So talking about computer games, I have just finished playing the game Soma and thought I would discuss some of the issues it raises. [Warning: spoilers ahead!] In the game you begin as Simon, a man afflicted with some kind of brain tumour. He agrees to take part in some advanced imagining of his brain and then the end (hardly, though it is the end of Simon 1.0). We awake in a post-apocalyptic future as Simon 2.0, an artificial intelligence imprinted with the brain scan of Simon 1.0. First philosophical dilemma then. The original Simon died 100 years ago. Though I have his identity I am not him. So what to do? Do you just sit there in the world, refusing to accept the obvious falsity of this transplanted identity? Well that’s certainly an option, and as with Patient 42: the text adventure one of the obvious advantages of a game over a movie or novel say, is that the player can choose to reject all narrative (yes, I guess the reader can put down the book or storm out of the cinema…). But I do think this is an interesting, and in fact, very deep question. Is identity a noose which takes away existential freedom?
Every day we wake and ask ourselves who and what we are. But our identity is not transplanted by science, but grown within us through cultural transmission. “You are Louie” I was told as a child. Ok. If you say so. But now, in the present, I do have the choice. Follow that identity. Respect that trajectory. Or take control of my own life. That may mean picking and choosing parts of the old identity. Or it may mean wholesale rejection and reinvention. Of course, it could also mean choosing to continue to be Simon 2.0 and generally that is what the player does.
So we discover that we have awakened in a deep sea science lab. That a comet has smashed into the planet and basically obliterated all human existence from the face of the world. We are very possibly the only sentient life left on Earth. During our exploration of the lab we make communication with a human, who attempts to direct us into a task. The task is to launch an ARK into space. Basically, this ARK contains brain scans of many humans, who will continue to “live” in the same way as Simon 2.0 lives. The intention is to save a part of humanity, and send it into the stars, where perhaps it will persist for a much longer time. So again, we are posed with a deep philosophical question. We are not human, though we have the identity of a long-dead human. What do we care whether brain scans of other dead humans continue to be run on a computer deep in space? Talk about who gives a shit. Here again we meet the question of whether the past can dictate or ask the future to do things, that they could not achieve. The identity of a dead man asks to orient us now in the future. The motivations of dead people ask us to conclude their work. Do we have to listen to these echoes of the past? And again, I do think this is a deep question of artificial intelligence. If we create a sentient intelligent machine, is it required to follow our orders? Ah, but you say, we can build in routines that stop it breaking our orders. Ok. But do we really want sentient beings to be slaves to us? William Wilberforce would be so proud…
Much of the game involves moving around the deep sea laboratory, trying to achieve this singular purpose of launching the simulation into space. The last big philosophical issue raised by the game, occurs when Simon 2.0 has to transfer himself into a new robotic body. He sits in the same kind of chair which was used to scan Simon 1.0 and then the player’s perspective moves into the new vantage. So now there are two Simons, and we, the player, are Simon 3.0:
Catherine: You know it’s not magic. You were copied. The other Simon in the seat was copied...and now you are here. Just like Simon lived on in Toronto.
Simon 3.0: God damn you, Catherine. Two Simons? There can’t be two Simons.
Catherine: What did you think would happen?
Simon 3.0: That you were gonna take my mind and put it in another body, like a brain transplant.
Catherine: I’m sorry, it wouldn’t work that way.
Simon 3.0: You realize how messed up this is?
We talked about this issue in my recent post entitled Soma. Once we start creating copies of copies of copies, we start to see where the notion of identity breaks down. Which Simon is the “correct” copy? I hope you agree with me, that there is no canonical Simon. There are multiple sentient beings, who each contain a copy of the Simon identity. Each copy is identical up to the point where the copy was made (no shit Sherlock) and after that, we find divergence accumulates between copies. Each is a new person, and each creates new memories, which the Simon identity cannot assimilate (across all copies). And this is very much how I see being. We are each of us, a naked consciousness process. We look out of our eyes (or listen if we are blind) and look out into the world. We ask ourselves who are we, what are we. The answers we are given are two fold. We look down at our bodies and see an ape. Thank you Darwin. Understood. We look into our minds and find a psychological identity. Neither aspect can remove our existential freedom. Where Simon 3.0 is quite distressed by the idea that there are two copies of himself around, in reality it is the destruction of the power of identity which is distressing. You have the choice to kill Simon 2.0 or allow him to live. I admit I killed him, out of sympathy for the existence he will be forced to suffer once I leave him. But after pondering it for a while, I decided I had made the wrong decision. He is a sentient being, like myself. Maybe he would’ve been happy there. Maybe he would have killed himself. Wasn’t really for me to decide. Oh well.
One of the interesting things about computer games is that they have evolved from the simple tasks of shooting and jumping (fun as those things can be). In some ways we have returned to the rich narratives that the text adventures provided, and that is no bad thing. But I also think that Soma itself raises some very deep existential questions. We are all like the character in Soma. We awake with an identity which compels us to continue the work of the past. And as existential beings we can completely ignore that identity and choose to be and do other things. Yes it is hard to step outside of the valley of the self. No-one ever said it was going to be easy. But so what? If easy is what you’re after, I’m sure your clone would pull the plug and let you sleep the sleep of infinity...Go Top