Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - DISPATCHES PERSPECTIVE - Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Amazon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

The Amer­i­can philoso­pher Thomas Nagel posed a fa­mous ques­tion in 1979: “What is it like to be a bat?” The ques­tion makes sense be­cause we as­sume bats have some level of aware­ness, of con­scious ex­pe­ri­ence. And, Nagel writes, “The fact that an or­gan­ism has con­scious ex­pe­ri­ence at all means, ba­si­cally, that there is some­thing it is like to be that or­gan­ism.” The prob­lem is that this some­thing-it-is-like­ness can­not be cap­tured purely by ob­jec­tive sci­en­tific mea­sure­ment. You could in prin­ci­ple map a bat’s en­tire brain and ner­vous sys­tem and un­der­stand down to the quan­tum level what is go­ing on in the neu­rons, but you still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be that bat. That, Nagel says, is the nub of the whole mind-body prob­lem in phi­los­o­phy.

I haven’t yet been a bat in David OReilly’s game Ev­ery­thing, but I have been lady­bugs, pine trees, spi­ral galax­ies, atoms of ar­gon, and hun­dreds of other things. At one point the game al­lows you to morph in­stantly into any type of thing or be­ing you have al­ready en­coun­tered, and, says the help text, “feel what it’s like to be them again”. Ex­cept I don’t. I don’t re­ally feel what it’s like to be a grey horse, even as I can whinny and lov­ingly join up into a herd while square-rolling my way around the end­less pas­tures. Nagel’s chal­lenge re­mains de­fi­antly un­re­solved.

Given this in­evitable lim­i­ta­tion, a cynic might sup­pose that Ev­ery­thing is just an­other piece of artgame think­piece-bait. And yet its aes­thetic and philo­soph­i­cal choices do add up to some­thing re­fresh­ingly new. That de­lib­er­ate form of anti-an­i­ma­tion it­self, for ex­am­ple, is a thing of un­ex­pected beauty, a thought­fully stylised re­sponse to re­source lim­i­ta­tions. Don’t we all some­times feel like we’re tum­bling end-over-end through life in this way? “I can never re­ally tell how I’m do­ing at this,” says a rock early on – just like a player in Ev­ery­thing, and just like a hu­man. I said “thing or be­ing” ear­lier, but

Ev­ery­thing wants us to aban­don that distinc­tion it­self. This game is a pro­ce­dural ar­gu­ment for the truth of panpsy­chism: the philo­soph­i­cal view that con­scious­ness is a fun­da­men­tal prop­erty of all mat­ter, not some­thing con­fined to the higher an­i­mals. There­fore all things are be­ings too. That is why rocks and clods of earth, as well as stars, have thoughts in the game. As a tree thinks early on, “Ev­ery­thing sings!” The game also ties into other holis­tic strains of con­tem­po­rary science: it ev­i­dently chimes, for ex­am­ple, with the views of the Ger­man forester Peter Wohlleben, who has had a sur­prise best­seller with a book called The Se­cret Life Of Trees, ar­gu­ing that trees com­mu­ni­cate and co-op­er­ate with one an­other in a vast “wood­wide web”.

The game’s ex­plicit philo­soph­i­cal con­tent comes in the form of snip­pets of talks from the Bri­tish philoso­pher Alan Watts (19151973), an in­ter­est­ing guy who was an Angli­can priest, a psy­che­delic ex­per­i­menter and friend to Al­dous Hux­ley, an early eco­cam­paigner, and a pop­u­lariser of Zen Bud­dhism in the west. Th­ese clips are rather rem­i­nis­cent of Dustin Hoff­man’s char­ac­ter in I Heart Huck­abees, kindly ex­plain­ing that we are not sep­a­rate from one an­other but all part of the same blan­ket. But lest a player be in­clined to dis­miss all this as hippy Ori­en­tal­ism, it should be noted that the same ideas have popped up ev­ery­where in the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy. Ev­ery­thing’s Wat­tian view is very sim­i­lar to that of the mav­er­ick ge­nius Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-cen­tury Dutch philoso­pher and lens grinder, who ar­gued not only that what we per­ceive as sep­a­rate things are re­ally parts of a whole; what we think are sep­a­rate minds are just dif­fer­ent as­pects of the sin­gle mind of the God-uni­verse.

A philo­soph­i­cal idea can be ex­cit­ing and beau­ti­ful even if you don’t re­ally buy it, and

Ev­ery­thing re­mains a richer and deeper ex­pe­ri­ence than just a tech-demo for a way of gam­i­fy­ing phi­los­o­phy lec­tures. A de­ci­sion as sim­ple as us­ing the ac­tion but­ton for the verb “to think” points to­wards new pos­si­bil­i­ties for the form, even if they aren’t fully re­alised here. In that spirit the game re­minded me most not of other modern in­die games but of Au­tomata’s Deus Ex Machina.

Watts once de­scribed him­self to some scep­ti­cal Cal­i­for­nian stu­dents as a “philo­soph­i­cal en­ter­tainer”, and Ev­ery­thing makes a won­der­fully un­abashed case for the videogame it­self as philo­soph­i­cal en­ter­tain­ment. The one ques­tion it leaves the ex­hil­a­rated player with is that deep­est cos­mo­log­i­cal co­nun­drum of all. Why is there ev­ery­thing rather than noth­ing?

I don’t re­ally feel what it’s like to be a grey horse, even as I can whinny and lov­ingly join up into a herd

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