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What If Life Is Just A Computer Game?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
We'd all like to know the meaning of life. But what if we're only playing one level of it? What if everything we've ever known and ever will know is merely a computer simulation, and we're the main characters? Would we ever know what was real and what wasn't?

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What If Life is Just a Computer Game?

In 1999, one of the most influential movies of modern times was released: “The Matrix”. Centred on the discovery that the world as we know it is nothing more than a complex line of code, the Wachowskis’ acclaimed film forced us all to question life, the universe and everything. Is our experience ‘real’? Or is it all just a fabrication we’ve been manipulated to believe in? From some perspectives, these are unanswerable questions… With no point of reference to distinguish between true ‘reality’ or a fully-immersive simulation, we may never know whether all that we see and believe is physical or digital.

But if it is digital, does it need to be quite as sinister as “The Matrix” suggests? Various Silicon Valley billionaires, as well as other respected scientists, have theorized that we may all simply be part of a sim, or ‘higher design’ video game. From Elon Musk to Neil deGrasse Tyson, anyone who’s anyone has had their say on whether ‘everything’ or ‘nothing’ is real.

Tyson says he could easily imagine that our lives are “just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment”. Musk has gone so far as to compare human existence to an ultra-advanced game of “Pong”, suggesting that augmented and virtual reality games have already given us a glimpse of how a futuristic alien race might’ve built the grand simulation we call Planet Earth. Making us merely over-enhanced avatars, going about our so-called lives at the apparent mercy of our controllers.

Probably the most often-cited stumbling block, though, is “Why would anyone play?”. The everyday lives of most people are quite uneventful – even boring – especially compared to your average video game protagonist, who executes daring feats and impossible stunts like they’re nothing. By contrast, what does a game based on real-life offer? Well, we humans are already hooked. The simulation gaming genre is inexplicably popular, from EA’s long-running and relentlessly zany “The Sims” franchise, to other, even more true-to-life titles, like “Train [or “Farming”] Simulator”. So, we already know that no matter how dull the average person’s life may appear to be, when it’s translated into a game there will always be somebody who will want to play it.

However, despite what “The Matrix” suggests, the initial reasons for a faceless being trapping us all in a CGI dream-world aren’t always bad. Tranquillity Lane in “Fallout 3” turns out to be quite a disturbing place, but the idea of a quaint, suburban town in which to shelter from the nuclear apocalypse doesn’t seem so bad. Of course, in the game, the whole thing is nothing short of a nightmare thanks to its lead scientist losing his mind. But, take the mad scientist away, and it’s an almost idyllic concept. Applying the idea to our own lives, if everything we live really is just a video game – but if we’ve been placed in stasis to rescue us from the untold horrors of a full-scale Armageddon on the outside world – then perhaps we’d be wise to trust our rulers, rather than trying to second guess them.

It was Nick Bostrom who conceived the “simulation hypothesis” in 2003, within his seminal paper, “Are you living in a computer simulation?”. But Bostrom’s original work puts forward another reason for why advanced “posthuman” societies would want to run these types of programs. He calls them “ancestor simulations”, proposing that they’re operated in order to study how past civilizations worked. It’s a key theory in the debate on our reality, as in this case the unseen operators are much less likely to ‘play’ or ‘meddle in’ any of the simulated events. Instead, they’d serve as observers aiming to watch or understand past society, making them more like ghosts than gods.

But again, this perhaps flies closer to the “Matrix” version of events than an actual, life-transcending game would. Because, clearly, if life is a video game then there has to be a player.

Going only by our own body technology this “player” could take a couple of different forms. It could be an individual person or creature, out there interacting with a specific virtual version of ourselves, or a sort of stored ‘second consciousness’. If that’s true, it’d hinge on us not remembering our real-world lives in order to create a totally immersive experience. But, in this case, we would be the main character in our own story; a kind of Nathan Drake or Lara Croft for our own lives. Perhaps every time we go to sleep, that’s us logging off, or reaching a save point.

The player could also be an omnipotent overlord with unlimited reach, like in “The Sims” or “Civilization”. In this case, what we perceive as our consciousness may be nothing more than an extremely well-rendered mirage, turning us all into non-playing characters to be raised up or stamped down at our controller’s will. Despite what we may think – or what we may think we think – in this example it’s possible that our entire selves and our own sense of agency is tiny compared to the overriding experiences of our posthuman, sim creators.

Of course, pop culture has thrown up some examples of characters and lifeforms switching between these two paradigms. In the “USS Callister” episode of “Black Mirror”, Robert Daly leads a double life. In the real-world, he’s a talented but underappreciated designer; In the game-world, he’s an all-powerful, ruthless master able to manipulate reality and his captives at will. But, unlike with most “Black Mirror” storylines, this one has a happy ending of sorts, as Daly’s video game prisoners escape him, breaking into the infinite gaming universe to a seemingly better virtual life. True, their real-world selves are mostly none-the-wiser, but at least the in-game existence eventually feels less like a prison.

With this in mind, would it really be so bad if we became aware of our own simulated existence? There’s an argument that such life-(or non-life)-changing knowledge would lead to total chaos – like an inconceivably massive glitch. But, it may not destabilize and ruin our experiences all that much. After all, what would change? True, it could prove difficult to respect authority figures if you know that you, they and everything else isn’t actually real. And there may be a conscious effort by some humans to break out of their virtual world. But we’d still need to go about our daily lives; we’d still feel as though our choices were our own; and we’d still share the same relationships.

Back in the early ‘90s, long before the Wachowskis and “The Matrix”, another sci-fi staple was exploring the idea, as well; “Red Dwarf”. In one episode, the crew finds that the entire show up to that point has actually been the “Red Dwarf Total Immersion Video Game”, played by people unsatisfied with their real lives. In an even deeper and even more surreal twist of fate those people are also part of another hallucination, induced by the alien Despair Squid – vaguely implying that such a sequence could go on indefinitely. But again, it posits that perhaps being trapped in a video game wouldn’t be so bad. At least, not when afforded the same degree of agency that we ourselves enjoy, as gamers – or general lifeforms – in our own world. Who cares if this isn’t really “real” as long as we can still feel in control of the illusion? We have the same objectives of finding love, happiness, wealth, influence, and whatever else we want to get out of life. Would anybody want all of that taken away, to assume an inconceivably new life in an entirely new experience of “reality”?

Perhaps we humans are hung up on ideas of ‘life as a video game’ not because we’re becoming aware of our true position in the universe, but as a warning. Perhaps life outside of our digitized Earth isn’t all that great, and we’d do better to remain inside our gilded “matrix” forever. The deeper question of whether our lives are real is also a matter of opinion. Change your perception on what you want reality to be, and wondering about the true nature of existence becomes much less ominous. If life really is just a computer game, shouldn’t we all strive to enjoy it – before it’s game over?

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