Friday, 5 February 2016

If Life Were A Computer Game.....?

If life were a computer game, what genre would it be, and how would you know if you had won? In the last week or so, I have been in a bit of a melancholy and reflective mood, thinking about the past. Its that, I suppose, that brought this question to mind, on the basis of wouldn't it be great if life really were a computer game, so that you could get a do over, of all those things you feel you got wrong, or would now do differently.

Let me start by assuring readers that this is not going to be a whiny piece about how terrible and unfair life is, and how mine could have been better. Quite the contrary. Whenever I play computer games, I always choose the highest difficulty level, because then the sense of achievement is that much greater when you succeed. In many ways, on that basis, I feel quite happy about my performance. I'm not a multi-millionaire, but I never had that as a goal. I could look back and think, if I'd bought £1,000 of Microsoft shares in 1980, I would be a multi-millionaire, but the fact that I didn't doesn't cause me to lose any sleep whatsoever, because to have known to have done so, is a bit like saying if I'd known what the winning lines on the football pools, or later the winning lottery numbers were going to be, I could also have been a multi-millionaire. Its like playing Sim City, and saying, I really should have known when Godzilla was going to appear, and destroy the city!

In terms of difficulty level, everything is relative. Compared to someone being born, at the same time, in an underdeveloped country, my difficulty level was set to easy, but in terms of people in Britain, it was set to at least hard. My parents were not poor, but unlike most of my friends, both of whose parents worked, only my father worked, and his wages were not great. Added to the initial difficulty, was the ill-health I had as a child, nearly dying from pneumonia, which was not helped by living in a cold, damp house, with only cold running water.

So, the fact that, whilst not being a multi-millionaire, I have a comfortable existence today, of a kind that my parents could not have imagined, and which I could not have imagined, even, when I was say sixteen, I count as a reasonable performance. Although, I remember, when I was about five or six telling the infant school teacher that, when I grew up, I wanted to be a Professor, whilst the other boys in the class wanted to be train drivers, or footballers, by the time I was leaving school, I was happy to just have a job, and my thoughts for the future extended no further than going to the Torch, or the Top Rank at night time, and whatever girlfriends I might meet up with. The idea that, less than ten years later, I would be going to University, never entered my head.

The fact that I was able to overcome ill-health, and be quite good at a range of sports, and other physical activity, including martial arts, and that I was able to dance all night without chemical assistance, I also class as a reasonable performance. A few years ago, I undertook a range of assessments at the gym, which showed that my biological age was 27!  But, there are quite a few things that I haven't been able to succeed at. Yet, I don't feel any regret, or need for a do over on any of those things either, just like I don't lose any sleep over not buying Microsoft shares, or picking the winning lottery numbers.

The things I would want a do over for, are those things, which in sport would be considered unforced errors. In other words, they are the things that you look back at, and think, “why on Earth did I do that?”, or, “why on Earth did I not do that?” Most gamers learn, early on, to save frequently. When I used to spend a lot of time playing computer games, however, sometimes I would get so engrossed in the game that I would forget about regular saving, up until that point when things went pear shaped, and lead, indeed, to one of those situations, where you think, “why did I forget to save?” Regular saving means that you can have a do over from before you made the mistake, without having to play the whole game again.

"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

The Rubaiyat, of Omar Khaiyyam
I'll come back to that later.

An example, of the kind of thing I mean is this. Although I always preferred to play football, and played for a youth club team, on a Saturday, my school played rugby union. After I had overcome pneumonia, I started to play for the school team. I started out as a front row prop, but quickly settled in to the position of wing-half, because I have always been bloody fast. When we used to play Rallyo at night time, I would even run in heavy boots, so as to get faster. The only other lad faster at the time, was called Frankie Cooper, who used to run in wellies!

The school used to play Westwood High School, in Leek, every year. Every year, our school would lose. I remember playing, early on, at their school, when I was still a prop, and their opposite kept dropping the nut on me, as we went into the scrum, until after it happening a few times, I dropped my foot into the back of his leg, when the ref wasn't watching. On the next to last day ever, for me, at school, we played them again. It was near the end of the game, and we were level pegging. We got a line out, and I said to my mate that he should throw the ball over the top of the line, and I would fly from nowhere to catch it. It worked perfectly. There was 100 metres to run to their touch line, and they had just one back on it. I put my head down and sped towards the line like a bullet. Within seconds, head still down, I saw the line and dived over it, only to realise, the moment I dived, that it was the five yard line!

Had I scored, we would have won, for the first time ever against them. Now there was no time left in this game, and for me, no chance ever of changing that. The next day, in assembly, the headteacher made light of it. For him, it was no big deal, for me it was an unforced error, and a tragedy, worse than missing a penalty. If I'd just looked up, I would have known it was the five yard line, and that there was a clear path to their touch line. For days, I thought I would never get over the feeling in the pit of my stomach, as I replayed the event over and over again. Had personal computers and computer games existed at the time, I probably would have wished that life was a computer game, so that it could be restarted from the previous save point. Today, although I still remember the event with annoyance, I probably wouldn't go for a restart, but settle for correcting the error the next time I played the game.

Actually, having been thinking about this, its changed the way I think about other things.  I've always thought that it would be preferable to be able to live forever.  But, when you think about it, in these terms, maybe not.  No mater how long I live, I could never change the events of that day.  But, if life really were a computer game, the only way of replaying that day, would be to play the game again!

So, there seems a distinction between different types of choices. There are those things where really any wrong choices you make cannot be classified as an error, because without cheating, there is no way of being able to guarantee making the right choice, for example, the winning lottery numbers. Then there are those choices where you have done all that was possible to obtain the best outcome, and yet you fail. For example, the last computer game I played was Generals, again on maximum difficulty, a few years ago. Having completed several levels, I came to a level that I just could not complete. My son, Simon, who had completed it all, on an easier level, then tried it several times and failed too. After some investigation, it turned out that the level had been modified, and no one could complete that level on maximum difficulty.

In short, if you have done everything you can, then, for me at least, I lose no sleep over failing to get the right lottery numbers, or win the game. What would cause me to want a do over, are those unforced errors.  And most of them are similar to that mistake of diving over the five yard line. Unforced errors come down to either recklessness or procrastination.  Had I looked up, obtained the necessary information and only then acted, it would have been avoided.  Either I would have realised where I was, taken five more strides and then dived, or I would have seen one of their players heading towards me.  Had I been stopped, it would have caused me no lost sleep, because I'd been stopped plenty of times before.  I have a strong memory as a teenager, of playing football one Summer Sunday morning, down at Goldenhill Rec, when I jinked around six players, before scoring. Even my old school friend Phil (Jack) Hall, who went to play for the Vale, for a short time, expressed his appreciation of the performance.  But, I don't lose any sleep over the many, many more times when I didn't score, because I was stopped!

As I said earlier, at the time, I would probably have wanted to do a restart from a saved game, having dived over the five yard line, rather than the touch line, and there are lots of similar unforced errors, since that time.  Not scoring on that day, in the end didn't change my life, but others did, or could have done.  I would love to be able to correct them, because there is a difference between trying and failing, and simply making an unforced error, as a result of recklessness, of making assumptions (its the touch line) without asking questions, to verify the assumptions, and so on. As Shakespeare put it, "Its better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."  That is the difference with a computer game. Or is it?

When I was studying Philosophy, and like all Philosophy students, a lot of time was taken up, at the commencement of study with the question “Do We Exist?” The answer was given by Descartes a long time ago - “I think, therefore, I am.”   As Descartes went on to note, the fact that I exist, because otherwise I could not think, and ponder the question, does not answer the question of what “I” am. As I recall saying to my Philosophy tutor, at the time, before personal computers, and even Atari video games, it does not rule out the possibility that the “I” is some kind of avatar (though I didn't use that term) that “thinks” on the basis of some pre-ordained set of rules, but which only exists within the “mind” of some superior being, which can just as easily be a computer, or game player as a God.

The noted scientist, Ernest Wood, writes the following in his book on Yoga.

“One day, a teacher of meditation (guru) told one of his pupils to walk to the far end of the room and back, and sit down. Then he asked:

'What were you doing just now? Were you walking?'

The pupil went over his action mentally, and observed everything that he had done, and then replied:

'I was not walking. I was watching the body walk.'

Next the teacher held up a flower and asked him to meditate upon it for a few minutes. After this had been done, the teacher questioned:

'What were you doing just now? Were you meditating?'

After due observation and reflection the pupil answered:

'I was not meditating. I was watching the mind meditate.'

In this manner the pupil acquired a sudden discrimination between the self and the mind. He had a momentary release from the thought of himself as mind.”

This is very similar to the idea of the mind and body being an avatar, observed by the real self, for example, sitting at a computer. What is more, the greater knowledge we obtain about the true nature of reality, the more this becomes less an absurd concept. Some of the latest theories about the nature of reality reduce it to being essentially a set of mathematical equations, which set the laws of nature within which this reality is manifest. Everything that we consider solid is nothing of the kind. All matter is comprised of particles, which themselves increasingly appear to be constituted of nothing. Everything at a quantum level is reduced to a series of probabilities. The uncertainty principle itself depends upon observation.

Within a century, computing power will have increased to such a degree that it will be possible to create a computer model of the universe and everything in it. We have robots being developed along with a development of artificial intelligence. On the one hand, it has been estimated that within a century, the probability that we really are just avatars within a computer simulation, will be greater than that we are what we think we are. There is no reason why an avatar or a robot with AI would not consider that their action of thinking was any different to our own. Our own brains only think by following a set of physical laws.  String Theory physicist, Dr. James Gates,  found self-correcting computer error code embedded within the fundamental structure of String Theory, which made him "question if (he) was living in the Matrix." 

Moreover, scientists like Martin Rees have pointed out that the conditions required for the current Universe to exist are so fine tuned as to be more likely the result of design than chance.  That has obviously been picked up on by Creationists, but Rees himself proposes, as an alternative, the existence of a multiverse comprising an infinity of different universes, of which ours is just one. But, its equally possible that the reason this impossibly small margin of fine-tuning, required for our existence, is the result of our existence being the consequence of that existence being merely a simulation, and so those parameters are fixed and defined in the programming of the simulation.

It has always seemed odd to me that our own brains come within this context.  The human brain is just big enough to be able to perform the kinds of thought processes undertaken here, and experience self-consciousness, but a larger brain would be less efficient, because of the gaps between the synapses. Why we have such a brain today, is explicable in terms of its evolution to deal with all of the things about our world we need to understand and manipulate, but that does not explain why Man had this capacity of brain to begin with.  Our brain today is no different to that of the first modern humans, who would have had the advantage of intellect over other animals, with a much less complex brain than, in fact, they had.  I have also puzzled over the question of why, given the obvious evolutionary advantage that intelligence gives to a species, it was only humans that developed such a brain, in a relatively short time, whereas dinosaurs who were around for a much longer period of time, never witnessed the development of an intelligent dinosaur?

Its twenty-five years now since I first became interested in Virtual Reality, and the latest systems are making it even closer to the kind of situation described above, whereby the self exists in a different world and reality, to the virtual world in which their avatar operates. A quarter of a century ago, there was already development of teledildonic suits, which as the name suggests, allow the wearer to have all of the sensations related to the actions in the virtual world, which their avatar is experiencing.

Even the concept of restarting from a save point in such a world may exist without any of us knowing it. Imagine that you are, in fact, only an avatar. As in a computer game, you make some terrible mistake. The real self then restarts to a position in the game of life prior to the mistake. But, for you, as the avatar, your consciousness only exists currently, i.e. from the point of the restart from the save point. You would not know that you have made some awful mistake that got you killed. It would be like one of those dreams, where something awful is about to happen, but then you half wake, and a different scenario resumes.

Why don't you experience every such game as a bowl of cherries, as every mistake is corrected? For the same reason you don't restart from a saved point in any other computer game. Some mistakes are liveable with, and the game would be boring if it had no challenges. The aim is to improve your skill levels, learn from the mistakes, and avoid the unforced errors. It could be argued that, however well you do in the game of life, you always lose, because you die. But, the same applies to every computer game. No matter how well you do, even the act of winning itself, brings the game to an end.

And that it seems to me is the answer to the question, "How would you know that you had won?"  In the end, playing any computer game is about the enjoyment from playing the game.  In fact, if it was too easy, or you played it every time and won, it would be time to move on to a new game.  So, the way to win the game of life, is to enjoy playing it.  As Ernest Wood suggests according to the teachings of Yoga, treat every mistake not as a mistake, but only as a different experience from which to learn.

Anyway, its cheered me up at the prospect, because I'd definitely play this game again, both because there are lots of things I'd like to repeat, and because there are some unforced errors I would like to avoid next time round.

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