Playing Games

The last week or so has been a bit odd as I’ve found myself, at the age of 36, finally getting into Minecraft for the first time. I suppose this is an appropriate time to get started – if we’re all going to be stuck inside all day, we may as well escape to a virtual outdoors (or, as the case may be, a gargantuan virtual mineshaft).

I started playing, naturally enough, because many of my online friends – mostly the community around the now dormant Idle Thumbs podcast – began playing. This all started last week when one of the erstwhile hosts of Idle Thumbs, Nick Breckon, streamed a tour through all of the previous Minecraft worlds, eight in total, created by past members of the Idle Thumbs community. It was strange and beautiful and a little sad touring through these dense and intricate worlds, filled with huge monuments, humble homes, and gratuitous in-jokes – like touring a city after the rapture, suddenly emptied of people but still in pristine condition, like looking at a photograph of a person who was born, who lived, who died, all a long time ago.

I’ve been taken by surprise by how quickly and strongly the experience of playing Minecraft has grabbed me. As with most people who spend their time attempting game development, I seem to seldom find myself able to make time to actually play them – and Minecraft has, somehow, become a big exception. While Minecraft is notorious for being compelling, many games with the same reputation tend to leave me cold – though in all cases having friends to play with helps. As with any instance where I find myself strongly compelled by an experience, though, I have to wonder exactly what need it is fulfilling – after all, when one keeps returning to the well it’s only reasonable to conclude that one is thirsty. There are a few reasons which are obvious and not really worth addressing in depth as they’re so commonplace – a sense of communal participation, a form of steady progress and outlet for creativity, a virtual place to relax where the outside world cannot intrude, much virtual ink has been spilled about these appeals – but obvious traits are the most readily emulated and made available in other similar games, so I’m left to wonder what it is about the community, the progress, the creativity, the relaxation that is unique to Minecraft.

One aspect of creativity in Minecraft that I think subtly creates the compulsion to play for long periods is how ugly and clumsy it actually is. I expect there are many builder games that have tried to follow in its footsteps and allow the player to build things which are more intricate and detailed, which offer more fine-tuned control and more powerful tools – but I don’t actually know of them, because why would one want to play something like that? The more powerful the tools get, the more detailed or realistic their output, the more we become bogged down by our desire to make things correct, to do a good job – and so, instead of focusing on what’s interesting to us and how to go about it, we end up focusing on what we’re doing wrong, and the mere possibility of quality becomes an anchor that drags us down and holds us in place. Minecraft creates a space where it’s possible to make something interesting and attractive, but impossible to make it representational or finely detailed – and, though it’s possible to get into some truly byzantine automation and functional structure, these are usually a means to whatever end the player has dedicated themselves to. I have discovered that I find it surprisingly appealing simply to be able to build at a scale that can be walked through, participated in – the degree of granularity in the 3d world of Minecraft is exactly the largest scale that can still allow for meaningful human-sized interactions. What has always interested me in games is the ability to create a space that a person experiences, create a tiny life for them to live inside their main life, and being able to quickly assemble a space, however crude, gives me a taste of that – one which I don’t have to spend weeks to manifest. Additionally, whatever I create is placed within the context of a greater world – if I spend weeks painstakingly modeling and texturing a convenience store, it’s a convenience store in a black void, but if I spend a few hours creating a convenience store in Minecraft it’s an anomaly, an incongruous white building in a forest or desert, and it takes on additional meaning.

For a game that’s considered ‘addictive’, though, Minecraft doesn’t do most of the things that games described as such usually do. There’s a character leveling system of sorts, but the levels are really more of a currency that you can spend to upgrade items, so in that regard just another resource like gold or iron – and, though finding materials and using them to make and upgrade gear is important, it’s not really the thrust of the game. While a full suit of enchanted diamond armor and tools will help you do things, it’s not much of a goal to be aspired to in and of itself – and, though the server I’m playing on has no consequences for death, under normal circumstances any of these resources could be easily lost by one severe mistake. Whatever I do I do for myself and my friends – not because I was told to do it, informed by the game that it is the goal, the correct way to play. Because I’m not being told what to do, what my goal is, what I should feel rewarded by, I don’t feel manipulated or exploited when playing the game – which is a sadly unusual sensation when playing games. That being said, there’s a newer version of the game which introduces the ‘minecoin’ premium currency for buying special cosmetics, so, uh… I can’t say how universal that freeing experience might be at this point.

Everything in the game is a means to an end, but it’s up to the player to decide what that end ought to be. Eventually, enthusiasm will wane. Eventually all of us playing the game now will lose interest, the server will be abandoned, and the remains will be preserved – and it will be, rather than a place we spend hours every day, just another dead Idle Thumbs Minecraft world. This, too, I believe is part of the appeal: There’s a lie I like to tell myself some days, that the things I build might outlast me, might reach further than I can comprehend and last longer than I can imagine. Just another reason to strive for perfection. Just another reason to create the very best I am capable of. There’s freedom in knowing that nothing here will really last – and that knowing that what I make, I only make because it’s what I want to make – not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.

At a certain point, one has to become comfortable with the idea of reaching an end.

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The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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In August of 1993, Magic: The Gathering was released. I was 10 at the time, and it was a year or so later that I was introduced to the game, I believe somewhere in between the release of the Antiquities and Legends expansion sets. Magic was obviously a huge hit, though it didn’t reach its peak of popularity until a while later. The experience of a kid discovering it then, though, when it was relatively niche, was rather different I suspect from how most people encounter it now.

Magic is a complex game – and was in some ways even more so at the time, since they’ve found a few ways to streamline the rules in the meanwhile. Every box of cards came with a tiny dense little instruction booklet, and while it was fine for understanding the basic flow of play and most common interactions, edge cases and peculiarities were resolved by vigorous debate about what made the most sense. At times it was difficult to sort out the differences between what cards did and what they seemed they ought to do – it takes quite a while for a child to wholly internalize the idea that even though the Frozen Shade is clearly flying in its illustration, it still doesn’t have the flying ability.

There was, then, a sense of magic – so to speak. A feeling of imagination and wonder imbued the cards, and the illustrations, which were often crude by the standards of more recent cards, still spoke tantalizingly of an exciting fantasy narrative behind the game. In the decades since, they’ve released novels and reams of lore fleshing out this fantasy narrative, which I guess is fine too. It probably would have excited me at the time, but isn’t interesting to me now. As well, in the decades since, the mechanics have been thoroughly explored, dissected, and optimized. There’s general consensus now what the good cards and bad cards are, how to best use them, how to construct a deck, how to win. This is great, it’s fun to see a game I once loved have such a long and varied life, but it is completely different now from the game that I once played.

Magic is a game of seemingly infinite possibilities. The cards are so many and so intricate that it seems that you can build anything, build fantastic impractical contraptions or lean hard tournament-winning decks, can go wherever your imagination can take you – if you have the money. Every card has to be bought, and the more useful it is the more it will cost you. It’s a pay-to-win game in a very literal sense, and people probably would dismiss it as such if it were released now in the same format. However, at the time it was the first of its kind, and in so being it paved the way for the modern mobile game as well as every other title that sells itself in bits and pieces, components of a satisfying experience instead of a creation unto itself. Even the biggest AAA titles now have elements of Magic in their DNA.

It is a legacy one hesitates to admire, but the mark has been made.

Computer game versions of Magic have since been released, along with competing games like Hearthstone. Hearthstone has much simpler rules, but more importantly those rules are all formalized by the programming of the game. There is no room for debate, there’s no opportunity to call in judges, the game works in the way the game is made – which, again, probably removes some of the mystique, but makes it far more approachable for beginners.

All of this brings me to Slay the Spire, which I’ve gained renewed enthusiasm for after taking a long hiatus from playing. This is, first of all, not a perfect comparison – Slay the Spire is a dedicated single-player experience instead of a head-to-head dueling game, and the rules are substantially simpler, though the interactions can become extremely complex. While Magic aspires to a sort of free-market egalitarianism, Slay the Spire is overtly unfair. In Magic, it’s impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because the rules constrain it from being possible – in Slay the Spire, it’s (nearly) impossible to create a perfect deck that never loses because you don’t know what you’re going to be given to build it. Some Slay the Spire runs are cake walks; some are walking on thin ice. Because you’re improvising with what you find, though, there’s an opportunity to discover weird edge case interactions you never would have found if you were building something with specific intent – and, indeed, there must certainly some wild and undiscovered interactions between the vast library of Magic cards released, over 10,000 separate cards, that will remain unfound indefinitely because no one ever has cause to use most of those cards.

A similar work-with-what-you-find ethic can be found in some special draft formats of Magic, where players break up a box of new cards and take turns pulling the cards they want and try to build the best deck they can out of what they get – and though this is an expensive way to play in its own right this at least helps eliminate the pay-to-win factor. When money is eliminated as a factor, the playing field is relatively level, and the game is deemed fair once more.

What interests me about the relationship between a card game released in the 90s and a card game released now, though, is how our perception of fairness has changed over time. With the popularity of Slay the Spire specifically and roguelikes, a genre where vast swathes of the gameplay experience is left to brutal chance, in general – and the explosive popularity of the battle royale genre, a genre where circumstances as much as skill determine your chances of success – it appears that the modern understanding of fairness is shifting. The belief that underpin Magic as a game is that every player should be equal in the eyes of the rules – if not necessarily economically equal. It’s a meritocracy, as long as we assume merit to equal money… And that’s usually what we mean when we say meritocracy. There’s random chance, but it usually gets ironed out for the most part by keen strategizing and the law of large numbers. However, modern games are much more willing to cede that not everyone starts on a level playing field, that some people are born dead, screwed from the start, and pose the challenge of how to do the best that you can under the worst possible circumstances.

I would hesitate to infer too much from this shift. These axioms could come from a belief that the world is unjust and that the human struggle is one of creating justice. These axioms could just as easily come from a belief that anyone can succeed no matter where they come from, the old American Dream – as opposed to the new one, where anyone might not merely succeed but become wildly wealthy. It is a fascinating shift in the way we talk about and think about games, though: Fairness is, as a tenet of game design, becoming rather passe.

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When we experience art, we never experience it completely, just the parts of it we notice and that we engage with – merely a slice, and often a narrow one, of the whole. This is why we have so many enthusiastic consumers of overtly political art decrying the presence of politics in art, never noticing a contradiction. It’s easy to be contemptuous of those who ‘miss the point’, but seldom do any of us entirely get the point – even the creator usually has blind spots, and often accidentally ends up implying things they never meant to say or omitting things that might have added clarity. Even something very straightforward can be misinterpreted – or alternately interpreted, or malinterpreted, reinterpreted, deinterpreted. We can enjoy watching the same film or reading the same novel over and over again because each time this slice of interpretation is slightly different – and at no point is it complete. As these interpretations are context dependent, we’ll never be able to encompass all of them as individuals, but we can discuss the work to further our understand of, not just the work itself, but the many ways it can be viewed, the many ways it can be experienced.

This is not to make excuses for those who miss extremely overt themes and elements of works they love – and who often have very motivated reasoning to do so – but just to say that, to greater or lesser degree, this is something we all do. All interpretation of art is fragmented. All understanding is incomplete.

For every art there is a set of sub-arts, of interpretations – a set of viewings, each a distinct perspective. Depending on what mindset you approach a work with, the interpretation you come away with will be different. For instance, if you approach a work through a critical lens, a lens which examines its flaws and themes in much the same way as you would if you were constructing the work yourself, you will come away with a very different understanding than if you just approach it as a consumer who’s there for the ride. However, because the critical lens is in many ways similar to the creator’s lens, as the culture of creation shifts so does the culture of criticism.

After my reviews last week, I had a discussion about how it seemed like there was a cultural change in the way things were criticized, that they were evaluated more politically than before – my initial response to this was to essentially say that politics that you’ve internalized tend to be invisible, so things were still, in the past, being judged through a political lens but without the acknowledgement of those politics. However, I think something else has shifted apart from but related to these mores: I think that artists now are much more concerned with how to make the world an, if not a better place, than at least one no worse than it was before they created, and that this mindset of “first do no harm” extends to the critical mindset as well.

Once you accept the premise that art can do good you accept the premise that art can do harm. Thus, one of the criteria on which we evaluate art should be, as it is when we evaluate almost everything else in existence, whether it does more good than harm. Of course, this is impossible to know – because everyone has a different experience with and interpretation of a work, it also impacts them in completely different ways. Thus the overall impact of art is distant and unpredictable, and even the most admirable of works can have unfortunate side effects, and even the most vile garbage can have beneficial effects. You can’t treat art as a moral act in the same way you would treat passing legislation – but can you treat it the same way as you would giving a speech, a form of art itself? How overt do the messages of art need to be before it becomes equivalent to a piece of purely argumentative prose, a force of pure rhetoric? Propaganda is real, but how do you measure its effects in an environment when everyone’s interpretations can be so radically different?

You probably can’t. For every interpretation of art as anodyne or incendiary, there’s another interpretation, albeit perhaps a much rarer one, that sees the opposite. This collaborative work of interpretation is part of what makes art so powerful – the ideas that are imparted are as much your own as the creator’s, an act of collaboration potentially covering vast distances of time and space, divides of class and culture. The feature is also a bug, and the message so important that the artist dedicated a chunk of their life to craft a work around it can be wholly lost, twisted, undermined.

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If we are alone, and we are dissatisfied, we can change the scene – either by traveling or adapting the world to suit ourselves. If we are with a few other people, it is usually still possible to convince them to enact some sort of change to relieve the pressure – but, as the number of people increases and increases and increases, the world comes to seem more static, less mutable. Systems of management are devised and implemented, and as the number of people involved in creating these systems increase and their responsibilities diverge these systems, as well, come to seem distant and immutable

Nothing is actually any more permanent than before – actually, probably less so, since we have a tendency to affect fairly rapid change on our environment – but our perception of our ability to intentionally effect these changes fades. Like we’re all trying to push a large rock, none of us really feel like we’re affecting any change – and yet the rock moves. Even those with undeniable power seem to buy into the illusion – to our collective ruin, since rapacious consumption becomes that much easier to justify when one can internally believe the environment to be immutable. You cannot destroy a world that cannot be changed.

It’s a kind of incentivized reasoning. If the world can be changed, then that means we might be making it worse. If the world can be changed, then we have an obligation to make it better. If the world can be changed, but we have no actual capacity to change it ourselves, then we are imprisoned. None of these notions are pleasant to think about.

So we don’t.

We proceed on the assumption that the world is constant, that any changes we make are superficial. We know this to not be true, now, based on our effects on the climate, but the basic belief still lingers: We might, we reason, be able to change the world if we had control, but we don’t have control, our societal structures do – then we feel powerless to change those, in turn, achieving the same basic effect.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

The implied burden of of this power for change is too much for any single person, and so movements must be built around it. The American spirit of rugged individualism tends to work against this necessity. This is probably not an accident.

When we make game worlds to live in for entertainment, they are also mostly static, with some notable exceptions. Even for those games where we can readily change our environment, though, such as Minecraft, we seldom have any significant effect on the underlying systems of these environments. You can carve away chunks of the world, replant it with greenery, open up dimensional portals, but you can’t really change how anything lives or dies, moves or acts. This is fine: Implementing a truly adaptable system like this would be a massive technical and artistic undertaking, but it’s telling how few games even try, or see this as a gap.

One notable exception to this trend I can think of is Dwarf Fortress, a game which is notorious for systematizing everything to an extent that becomes baffling and overwhelming. A careless decision can lead to a base getting flooded with lava or invaded by hippopotamuses. Other useful comparison points are the classic MUD (Multi User Dungeon) games, which allowed players to create their own regions with their own rules, and Second Life, a 3d successor to these primarily notorious for providing a playground for virtual sexual exploits.

Dynamic world games are still rarely respected by “hard core gamers,” though – either treated as impenetrable novelties like Dwarf Fortress, childish playgrounds like Minecraft, or both, as is the case with Second Life. No matter how popular these games may be, they’re always understood to be outside the mainstream of what games are and what gamers want.

What we want, what we are meant to want, is to take what we are given and enjoy it, and to strenuously avoid thinking about the possibilities of change and what they might imply.

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Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be.

What do we want virtual reality to be? We want the complete experience of being someone or something else. We want to be able to do what they can do, see the world from where they see it, understand their life as they understand it. Sometimes we want to be ourselves but in some sort of more exciting scenario, but that’s still more or less the same thing – inhabiting some alternate version of the self that lives in more exciting and fulfilling circumstances is still basically playing a character. There is something greedy, something invasive about it. The sort of greed, not for money or power but for unique perspectives and experiences, that motivated the villains in Get Out, who solve the virtual reality conundrum by essentially hollowing out other peoples’ minds and physically occupying them, living in their reality, colonizing it.

However, say we want to create a simulation of what it might mean to occupy another body, one that does no direct harm to someone. Right now, the gap between virtual reality and actual reality is obvious. Aside from any issues with graphical verisimilitude that we can assume will be addressed to some degree over time with better rendering and artistic technique, there’s a big difference between the experience of seeing through someone’s eyes, hearing through their ears, controlling approximately where their hands are and what they’re doing, and the experience of being that person. It is, perhaps, satisfactory for a simulation of being a robot locked in place, with sensory and interactive apparatus, but even then the virtual entity cannot be wholly inhabited because you still have awareness of your own body, your own place. You cannot escape yourself so easily.

In order to experience what it is to be another person, you’d have to occupy more senses – the senses of taste and smell, the senses of balance and of proprioception, the sense of touch, and while we occasionally make minor forays into some of these with tilting rooms and packaged scents, it is still far from a complete transformation.

That’s still a problem that can probably be solved. We can regard it as something like the issue of graphical fidelity, a problem that is challenging but that we can take concrete steps to approach, bit by bit. There’s a bigger issue. Say we figure all that out, and we create a perfectly convincing all-encompassing simulation of being a star football player winning the Superbowl. I don’t know anything about football, but say you undergo the simulation and experience the entirety of the winning play, from the first pitch through dunking the shuttlecock into the wicket: Who actually did this brilliant, effortlessly physically perfect play? Who ran? Who dodged? Who threw? Who pumped the legs, found the point of balance, who carefully threaded the defenders and perfectly understood the field of play? It wasn’t you, because you didn’t have the lifetime of experience and training necessary to do those things – a person’s unique capabilities stem indelibly from their personal history and understanding of the world. How can you say you’ve had that experience, then, if you didn’t really do any of it?

Thus there needs to be some degree of abstraction. If you’re to control someone who has capabilities you do not, you need to be able to boil those complex micro-decisions down into more digestible macro-decisions. Instead of the tiny piece-by-piece decisions of position and balance, you’re fed the bigger and more understandable decisions of where to run, when to throw, who to pass to, and so forth.

It doesn’t really sound like virtual reality any more, does it? It doesn’t really sound like becoming another person temporarily any more. It sounds like a video game.

If the idea of being able to inhabit one of the characters you play in games sounds appealing, that’s because games are made to only show the appealing sides of their characters. This isn’t some nitpicking realism-critique about characters never needing to use the bathroom, but a lot of character designs, a lot of character animations, a lot if characters are simply not made to be functional. They would be unable to actually draw their weapons, or they would keep falling over, or they would be unable to see past their own clothing if they were a living creature – which is, perhaps, not the experience people have in mind when they imagine what it would be to live as this character.

The point is, art isn’t consistent. Art doesn’t always completely make sense, or create a livable reality. Art is not coherent. That is what makes it interesting, because anywhere there’s a gap in a story or inconsistency in a character or a lack of detail is a place where we are invited to interpret. There’s no bone or tendon to it, no connectivity, merely a series of moments, and in that way art is like dreams, all memory and no substance.

Okay, then. What about lucid dreaming? What about a virtual reality comprised of extremely specific dreams, of remembered moments orphaned from the specific experiences that created them, implanting a perfectly formed recollection of a finely crafted or curated lived experience? This is more or less the plot to Total Recall (and the short story it was based on, We Can Remember it for you Wholesale). Memory implantation is probably the most actually plausible form of a true “virtual reality” – of course, you’d have no actual ability to affect the outcome, but you would remember all of the choices you supposedly made and would rationalize the reasons you made those decisions. That’s pretty much how we live our lives anyway, placing yesterday’s decisions into narratives that make sense based on who we believe we are, since the self of yesterday is essentially a stranger to us. If we’re making fake memories, we can make them perfectly plausible: In John Varley’s novel Steel Beach, a character finding themselves in an implausible tropical paradise lifts up a handful of sand and finds it to be too perfectly detailed for it to possibly be a simulation. However, as the computer running the simulation points out afterwards, the entire beach of sand doesn’t need to be simulated, only the moment of staring at a handful of perfectly detailed sand and of deciding that this couldn’t possibly be a simulation.

We cannot know what it is to be someone else – that experience is forever alien to us. Even more tragically, we cannot really know what it was to be ourselves ten years ago, ten days ago, ten minutes ago – we are severed from our past mind, with only the flimsy bridge of memory and the cataclysmic tower of consequences to tie us to our history.

Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be, and you’ll never be quite sure what actual reality even is.

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One cannot observe without affecting that which is observed – this is true in physics, where even the bouncing of photons necessary for observation affects the outcome, but also more generally true of human beings than we often care to admit. Merely being seen tends to affect us sooner rather than later – and the act of seeing can change who and what we are as well. Observation has consequence.

This affects how characters in stories manifest. There’s no way to portray the experience of an unseen individual, to describe a wholly internalized moment. In order to be described it must be put into words, in order to be shown in must be given shape, and these experiences that rest outside the bounds of word and shape fall through the cracks. We can describe the cat that rests in the sunbeam and the rise and fall of the breathing fur, we can describe the purr, we can describe the collar and the name and the history, but we can never know what it is to be the cat – and we can never tell what it is to be us, who know and cherish the cat, either. When we try, we find ourselves back at describing the beam and the collar and the breath, the moment to moment concrete specifics, or we grasp at cardboard abstract terms such as contentment or anger or love – which describe barely anything at all.

The internal is inexpressible. We can suggest its presence by the contact points it shares with the external world – and this is how we craft compelling characters, by cunningly crafting these supposed contact points that map to their internal world – but it’s just a simulacrum, a mask, and just as masks are false exteriors given their shape by the face, and the face is given its shape by bone and muscle, these personae are false exteriors given their shape by a mind, and the mind is given its shape by internal and inexpressible memory and emotion. They can look real. They can look like a person, like a mind – but it’s all papier-mâché.

Because the internal cannot be seen, we have characters who constantly externalize, who are constantly being watched, under surveillance. Who we are and how we are seen, to us, are two separate things – but, for created characters, they are equivalent. These characters are comprised entirely by their exterior.

I’ve been playing around with streaming various games on and off over the last few years and, though my viewership is mostly restrained to a few online friends and acquaintances, the experience of streaming a game is still so curiously different from the experience of merely playing it. I become observed, and to make that observation interesting I must externalize my internal experience of the game. This is both valuable and burdensome – oftentimes I find myself being more harshly critical than I would otherwise be just because, when you’re searching for something to talk about, picking at minor inconsistencies, flaws, or other noteworthy features tends to be the easiest solution. At the same time, since I’m more busy verbalizing my reactions to the more obvious things, it’s easy to miss subtle things, to miss bits of story or mechanical information, and thereby make things harder on myself. For everything I miss or misrepresent, though, there’s the tradeoff of also having other people around who can offer feedback, offer corrections or additions or agreement. The process of playing the game, of consuming the art, gains additional steps – instead of the experience being between the art and me, it goes from the art to me out into the world through an unknown number of other people and back into me, more messy and complicated than before.

I keep wondering if it’s the right way to experience art, as though there could be such a thing, as though that’s even a question that makes sense. The acts of observation and presentation change the experience, and though the experience may be every bit as valid, I can still never access that completely internalized experience of art again absent the context of our shared experience. The situation comes to mirror the tradeoffs of spoilers and spoiler warnings – though we may enjoy a story more knowing how it turns out already, the experience of being surprised by how it turns out is rarer than that of seeing how it comes together with that foreknowledge. Similarly, though communally experiencing a game might be a more valuable experience, the act of internally and individually experiencing it will no longer be available to me.

It seems like quite a conundrum at times, but that doesn’t blind me to the fact that this whole dichotomy is actually a pile of specious horseshit. All experience is contextual and fleeting. No experience can survive beyond the moment, and there’s no perfect way to experience anything. Yet, still, I have this urge to preserve it all, to never let any moment go. I have a desire for eternity, to always be able to return to the moment I experienced something and revisit that, to observe, to understand. I tend to favor forms of art that last, recordings and objects, discrete creations, rather than fleeting experiences like performances – but they’re all still more or less the same because, no matter how lasting the piece is, that physical object isn’t where the artistic experience lies. No matter what it is, a sculpture or film or speech or concert, the point of artistic experience lies within your perception of the art, not within the art itself.

The thing I want to preserve cannot be preserved. The attempt necessarily externalizes my otherwise indescribable experiences, forces me to verbalize and make concrete my fleeting moments. My reasons for wanting to do this are stupid, quixotic – a naive ambition for eternity and immortality. Yet this attempt still takes me somewhere worth being. Externalizing, expressing, evaluating, understanding the game while I play it, understanding the life while I live it, and trying to put that understanding into words, I attempt to engage with an experience beyond the internal, a shared moment – but these things cannot actually be captured recordings or writing. The missing internal experience, between the game and myself, between the world and myself, is replaced with a new internality, that of me presenting, me outward-facing, me broadcasting the best approximation I can manage of what I am and what my experience is out to any observers.

Every observation affects me.

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