February 25th, 2021

📝 The Charm of Open-World Games

What if you could play someone's life as a video game?

Imagine I want to make a video game simulation of my daily life with the intention of letting other people "walk a mile in my shoes" and see what it's like to be me in some basic way.

At the extreme limit of realism, I would have to simulate the whole universe as perceived by my brain. Since that's infeasible, I have to make drastic simplifications. I have to make a caricature of my life, imposing a kind of cartoonish Ontology.

The game will have distinct life-sized objects like shoes and eggplants. There will be some adequate graphical flux effects for clouds and water. My avatar's body will be capable of a limited repertoire of actions. The other beings in my life will be logical automata with random impulses. My cat will be a simple model of hunger, affection, and mischief.

Games like Zelda, The Sims, Minecraft, and the text-based adventures of Interactive Fiction offer good examples of this kind of abstraction.

Could such a game be a better representation of my life-world than a deep physical simulation? I already shape my life with a kind of discrete, atomic, playful abstraction.

We tend to be relatively simple in our daily lives. As Sarah Perry puts it in 📰 Deep Laziness:

The behaviors actually performed by a particular individual, especially the ones that take up most time, are a small subset of possible behaviors. What do people do when they are bored? It seems like people typically have about three to five things they do. * Somehow, from the ocean of possible behaviors, each human picks mostly a few things to do. *

The universe tends to let energy settle into distinct Centers. The big bang explodes an initial singularity into a flux which then anneals into constellations of stars and planets. We see space as a void dotted with a large but finite number of marbles.

In the writings of David Chapman, the world is both Pattern and Nebulosity in a marvellous dance.

Pattern is what makes the world interpretable—what makes it make sense. Perceiving pattern is needed for all effective action—whether you are a person or a bug. *
Nebulosity refers to the insubstantial, amorphous, non-separable, transient, ambiguous nature of meaningness. *

Objective reality has no separate objects, but it's still patterned. Stars don't have fixed boundaries, but they're still distinct elements formed by gravity. Insisting that All is One is the error of Monism, while clamoring to the separateness of objects is the error of Dualism.

The world is not objectively divisible into separate objects. Boundaries are, roughly, perceptual illusions, created by our brains. Moreover, which boundaries we see depends on what we are doing—on our purposes. *
However, boundaries are not just arbitrary human creations. The world is immensely diverse. Some bits of it stick together much more than other bits. Some bits connect with each other in many ways besides just stickiness. The world is, in other words, patterned as well as nebulous. *
However, the idea that the world is not made up of clearly separable objects, but is also not just one big blur, may be unfamiliar. *

There is a particular delight associated with open world games. It seems intimately related to how they present legible ontologies with crisply distinct elements, yet in a way that is not boringly bureaucratic but shining with fantasy and allure.

Such games present worlds of exaggerated Pattern, not in the sense of the formal Rationalism that Chapman criticizes for its fake objectivity but in a playful, naïve, and enchanted way.

The discourse may promote an idea that children are innocent of the conceptual illusions of the adult world, but babies quickly emerge from Nebulosity into the shared world of Pattern. They learn a small set of important nouns: milk, car, ball. They develop their repertoires of actions. Mechanisms like buttons are hypnotizingly interesting.

David Graeber's book 📙 The Utopia of Rules talks about the antibureaucratic appeal of play and fantasy. He writes about the literature of authors like Tolkien:

These books are not just appealing because they create endless daydream material for the inhabitants of bureaucratic societies. Above all, they appeal because they continue to provide a systematic negation of everything bureaucracy stands for. *

But on the other hand, there is also an element of enjoyable Bureaucracy in these worlds, exemplified by the nerdy rule systems of Dungeons and Dragons:

D&D represents the ultimate bureaucratization of antibureaucratic fantasy. *

Graeber focuses specifically on rules and Narrative, rather than on the distinctness of objects and actions, but he demonstrates very nicely how these fantasy worlds are pleasurable in part because of their mythic, childish exaggeration of Pattern.

Games allow us our only real experience of a situation where all this ambiguity is swept away. Everyone knows exactly what the rules are [...] Games, then, are a kind of utopia of rules. *

I want to develop this thought and link it with Phenomenology and Virtue Ethics, but I'm running out of time today. For now I can only provide some inspiration.

There's Ian Bogost and his ontological view of systems, games, and play, inspired by Object-Oriented Ontology. From his book 📙 Play Anything:

A playground is a place where play takes place, and play is a practice of manipulating the things you happen to find in a playground. *
Play is not only fun, not only a child’s activity, but also exploring the free movement present in a system of any kind, where system might refer to a social situation as much as a machine assembly. *
Play entails a paradox: it is an activity of freedom and pleasure and openness and possibility, but it arises from limiting freedoms rather than expanding them. The boundaries of a playground, the contents contained within them. Their structures. *

Then there's the book 📙 Experiences of Depression by Matthew Ratcliffe, which seems to show Depression as a phenomenological condition that's in a way the opposite of the playful naïve distinctiveness that I've described as the essential quality of open-world fantasy games.

Depression involves a change in the kinds of possibility that are integral to experience, amounting to a diminishment of freedom. *
The resultant estrangement from the world amounts to a change in the sense of reality and belonging—things no longer appear available; they are strangely distant, not quite ‘there’ anymore. *
"When you’re depressed, it feels as though there is a huge distance between you and things, which are inert, unresponsive to your wishes. Now that I was feeling better, a pen would leap into my hand, soap seemed to cover me of its own accord, the towel would be in exactly the right place for me to pick it up. Instead of being the slave of the objects around me, I was part again of an active world in which I could participate." *
"…it was as if the whatness of each thing—I’m no good at philosophical vocabulary—but the essence of each thing in the sense of the tableness of the table or the chairness of the chair or the floorness of the floor was gone. There was a mute and indifferent object in that place. Its availability to human living, to human Dwelling in the world was drained out of it. Its identity as a familiar object that we live with each day was gone. […] the world had lost its welcoming quality. It wasn’t a habitable earth any longer. *

And then there's 📙 After Virtue, which is a book about Virtue Ethics but whose most interesting perspectives to me have to do with the nature of Intelligibility in human action and how it relates to Narrative.

Incoming Links