Are Humans a Bad Idea? When people think life is a well-designed game

Are humans terrible? Is civilisation a bad idea? People don’t realise it but these ideas, along with fate, karma, and anarchy, appeal because people think that reality is a video game. But is life really a game?

In the past  I have argued that humans have had a net negative influence on life and that Earth might be better off without them. I have also been tempted on occasion to say, “to hell with this silliness,” and leave the complexity of modern civilisation behind in favour of a simpler existence. But I have not been able to sustain either of these positions. They both crumble for the same reason.

There is no doubt that so far humans have had some serious negative effects on each other and non-human animals, causing multiple extinctions and possibly even destroying the habitability of an entire planet.

But unperturbed nature has been just as destructive, if not more so.

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Consider the naturalistic fallacy: Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it is better than something artificial. Debilitating diseases, paralysing parasites, volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts and virulent viruses are all perfectly natural. It is natural for a cat to slowly beat a mouse to death for amusement. Nature is majestic when you are looking out from the top of a cliff with a bag full of food. But not when you are at the bottom of that cliff starving with an infected broken leg and you hear something rustle in the bushes. It is natural to have short, senseless, violent lives where bad things happen to creatures for no good reason.

And then humans came along and decided that this messy world will not do. Humans slowly developed some of the social and technological structures that are necessary to mitigate (but not yet eliminate) the random horribleness of reality. They decided to redistribute resources, and investigate cures for diseases. They took injured animals to vets, fitted them with prostheses then released them back into the wild.

Still human social and technological structures are doing some pretty harmful things to life forms, but give them time – they are only just starting out with this strange new thing called civilisation.

To condemn technological advancement, or endorse the extinction of humans, is to give up this project. It would be defining the world of blood poisoning from minor scratches, to be the best world any life form could hope for. To suggest that humans could only make things worse merely reveals our ignorance of nature’s psychopathic indifference to life. Ironically, modern civilisation has shielded us from the cold brutality of natural life.

There are similar problems with a belief in fate or karma: Resignation is the antithesis of problem-solving.

Similar ideas come up when people get frustrated with the corruption and bureaucracy of modern governments. It has become such a tangled mess of rules and institutions that it is tempting to say, “maybe we should just ditch it all and go back to simple lives farming, or hunting and gathering.” But deleting civilisation is an idea born of frustration, and not of careful planning. Some incarnations of anarchy have similar problems, but not as extreme, as the voluntary human extinction movement. They block off entire avenues of problem solving via top-down organisation under the naïve ideological assumption that natural, unguided behaviour is inherently ideal. (Do you know what humans do when unguided? Apparently they form governments instead of anarchy.)

All of these ideas that condemn modern civilisation have one thing in common: The tacit belief that our lives are a well-designed game.

People expect to find in the operation of the universe the very same kinds of systems and dynamics that ensure ‘fair play’ and fun in a well-designed game. When someone suggests that there are mechanics and systems in the universe that ensure game-like directional flow or linear guidance, with the rhythm, feedback, rewards, and elegant balancing of multiple factors and systems for the benefit of the person, such baseless assertions are generally well-received and agreed upon without any analysis.

See also the just-world fallacy. People are furious at an unfair world, and feel like the only world that would make sense would be one where you have some usability features like being able to save, undo, reset. A world where one silly mistake leaves you permanently crippled would be a mad world, and therefore not possible.

Despite few people understanding the theory of good game design, the vast majority are able to appreciate it when it is implemented, and are attracted to ideologies, philosophies and theories that claim the universe adheres to one or more principles of good game design (essentially implying that the universe was designed, and often that there are invisible mechanisms that cause these game-like balancing and redistribution processes).

Examples:

  • Fate
  • Karma
  • Guardian Angels
  • Assuming that life choices must have comparable pros and cons so that they are “balanced but different” like the choice of skills/weapons in a game. Because that is what would be fair for everyone.
  • Assuming that life choices must have a clear correct answer that the universe (the creator) is trying to guide you towards, like the solution to a puzzle or a boss fight.

Of course they are wrong. Life is not like a game, which is why we make and play games. Frank Lantz (in Wonderland, 2006) explains the Immersive Fallacy, “Even if you could by some magic create this impossible perfect simulation world, where would you be? You’d need to stick a game in there. You’d need to make chess out of the simulation rocks in your world. It’s like going back to square one.” Life is brutish, unfair, unconstrained by human meaning-making processes, and callously indifferent to your emotional state. This is succinctly summarised by the common phrase, “shit happens.” Reality doesn’t care about you, it just is. It just happens. Although people commonly project these concepts of game design on to the universe, they are just engaging in wishful thinking.

Worst Game Ever

As Jane McGonigal points out with the title of her book: “Reality is Broken”. We need to design better mechanics for it.

 

More important than its factual incorrectness is its harm. It directs our attention toward an impersonal unchangeable reality, when we should direct our attention to our evolving societies. If you are looking for guidance, feedback, support, rewards and fair balancing from the universe then you are neglecting to seek it from where it is due: You should be actively demanding it from your government and your social systems.

Don’t let superstition and wishful thinking distract you into passivity. We still have a long way to go, and wandering into the wilderness will not help anything. The only way ahead is demanding and designing a better civilisation.

 

Isn’t nature wonderful?

 

Relevant Quotes:

” a lifelong diet of failed attempts and restored game sessions has reduced their fear of failing. in addition, in games every problem has a solution. The player might not see it immediately but has an implicit trust that the game is fair and the designer has included a way of overcoming its challenges. This has trained gamers to approach real-life problems with more confdence and with a can-do mentality, even though life is less fair than games are.” p272
Adams, E. & Dormans, J. (2012). Game mechanics: advanced game design. Berkeley, Calif.: New Riders.
 
The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind. It is almost immeasurably huge, and most of it is hostilely empty and cold. It is the setting for great violence, as when occasionally a star explodes, turning to ashes everything within billions of miles. The rare planet whose gravity field would not crush our bones is probably swimming in lethal gases. Even planet Earth, which can be so idyllic and picturesque, is not to be taken for granted. To survive on it men and women have had to struggle for millions of years against ice, fire, floods, wild animals, and invisible microorganisms that appear out of nowhere to snuff us out.”
“Without such trust in exclusive privileges, it would be difficult to face the odds of existence. This is as it should be. But there are times when the feeling that one has found safety in the bosom of a friendly cosmos becomes dangerous. An unrealistic trust in the shields, in the cultural myths, can lead to equally extreme disillusion when they fail.”
“This cultural hubris, or overweening presumption about what we are entitled to from a universe that is basically insensitive to human needs, generally leads to trouble. The unwarranted sense of security sooner or later results in a rude awakening. When people start believing that progress is inevitable and life easy, they may quickly lose courage and determination in the face of the first signs of adversity. As they realize that what they had believed in is not entirely true, they abandon faith in everything else they have learned. Deprived of the customary supports that cultural values had given them, they flounder in a morass of anxiety and apathy.”
“…struck with how relaxed most of them seemed to be even under strong pressure. “There is nothing to it,” those I asked about it told me, in different words, but with the same message: “We don’t get upset because we believe that our life is in God’s hands, and whatever He decides will be fine with us.””
Czikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience , New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
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