Video games: the ultimate end to progress?

Video games: the ultimate end to progress?

By Develop

February 11th 2008 at 10:52AM

Usually the first column of the year is a time for looking ahead. But for a change, letâ??s think beyond the prospects for PS3 or middleware.

Instead: What connects artificial babies, the Nobel prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, global warming, and World of Warcraft?

Let’s start with the mock tots. A recent Channel 4 documentary, My Fake Baby, revealed these expensive dolls are bought by grieving, perfectionist or plain confused women as an alternative to the real thing. In a pram they’re indistinguishable from real babies to passers-by, let alone their mothers/owners, who fit out nurseries for them.

Society gone mad is inevitably your first thought, however appealing a baby with an off switch. But playing Devil’s Advocate, aren’t the babies just an attenuated example of the shift to virtuality that we’re all indulging? It’s a bit rich for a gamer who shouts “I’m dead!” in frustration to argue otherwise.

The Ancient Greeks were disdainful of stage actors faking it, yet today we happily consume vast quantities of mocked-up reality via screens. Elsewhere, therapists are working with engineers to create animatronic robots to befriend the elderly. If an old lady feels happier when her chumbot rolls its eyes, is that feeling less valid because her companion is a machine?

MMOGs are notorious for players running down their real-life to extend their virtual existence. Having lost six months to a text-based MUD in the early ‘90s, I understand only too well the appeal.

Is it a bad thing? The non-initiated might simply label a World of Warcraft addiction as desperately sad, but others contend it’s only a worry when it intrudes on your social, family, or professional life.

Could we go further and say virtual existence is something to aspire to? In an MMOG, your life is superficially far more exciting, and even death isn’t the end.

A virtual reality is still a crude place compared to real-life, and the third-person perspective that dominates the MMOG genre is hardly a first-person life substitute.

But Moore’s Law indicates we’ll eventually have the power to create virtual experiences indistinguishable from real ones (or perhaps we’ll learn how to hotwire our brains to not notice the difference). Then, virtual versus real becomes a philosophical distinction.

There’s even a suggestion that one way to curb global warming is to spend more time virtually, rather than burning fossil fuels to get around. Anyone familiar with Google’s electricity bill might scoff, but it’s a cute notion – embracing the virtual world to save the real one.

What is certain is that digital realities will make further in-roads into our everyday activity. Several years ago I wrote that the designer of Mario could create a more intuitive banking interface, say, than a conventional software engineer. Yet the emergence since then of Serious Games, most digital interfaces are still based on the paradigm of paper and pencil rather than platform games.

I still believe game developers – or the lessons of games design – will enable more change. Quite possibly, game developers have spent 30 years learning how to build not today’s fantasies but tomorrow’s realities. If you’re thinking that’ll sound good on your CV, be warned you might also be responsible for the fall of humanity.

Remember Fermi, my final connection? He famously asked where the aliens were, as the maths and the theory of evolution suggests plenty of other species should have evolved and visited us by now. Yet after decades of looking, we’ve found nothing.

The Fermi paradox has various proposed solutions, with the idea that any race that can achieve space travel will also obliterate itself with nuclear weapons a particularly gloomy one. But I recently read another, advanced by an American evolutionary psychologist named Geoffrey Miller.

“Basically, I don’t think aliens blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games,” writes Miller. “They forget to send radio signals or colonise space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it themselves just as we are doing today.”

Miller points out it’s much easier to conquer space in a simulation.

Far from heading to the stars, sufficiently advanced societies boldly go into a 24/7 MMOG, eventually going extinct.

Just wait until the Daily Mail hears about this...