I want to talk about consciousness and gaming. I’ll touch on a number of areas and all of them deserve more depth and detail than I’ve given them. The purpose of this article is to explore some ideas and hopefully be the catalyst for some interesting discussions.
So, let’s get started.
Where are you? Not where are you sitting but where is your consciousness? Is it purely in you brain or is your brain a conduit from which it accesses the physical world?
Perhaps this is a little deep for most readers but it’s a truly fascinating question.
If your brain the location of “you”, what happens if you move your brain outside your body?
I first became interested in this concept when reading The Mind’s I; a book of essays and creations about the nature of the mind and the self, tied together with commentary by the editors. One of the editors, Dennet, wrote a great piece entitled “Where Am I?”, which was followed by Where was I? written by David Hawley Sanford. Both stories explore the idea of removing the brain but still having a connection between it and the original body.
Even though the protagonist’s brain was in a laboratory, it was connected to the body by radio signals. It still felt as if the person was where the body was. Transferring the physical location of the brain seemed unimportant. Yet it is clear that without a brain a person cannot have consciousness. Or can they?
Separating the physical and spiritual has been a topic of discussion for a long time. The basic question, where is the mind?, has been asked by many philosophers including Plato and Aristotle. They questioned whether the brain or other physical organ was the mind or consciousness. This branch of philosophy is called Dualism.
In 1949 Gilbert Ryle wrote a book called The Concept of Mind, in it, he used a phrase; “the dogma of the ghost in the machine” to describe a point he was making about Descartes’ model of Dualism.
Forward to 1967 and Arthur Koestler writes a book called Ghost in the Machine, the title being taken from Ryle. The concept of this book is that the human brain has grown from a more primitive brain. Almost the idea of a brain within a brain. This primitive brain sometimes takes over from the higher brain function and this is the cause of our more base emotions. Whilst this book doesn’t directly relate to the topic under discussion, it is the a good example of the phrase being used outside of Ryle’s book and entering common usage.
Next on out philosophical tour comes Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese Manga series where humans have become part of cyber network. The Ghost refers to their consciousness within the network.
This is the first point that non-biological system have been referenced to the ghost idea.
Of course, since then this concept has been used many times in popular culture and to me the most obvious is The Matrix trilogy. I have no doubt that if you looked you could find a reference to the idea of transferring your consciousness to somewhere else in almost all walks of life.
There have been a number of games that have covered this concept and I am sure there are some Ghost in The Shell game fans reading now, but we don’t have to look outside the Half-Life community to see some interesting examples.
Ghost In The Machine is a recently released HL2: Ep2 mod, where the player interfaces with the Combine network and has to solve a number of puzzles to progress. The implementation is slick and it works very well.
An even more recent release is After-Life 2. This takes a slightly different position, in that the player is already within the machine/game and perhaps never even had a real body as such.
Lastly, for now at least, comes Neuromancer. The title, I believe, comes from a William Gibson novel. In fact, there’s also a video game of the same name: Neuromancer for PC (believe it or not, it’s over 20 years old!).
If I have forgotten other virtual-world mods please let me know.
I’s very interesting that these virtual worlds are all depicted as grids and bright colours. Does it have to be that way? Perhaps it’s the same way the future for people in the 1940’s was always about flying cars.
There must be plenty of other concepts that would work as well. Why not allow the person entering the virtual world to choose its representation? In the same way we choose our desktop theme and colours.
When a child enters this world, it’s all chocolate building and bunnies, but when I enter it’s drab grey concrete and pastel colours in a “Black Mesa” style. What would your visual overlay for our fictitious virtual world be?
I’ll be honest, when I first drafted this article I wasn’t really sure what I was aiming for and William AKA CubicVirtuoso from Podcast 17 proof read the first version he didn’t really know what I was trying to say either (thanks by the way). However, I had an epiphany in the shower a few days ago and realized that what I was trying to do was make a stronger connection with the Half-Life universe and the idea of consciousness outside of our brain..
Assuming that connecting your consciousness to some sort of computer network was possible, what would that world look like? Well, I’ve mentioned possible ideas for that earlier but what would be stopping us from creating a virtual Half-Life world? Valve might still be around then and they could offer a network specifically for that (for a fee, of course)
In fact it’s not that far away in some aspects. Taco N’ Banana is a role playing mod, set in the HL2 universe. They have a number of different servers, each catering for a slightly different environment and situation. I must say I am highly intrigued but simply don’t have the time to join and play.
Strangely, I am currently reading a book called The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds. In it he discusses a future where all sorts of democracy and social systems are possible. Specifically he mentions a system of Voluntary Tyrannies. Citizens voluntarily join the system and have most liberties taken away. He postulates that for some type of people this is the ideal system because they enjoy not having to make decisions etc.
In fact when you think back to The Matrix, the architect specifically mentions the first versions that didn’t work because humans need some sort of conflict (I have paraphrased that because I can’t find the exact quote).
For people to join to join the HL Virtual world and become a citizen or resistance fighter they would need a certain mentality. In fact, I would guess that many people would prefer to join the resistance than the Combine. What does that say about us? Would we rather be the good guys even if it means worse situation than the masters?
Coming back to the central point: the location of your consciousness, I believe that when we play a game or mod we almost transfer our consciousness into a game. Of course, it’s not a permanent or actual connection, but isn’t that what Immersion is all about? Is what we call immersion simply a weak form of consciousness transference?
The step between viewing via a screen and via an implant is just a matter of degree. Control the player via a mouse and keyboard instead of “thinking” those movements and action is not far away.
You only need to follow gaming to see a number of new devices design to make that difference between virtual world and reality smaller and smaller.
Like many, I often become completely immersed when playing games and have fallen sideways out of my chair in an attempt to avoid a rocket.
NOTE: This idea was briefly touched upon in the latest Podcast 17 broadcast (15593), where Robert Yang questioned the word and use of “immersion”.
I personally see a difference between normal games like chess, Peggle, Trackmania and Half-Life. Half-Life to me is an interactive story that I become emotionally involved in.
I believe this is an important difference because who would want to transfer their consciousness into Tetris?
If our consciousness doesn’t actual reside in our brain and it’s just a vessel for interacting with the physical world, can we one day turn that organic conduit into silicon? If we can, would we make that jump?
Clearly answering that question depends on many factors but I believe gamers will be at the forefront of this revolution because we are already leading the way.
For a significant part of my waking life (and some of my dreaming time too) I am located in the HL universe.
Am I just a Ghost in the Game?