Cheating by the Rules

Is it still cheating if the rules are made up?

Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.

  • Seneca

During our discussion about Lucasfilm’s Habitat earlier in the week we talked a lot about how the lessons learned by the designers for effectively building a virtual world mirrored a lot of what we knew about building a virtual world in the real world.

Woah, what? Don’t I mean mirrored by our real actions in the real world? Or the real things we have built in the real world?

Not really, the more I thought about it, the more I notice similarities between the virtual environment that Morningstar and Farmer built and our own world, commonly called “the real world”.

Keeping “Reality” Consistent

As we have discussed before in class, it seems that most people understand on some level that their own core values differ, sometimes significantly, from what our society visibly places value on. We talked about what it means to truly experience life and many of us painted images of being in nature and absorbing all the sights, sounds, and sensations that were available. We know what we need to sustain life (sufficient food and shelter) and we know what we need to be happy (close, meaningful relationships with those around us). And yet look at the world we have created for ourselves. Today, we essentially live in what Morningstar and Farmer called an “experiential level”, this is the level in which the rules that we follow are the rules that were constructed to facilitate the illusion. It is somewhat removed from the “infrastructure level”, and it seems as time goes on, there is less and less “leakage” between the two levels. Morningstar and Farmer would be proud.

To be fair, they were writing in the context of a game designed for the purposes of allowing a player to (temporarily) allow themselves to be overcome by the illusion for entertainment. If that’s the goal, then yes, a leak-free relationship between the “infrastructure level” and the “experiential level” would seem necessary. But have we inadvertently set up the same type of structure in our “real” world?

It is both interesting and suggestive that we often use the same word to describe the rules we use to govern ourselves as the rules we have deduced govern the universe. The laws of physics are not ones that often are showcased in our courts of law, and yet the concept of a “law” seems to be somehow applicable to both. Is it surprising then that we often think a particular action is impossible because “it’s against the law”

There was a time when many protested that humans were not meant to fly, for it went against the laws of nature. Gravity, and a dense body structure, kept us firmly rooted on the ground, who were we to argue with the laws of nature? And yet, we figured out a way to cheat.

But it’s not really cheating if we’re playing by the rules. We just learned the rules well enough to discover a loophole. Of course, I am somewhat intentionally misconstruing the situation. The “law” of gravity never said “humans may not fly” (and for now let’s ignore the pesky question of whether or not we are flying, or our machines are and we’re just along for the ride). The point is, we are continuously refining our understanding of the “laws” of nature, but the laws themselves, the underlying equations that govern the universe, are not themselves being modified with our increased understanding.

Our own laws and abstractions are of course much more mutable, but it makes sense that we wouldn’t treat them as such. After all, laws would quickly loose their meaning if we were re-writing them willy-nilly. But I wonder if sometimes we are so immersed in our own virtual reality that we forget that it is virtual.

The resent series of financial “crisis” comes to mind. During the whole debacle, every time someone talked about the impending doom that would be upon us if we didn’t act (or if we did, or if we acted incorrectly…) I wanted to shake them and say, “you do know we’re making this all up, don’t you?”

It’s interesting that people will express surprise, skepticism, or disbelief when they encounter a gamer who has exchanged virtual goods for real world money to purchase and consume actual physical food. “People actually will pay you for something that’s not even real?”

Why are they so shocked? People on Wall Street have known this for decades.