"Are you really alive, and does it even matter?" is rapidly becoming the most relevant question for humanity.
“What is the meaning for our existence?” has long been the most fundamental philosophical question of our lives. It is the entire reasoning behind the strand of philosophical thought known as Existentialism. Why are we here and what are we supposed to be doing?
For thousands of years, things were pretty simple, in evolutionary terms. Our goal was to reproduce to keep the bloodline going and protect and care for our families. Existence through genetics. With the religious revolution this transformed to how best to serve God, an almighty, omnipotent presence whose judgement on your life became your ticket to eternal existence.
Through the Enlightenment and Industrial revolutions it was all about growth, progress and being a constructive member of a society pushing ever forwards into perpetuity.
And as we have begun to understand our general insignificance, the twenty-first century hedonistic age drives us to answer that question with a shrug of the shoulders and a pursuit of happiness at all costs, enjoying our brief time on this earth.
But all this is about to be replaced with a more fundamental question entirely. One that takes a step back from meaning, to an understanding of state and reality. Quantum existentialism, if you will.
The question becomes: Do we exist? And then we are forced to ask ourselves: does it matter?
Some scientists, philosophers and megalomaniac entrepreneurs believe it’s highly likely, almost certain, that we live in ersatz reality.
Elon Musk suggests the probability is around a one in a billion chance that what we know of as real life is indeed that, and not an elaborate simulation by a more intelligent species, or potentially our future selves.
Let’s explore that concept by playing a simple game of extrapolation.
Forty years ago, the most advanced computer game was a small pixelated dot traveling back and forth across a 2-dimensional screen between two small, human-controlled lines that could move up or down. Pong was revolutionary, fun and the closest you could get to playing tennis while doing zero exercise.
Five years ago, gamers playing Grand Theft Auto V could dive into San Andreas, a huge world, created in a studio and take a first person exploration through an interactive universe that allowed for all kinds of real life experiences like driving a car, sky-diving and blowing up yachts full of gangsters.
Gamers interact through a lens, a separated layer of avatars and controllers. Today, that lens is being shattered.
But even in that world, gamers interact through a lens, a separated layer of avatars and controllers, albeit far more complex ones than Pong. Today, that lens is being shattered.
Virtual reality gaming is enabling those designed experiences to become ever more immersive with touch and movement alongside the traditional sight and sound. Pressing a button to interact with the world around you will soon feel as alien as picking up a quill to start writing.
Indeed, a beta version of GTA:V that allows you to “more naturally aim, shoot, move, teleport and select your weapon” already exists for Oculus and HTC Vive. More games, as well as interactive movie experiences, are inevitably on their way.
With the exponential growth in computing capabilities driven by Moore’s law, the increasing accessibility of gaming through the democratisation of hardware and the creativity of people to not just fantasise but create virtual worlds, it’s not too difficult to envision a game, forty years from now, that is just as real and just as complex and just as immersive as what we call “real life” today.
What about 100 years from now? How about a thousand?
Assuming nothing catastrophic happens to our society (which is a big assumption, writing from the brink as we do in 2017) and technology and societal change continues at current pace, these games will cease to be called games and start being alternate realities. Realities that we can jump into simply by switching on a screen, donning a headset – or perhaps just blinking our eyes.
Feel like climbing Everest this morning before breakfast? No problem, take a virtual sherpa with you. Feel like transporting yourself back to 1980s Miami and becoming a drug lord? Sure, you can do that if you really want (although might we recommend the virtual world of a therapist’s studio instead?). Feel like peeking around the edge of tomorrow and transporting yourself to the future? The prediction and modelling algorithms of our world and human behaviour will be so advanced you can even do that.
These experiences will become seamless to us in the way putting your glasses on to read, switching on the TV or Skyping with your grandparents have all become.
Books, television and computers are all media through which we reach beyond our immediate world and find something intriguing, engaging or perhaps just reassuringly familiar. New worlds and realities will inevitably become the same.
If our world is the reality, the morals of game design become incredibly important as the world's software engineers begin to create new ones for us.
So, let’s re-enable beard-stroking mode and return to the philosophical question.
If these worlds become so good that they are indistinguishable from reality, how will we know when we enter them and when we leave? Will some realities seem more real than the others? What can we grasp onto to, what totems should we carry, to reassure us that we’re currently in the base reality?
If we assume that our world is the reality, the morals of game design become incredibly important, as software engineers in studios around the world begin to create new ones for us. Not sociologists, not politicians. These design decisions increasingly shape the way we interact in virtual space and how we bring those habits and attitudes back into our reality
Conversely, if we assume that our world is not the base reality then we can just continue with our hedonistic approach to enjoying the ride, with little care or caution what impact that creates on the environment, our fake relationships and even our own bodies.
Maybe we have an ethical responsibility to do even wilder things so we increase the experimental learnings of whatever superior being is watching and learning from our every move and decision.
In tribute to the godfather of existentialism, we’re left with a simple Either/Or: either we live in a reality or we live in the reality.
In either scenario, the only real difference appears to be what we do with it: how would you live your life if you knew it were just a game?