I think it’s time to broach perhaps the overthinkeriest of all topics, don’t you?
Within philosophy, that enormous discipline about everything, there exists a subject which concerns itself broadly with the nature of everything, and which can be incredibly boring if you have a compulsory university module with a bad professor (I speak from experience, in case that wasn’t clear). The idea of metaphysics is essentially to address the fundamental questions of what there is and what it is like. It’s a separate discipline, incidentally, from how do we know what there is and what it is like, which is a separate thing called epistemology and is perhaps the only branch of philosophy more messy than metaphysics. Within the broad reach of metaphysics, there are a few slightly more specific components, including one called ontology which is to do with the nature of reality, what it is to exist, how objects can be distinguished and how they relate to each other and all sorts of other stuff, and I thought it might be fun to talk about this in a context other than the one it usually gets brought up in, which is obviously the thing we call ‘reality’ or the ‘actual world’ or something like that. (Let’s ignore, at least for Part 1, the fact that ‘real’ and ‘actual’ are considered distinct terms in metaphysics because of the debate about possible multiple universes and so on!)
So let’s talk about the ontology of video games, maybe with some quantum mechanics chucked in for good measure. In part one, we’ll talk about how weird it is that things within gaming universes can pop in and out of existence, fluctuate madly, and generally do peculiar things. In part two, which I’ll probably call ‘Serving Up Realness’ because I’m addicted to RuPaul’s Drag Race at the moment, we’ll look at whether we can accurately claim that the world of a video game is ‘real’; after that, who knows what we might get up to?
So let’s do a quick thought experiment, by way of kicking things off. Let’s say that we’re playing a video game and we’ve come across a treasure chest. This is the sort of game where the contents of the chest aren’t fixed, by the way: it’s not a Zelda title where you can know exactly what’s in each chest before you open it. In this game, there’s a chance that the chest will contain… let’s say a sword, and there’s an equal chance that the chest will contain a marshmallow. Upon opening the chest, we’ll find out which it is, but… well, what’s in there until we open it?
(By the way, we have to disregard for now the question of whether there can be meaningfully said to be ‘anything’ in ‘there’ when none of this is in the real world anyway. We’ll come to that in part two!
I think we may actually be able to answer this question factually, on the face of things. If there’s a random number generator somewhere in the code which is responsible for deciding whether the chest will contain a sword or a marshmallow, and that decision kicks in at the moment that we activate it, then until we open the chest there is in fact nothing in it at all; it’s only once we interact with it that an object appears inside. If, however, the decision is made before we open the chest (for example, its contents might be populated when we pass the trigger to load the area the chest appears in), then there is a) definitely a sword and nothing but a sword or b) definitely a marshmallow and nothing but a marshmallow, inside the chest for the entire duration of its existence.
In either case, it’s impossible to know what’s inside the chest until we observe it (even if we cheat and look at the code or something, we’re still observing). Until we do, can we safely assume anything? Is it both a sword and a marshmallow? Is it neither?
I don’t intend to actually tell you the answer, by the way, because I don’t know whether there is one. You might recognise this little problem as being basically just a reworking of the famous Schrodinger’s Cat, which is about a cat in a box being both alive and dead – except it isn’t, it’s actually intended to illustrate what Schrodinger saw as an absurd implication of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. I think the point in all this is probably similar, actually: isn’t it absurd to think that the contents of the chest are both things and neither thing, indeterminate until we look? Perhaps it isn’t so odd at all, because we assume that a tree falls in the forest whether anyone’s there to hear it or not; things happen without being observed all the time, so it perhaps isn’t all that problematic to imagine that the chest’s contents do indeed simply fluctuate, then at some point resolve themselves into a single, definite answer which we can become aware of.
There is a larger issue which I’m not sure is so easily resolvable (or dismissable, perhaps more accurately), and it’s something we very briefly touched on already: when you play a game, it generally won’t load the entirety of the world at once. It might have set stages or missions, so that only a small part of the world ever exists at once, or if it’s got an open world, it probably does some secretive loading and unloading of zones as you move between them. Even with today’s processing power potential, I don’t think it would be sensible to try to load everything in an enormous expanse at once; what probably happens is that smaller blocks or chunks of the world get loaded as you approach them, and unloaded as you move further away, so that the parts of the world you could quickly access are always ready to go. It makes sense; there’s no point having a zone all the way across the map fully loaded in if the player has to go through a whole bunch of unloaded zones to get to it. It’d be like having two rooms with unlocked doors at either end of a corridor filled with nothing but locked and bolted ones.
In essence, then, the only parts of the game’s world that exist at any given moment are the ones that we’re in close proximity to. Things literally cease to be there if we’re not observing or interacting with them, springing back into existence when required. The world is dependent on our own experience in order to be made real.
In the ‘real world’, of course, we assume that things continue to exist, that parts of the world in which no humans are there to observe them don’t simply disappear, but if you think about it, we really can’t know. In fact, a theory (or an overarching group of ideas and concepts, it might be better to say) which tends to be called idealism sometimes goes so far as to assert that there is no reality if a conscious mind isn’t observing it. There are degrees of idealism, with even some empiricists considering that qualities like colour (Scottish empiricist and sceptic Hume called these ‘secondary qualities’) only meaningfully exist as notions constructed by an observer, and Kant distinguished the reality of things (the ‘noumenal’) from the separate thing that is what we observe it to be (the ‘phenomenal’) – but the most devout idealists have claimed that there is really nothing outside the mind. A bishop named George Berkeley argued against the material existence of things by claiming that objects only really exist as ideas in the mind of someone perceiving them (in response to which famed grumpy man and lexicographer Samuel Johnson exclaimed ‘I refute it thus’ and kicked a large stone, breaking his toe), which suggests that anything which is not being perceived and therefore is not existing in someone’s mind literally doesn’t exist at that moment.
It’s not a popular idea – how does he explain the fact that you can leave a room and come back to find it the same, if everything in it just turned into nothingness while you were gone? (‘God’s observing everything all the time’ is his response) – but it’s kind of an interesting one, and in video game worlds we find an instance of this kind of idealism carrying some real weight. It’s much easier to claim that something doesn’t exist unless we’re observing it when the mechanics of the fictional universe are such that things literally and demonstrably aren’t there unless we cause them to be, and there are heaps of glitches which can be caused by exploiting this fact.
How weird would it be if we could go out of bounds in the real world? If we could find things where textures or collision data hadn’t been loaded properly, so we were just looking at buildings that were suddenly covered in placeholder images and falling through floors and walls that didn’t know they were supposed to be resisting?
Well, it’d be very weird. Very weird indeed. It’s not a bad argument against the old ‘brain in a vat’ hypothesis, actually: perhaps we can be confident that we are indeed in the real world, and not a simulation, purely because it doesn’t ever seem to glitch – it must be impossibly well-programmed, and with implausibly enormous amounts of processing power. (We do have microtransactions, though, so who knows.)
What we’ve learned from this is that video game worlds are not like the real one in many ways, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Being an NPC must be enormously disturbing if you genuinely aren’t really there at all until the protagonist shows up to disturb you from your busy day of not existing. In part two, we’ll talk a bit more about what being ‘real’ is, and see whether we might be able to make some sense of all this. In the meantime, enjoy having a mild existential crisis next time you hit a loading screen.