Game Over is nigh

Originally published 2006 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 08-Feb-2013.


I don't want to alarm you, but are you aware that the end of the world is coming?

No, not Peak Oil or global warming or any of those silly things. Pshaw. How ridiculous.

It's the computer games. They will be our undoing.

Oh, yes. Nobody else knows it, but I do.

Come inside where the satellites can't see us, and I'll explain.

Imagine, if you will, the logical conclusion of the advancement of electronic entertainment. It'd be entertainment that seems totally real.

Yes kids, The Matrix. But the idea of perfectly immersive entertainment, as more than a vague solipsistic concept, has been around for rather longer.

The oldest sci-fi story I know of that postulates people "jacked in", in the modern sense, to completely convincing fake worlds of fun, is "Spectator Sport" by John D. MacDonald. First published February 1950 (in Thrilling Wonder Stories!).

In that story, a man travels far into the future and is rather disappointed to discover that bugger-all has changed, because shortly after he left someone came up with Virtual Reality entertainments, and ever since then everyone in the world has been dedicated to nothing but getting rich enough, by serving the VR entertainment system, to be permanently wired into it.

(Popular theme choices: "Western", "Crime and Detection", and "Harem", not necessarily in that order.)

And why not? If such a system were available today, an awful lot of people would be very happy to be hooked up to it as often as possible.

This raises a bit of a problem.

You see, more and more immersive entertainment is, definitely, coming. Nobody's got much of a clue about how anyone might "jack in" yet, but if 20 years from now we don't at least have immersive 3D displays with no visible pixels, I for one am going to want to know why, dammit.

Whatever we have then, it'll be good, and a lot of people will be using it. And they won't just be using it as an alternative to going for a healthy walk or on holiday to Great Keppel.

Just as happens today with trash TV and various other utterly pointless activities (coughscrapbookingcough), people will be playing games (um, interacting in virtual spaces) when they could be doing less frivolous things.

Or, at least, people will be playing games when they could be discovering that less frivolous things, like reducing the amount of death and misery in the world, aren't being done by the people that could if they tried.

The better the entertainments get, the more tempting they'll be, compared with everything else you can do with your life.

People are already half-seriously talking about video-game addiction. When you have the option of really and truly being the star of your own adventure movie, sci-fi epic or porno, you'd better believe that the games will have the mainstream time-sink capabilities of drugs today.

Well, hurrah, I hear you say. It's a free country/planet/whatever. I'll play Universe of Warcraft if I want. Especially if it r0XX0rZ.

OK, sure. But there's not likely to be much in those tantalising games that causes people to have sudden epiphanies, log off, and start frantically scribbling that long-awaited design for a clean fusion reactor made out of mudbricks.

The games, by definition, will tickle your brain's reward circuits a lot better than anything "real".

Real life will, just as in the sci-fi stories, start to be the less promising option, for those who have the choice.

The only way we could avoid the sim-users becoming a dead weight on any country where they exist is by making them in some way useful, perhaps by using the best of the role-playing stories being told as a replacement for the moribund movie and TV industry. It'd take more than that to give them some political involvement, though, and that could make the problem bigger.

Because, of course, the world's politico-religious loonies will keep right on with their ancient tradition - declaring everything not directly related to making more loonies to be Satanic, and getting rid of the infidels.

Hence: End of the world.

Pasty-faced couch-mounted "civilised" people discover to their surprise that game-training, despite what we've been told, actually helps not one bit in a real-world fight against gun-toting extremist nutbags.

Especially if the nutbags got themselves elected while we weren't paying attention.

The solution, as with speech, is not fewer games. It's more games. But it's a difficult coding challenge.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to make a nice, simple, harmless game that's utterly irresistible to people who think God loves them but hates everyone else.

Go to it, people.


The irresistible-games idea explains something else, too.

The Drake equation perfectly accurately tells us how many alien civilisations are out there to talk to.

Regrettably, its usefulness is somewhat reduced by the fact that it contains seven variables, and we don't know the value of any of them.

We're totally freakin' guessing about five of them.

One of those five is the fraction of intelligent civilisations that are able to, and want to, communicate with us. That drops to zero if the little green men are busy playing games.

This idea has occurred to a lot of people, and has been most entertainingly expressed recently by Charles Stross in "Accelerando". He expands the idea in a couple of ways that I won't mention, in case you haven't read the (free!) book.

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