brain works (psychotics etc), then we can discern for ourselves what is real and what is not.

KucK said...

Fucking amazing.

SolidState said...

> "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? Yes, because of all the energy transfer that occurs."

Energy transfer has nothing to do with it.
A sound is either the oscillation of pressure transmitted through air, or your sensation of such vibrations stimulated in your ears.

If you consider reality as something defined by your perception on it, than the only real definition of sound must be the second one, meaning the tree doesn't make a sound.

> "Simply stated our world exists whether we're aware of it or not."

There's nothing simple about it - otherwise philosophers wouldn't have so much to argue about :)

> "Thing is unless ... we have a chemical blocking ... or a malfunction ... we can discern for ourselves what is real and what is not."

No you can't.
Re-read Elnia's original post. There are *built-in* mechanisms in the eye+brain *preventing* you from seeing what is "real" - whatever that word means. Consider on the one hand a stage magician - did he really cut the girl enough, after all you saw it with your own eyes! Consider Schrödinger's cat on the other hand - reality being *determined* by your perception. Things, my friend, are never what they appear to be... :)

Now personally I think Elnia's article deviated at the end from a nice discussion of reality and perception to the area of morality and telling wrong from right.

While related, I think these are separate discussions. First you need to agree on what is real and what is not, only then can you proceed to a discussion about morality, evil, etc.

Tesh said...

Aye, SS, the nature of reality directly affects morality, and if you're not arguing from the same foundation of what "reality" is, you'll never have a meaningful discussion on the morality thereof.

Stabs said...

I don't agree.

And in order to state my case against you and Raph I will turn to one of the highest MMO authorities I can think of: umm, Raph Koster

A story about a tree
http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/essay1.shtml

Now that could not possibly have happened if someone's avatar died. The emotion felt by those players was in response to a real event that touched people's hearts. If you feel emotion to the same degree when Sapphiron breaths on your mage you're out of touch with reality.

The problem with philosophy is that it ultimately ties itself up in knots. And those knots can then be cut by the Alexandrian blade of Common Sense.

It matters more when real people die than when virtual toons die because it obviously does matter more.

If you try to intellectualise loopholes in that basic tenet of existence you will succeed, in fact you have succeeded here. But all it is is clever intellectualism like the valid mathematical proof that one equals zero.

You can prove something but it still won't make it true.

People matter more than avatars. If you don't believe me, ask Gevlon.

Elnia said...

@stab. You completely misread both my essay and Ralph's. Neither one of us is arguing that avatars are more important than people. What we are saying is that the brain can't tell the difference. People think that they are different, they look different, but the truth of the matter is that as far as the brain is concerned they are the same.

In some ways it's like racism. There are people who think that black people are different because of the color of their skin. Funny though, black women get pregnant just the same way white women do.

Stabs said...

Elnia that doesn't make sense.

If your brain couldn't tell the difference then you both WOULD be arguing that avatars are as important as people because you, um, couldn't tell the difference.

Dblade said...

"Our cultures, our legal systems, our religions, our family and friends are as ephemeral and wispy as a dream. They are no more real than the pixel Horde."

Yes, that's why people routinely kill their family and friends in the hopes to loot them for gold, because they'll respawn anyways. That's why people view mass murderers the same way they view raid leaders. That's why people die as matryrs for their faith, or give up their lives serving their country, because its wispy.

You can talk all the theory you like, you KNOW it isn't true. You don't log on to your computer, summon your flying mount, and then try to get to work on your real life job with it. There's a difference, and I'm not going to bother explaining it, because you already know it. Mental image does not equal fantasy.