April 7th 2009 Warcraft and Reality

A couple years ago, I wrote a short story for a creative writing class entitled “Epic Quest”. I hate to make excuses for my own writing, but since the short story was written over the course of a single day, and revised exactly once, its lack of polish and simple (even “childish”) plot belies the true goals of its writing. While the story appears to be a fun, fantastical “dungeon crawl”, I had some deeper themes that would’ve emerged from the writing if time and space constraints had not prohibited me from doing so.

When I wrote “Epic Quest” back in April 2007, I’d become interested in Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrilliard. Fueled by numerous discussions with my friend Jamie, a philosophy major and avid player of World of Warcraft, and distressed about the amount of WoW that my roommate played, I began wondering about the relative importance of a constructed, virtual world like that of WoW, and the “real” world (i.e., the physical one in which we all live). Simulacra and Simulation hinges on the point that our modern society does not interact with the “real” world, but rather a façade (or simulation) of the real world. Neal Stephenson illustrates this idea best in In the Beginning… Was the Command Line when he discusses the Maharajah Jungle in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a “complete stone-by-stone reproduction of a hypothetical ruin in the jungles of India” that “looks more [real…] than any actual building in India.” Our world is not the “real world”, but rather an interface to the physical world in which we just happen to exist.

The plot of “Epic Quest” revolves around two characters: Hiro, a grad student who spends most of his time playing World of Warcraft, and his roommate David, who feels that Hiro takes the virtual environment of the video game too seriously, and needs to spend more time in the “real world”. David embarks on an adventure to obtain a bottle of fine wine, arranging to drink it with Hiro and Hiro’s girlfriend Liz while watching the sun rise. David believes the the beauty of our natural world trumps anything that humans can simulate with computers.

Of course, David has to go to great lengths to set up this meeting, which he even terms an “adventure” on several occasions. The irony is clear: this “quest” in the physical realm is not any more or less important than Hiro’s goals in World of Warcraft. Put another way, if Hiro’s obsession with earning his “Tier Four armor” is trivial, then how can David’s own goals be defined as any less trivial? What makes the acquisition of material goods and attainment of goals in our world more important than the same in a virtual world like World of Warcraft? To a serious World of Warcraft player, a more powerful sword or better suit of armor is just as useful as a car or house—or a good bottle of wine—in “meatspace”. What makes our physical world more “real”, or more important, than a constructed world like World of Warcraft’s Azeroth?

Think about it this way: we have a strict set of physical laws that govern how we may interact with our (physical) universe. For example, the fastest anything can possibly travel is the speed of light; objects fall to the earth at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. Likewise, in World of Warcraft, players interact with the world in certain incontrovertible ways. The rules are quite different: players can teleport, throw balls of fire, and fall a much greater distance without ill effects, but Azeroth still features distinct physical laws that cannot be broken by players. In our universe, we use scientific methods to describe how the world “works”, but we still don’t really know how it’s built—we’ve just come up with a language (physics, or science in general) for describing those workings. Likewise, even though video game worlds are constructed by human programmers, the typical player still doesn’t really know how those worlds work. But like scientists, many gamers use rational methods to calculate certain things about their virtual worlds. I remember stories of WoW players who used techniques very much like the scientific method to try to deduce the algorithms used for calculating aggro. Recently, I read an article in which two Nintendo aficionados determined the gravitational constant of various Mario games. And at least one person laboriously analyzed the economics of EverQuest. These players use science—or, at least, the scientific method—to describe worlds that they can’t fully comprehend, much like physicists, biologists, and chemists do in the natural world.

Consider the concept of luck. Luck exists in both the real world and a video game world like that of World of Warcraft, but what’s the difference? In WoW, “luck” is just the result of a series of very complex calculations. Some of these undoubtedly use pseudorandom numbers, but these numbers are not truly random; rather, they are the result of a calculation so complex that humans interpret them as random. In the real world, on the other hand, luck is the result of a random event. But are the “random” events that lead to lucky or unlucky occurrences really random? Can’t we just think of them as the result of very complex “calculations” going on in the physical world—much like the output of a pseudorandom number generator?

On top of that, there are some people who believe we are living in a computer simulation run by a much more advanced race of beings. Our world feels tangible…but is it just programmed to feel that way?

These ideas really blow my mind. If we can’t even clearly define the relevance of the physical world versus a human-built world, how can we even ascertain our own existence? Like David, I like to believe there is something beautiful about the natural world by virtue of the fact that it is natural, but so many things in this world are man-made—cars, roads, houses, and so forth—that this argument starts to fall apart. Call it illogical, call it human instinct, but I still find a real sunset to be more enjoyable than a sunset simulated from a series of bits in a computer. There’s beauty in the imperfections, in the inexactness, of our natural world.