Philosophy

How video games point to enlightenment

In 2008, Metafilter member aeschenkarnos wrote a review of the outside world as if it were a video game:

The physics system is note-perfect (often at the expense of playability), the graphics are beyond comparison, the rendering of objects is absolutely beautiful at any distance, and the player’s ability to interact with objects is really limited only by other players’ tolerance. The real fundamental problem with the game is that there is nothing to do.

It received a score of 7/10.

Since then, a few people have written about how treating your real life like a video game can improve your productivity and personal development. Jane McGonigal, one of my design heroes, developed a game to make people happier and healthier in real life. And many “games” have been created to teach meditation, calm the mind, and even “promote compassion, altruism and teamwork”.

There are clear parallels between the activities shown and taught in these “games” and the ones that multiple religions point to as leading to truth and enlightenment. Video games let you build a character, developing their “experience points” along the way; religions provide paths of growth toward holiness. Video games let you explore alternative realities; Buddhism and Christianity both explain that this world is not the “true” reality; the promised kingdom.

But piloting a character in a video game, and recognizing their false nature, is different than believing you yourself are a character in a game. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is the most well-known explanation of how we might actually be living inside a simulation, while Robin Sloan wrote a fascinating piece about how to best succeed–and not get turned off–if that were true:

If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you.

However, I had almost the opposite reaction. Instead of making me strive for simulated immortality, taking such a perspective mostly changes how I view everyday things. When I imagine I’m a character in a game, a few things change:

  • I pay more attention to the present moment: the people I’m with, the sights and sounds and feelings. It really is a well-designed game (“the graphics are beyond comparison”), but you only appreciate that by paying attention. And why play a game if you’re not going to pay attention to it?
  • My phone, the internet, and TV are less tempting. Who logs into a video game just to have their character watch TV?
  • In general I’m less swayed by indulgences. Drinking alcohol and eating junk food aren’t going to help with that leveling up, and being tired is something I can fix by simply clicking on a few more hours of sleep.
  • It’s easier to do the chores and tasks I know I need to do. Somehow viewing myself as a character makes it easier for me to tell him to get to work.
  • I feel braver and more willing to take risks, and try new things. Games reward exploration.

Interestingly, all these are also benefits I’ve found from prayer and meditation. Games and religious practices share the desire to reduce the ego and the identification with the “self”. If you don’t believe that this is your true self–your intended form–you can handle setbacks and struggles better (after all, they’re not about you). And you can still invest in and grow your “self”, but the stress of that and fear of failure goes away when you believe the true consequences and rewards are separate from this reality.

The danger in this perspective is descending into nihilism, where you believe that this life has no purpose. Reminding myself of the personal benefits of growth helps avoid that, but also looking deeply at the beauty of nature and society all around shows me the value of simply being there to experience it.

So if you see me moving a bit awkwardly around the world, gazing intently at every little thing, and trying weird new practices every day, cut me some slack–I’m still learning how to play this game.

Design by inquiry: Can this be a question?

I recently started a new job with new brilliant, experienced colleagues, and it’s been difficult to make helpful contributions while I’m still learning about the problems we’re working on. Often when I propose a solution it turns out to be already considered and rejected, hopelessly naïve, or entirely misguided. And when asked for my opinion on the ideas of others, I sometimes freeze up and stammer out something noncommittal.

I’ve found that the most useful technique is to constantly ask myself, “Can this be a question?” Specifically, I take whatever proposal I was about to make, and turn it into a question for others.

For instance, if I think we should change a design element from blue to green, I might ask “How did we decide on blue for this?” or “How well is blue working here?” If that doesn’t lead anywhere, I could continue by asking “What are the goals of the color choices?” followed by “Would any other colors do that even better?”. Even if we don’t end up making it green, we’re likely to end up with some improvement, and I’m certain to learn something along the way.

Asking questions like this–something I call “design by inquiry”–has several benefits:

  1. It encourages others to share their thoughts and ideas, and puts them in a creative mode rather than a critical one. Often when people hear a strongly-presented idea they feel responsible for pointing out its flaws rather than building constructively on it. And design always benefits from more diverse perspectives.

  2. It gives the people with the most context–they’re asking the question, after all–the opportunity to answer it themselves. If an engineer comes to me with a problem, they’ve already started thinking about it. I’d like to hear what they’ve considered already, and what they feel might be best now.

  3. It can open up an overly-constrained problem to new opportunities. More often than not, the difficulty in design comes from solving the wrong problem, and restating the question gives everyone a chance to reframe the problem and make sure you’re still looking in the right direction.

In several ways, this is similar to the Socratic method, which is often employed in order to discredit a hypothesis or proposal, and sometimes characterized as “acting dumb”. However, design by inquiry comes from a place of open creativity and “actually being dumb”–as designers always are when starting a new project.

One of my mantras is “be the dumbest person in the room”–to make sure I’m always learning–and that means asking a lot of questions!

Teach courage, not caution

As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

Think, wait, fast

“What is it now what you’ve got to give? What is it that you’ve learned, what you’re able to do?”

“I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”

“That’s everything?”

“I believe, that’s everything!” – Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

What computers can teach us about the world

By thinking differently than humans do:

Our machines now are letting us see that even if the rules the universe plays by are not all that much more complicated than Go’s, the interplay of everything all at once makes the place more contingent than Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, or even some Chaos theorists thought. It only looked orderly because our instruments were gross, because our conception of knowledge imposes order by simplifying matters until we find it, and because our needs were satisfied with approximations…

The nature of the world is closer to the way our network of computers and sensors represent it than how the human mind perceives it. Now that machines are acting independently, we are losing the illusion that the world just happens to be simple enough for us wee creatures to comprehend.

Lessons from living with an Amazonian tribe

Or, how to unlearn your first-world problems:

  • You learn to ignore the mosquitoes. And hunger. And all the other stuff too.
  • Everyone depends on everyone else
  • Lack of distraction leads to deeper thinking
  • Everything else seems easier afterward

The shape of time

I thought I’d posted about this before, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the “B-Theory” of time, and world lines, and the possibility of our actions in the present forming something visible outside of time. So here’s a post that includes all those words that I can add to when I find new stuff.

  • The Growing Block universe is another formulation: “The present is an objective property, to be compared with a moving spotlight. By the passage of time more of the world comes into being; therefore, the block universe is said to be growing. The growth of the block is supposed to happen in the present, a very thin slice of spacetime, where more of spacetime is continually coming into being.”
“Pretty good. The ending was a bit predictable.”- New Yorker

Anything and everything

Carson tonight, from under a towel:

Dad, I can’t see anything! I can only see everything.

He must have been reading William Blake and Wallace Stevens.

So perfect no one will need to be good

So much for futurism?

They constantly try to escape

From the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

But the man that is shall shadow

The man that pretends to be.

T.S. Eliot

Big and small world

“In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.” – Wallace Stevens