A game designer's perspective on utopia

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For this thread, I’m using Wikipedia’s definition of utopia, “a community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities.”

What qualities are highly desirable? What would a “perfect” society look like?

I’ll tell you one thing it wouldn’t look like. It wouldn’t look like a carefree life of ease and plenty, with robots doing everything that even remotely resembles work, and with computers instantly solving every problem. I know this because I’m a game designer.

I can explain, if you’ll tolerate a certain amount of rambling.


Consider this: incredibly easy games are almost never rated well. The exceptions are rated based on humor, not gameplay. (Or maybe plot, but in that case, it’s more of an interactive story than a game.) Games are only engaging if they require time and/or effort.


Spending time gets you invested in a game. Enough so that people also spend money – Second Life’s economy once reached $5 million USD per month. People payed $10,000 for a virtual house. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?

But these aren’t idiots buying these things. (Mostly.) They’re just people who have spent lots of time in this virtual world, who have come to value the things inside.


A significant part of game design is making the game have “meaning.” (Or perceived meaning. Same thing, really.) Players have to feel like their actions mean something. When they accomplish something, they need to feel that the accomplishment was significant. And as Second Life demonstrates, if obtainable items feel valuable, they are valuable.

How much something means to us is correlated with the time and effort we devote to it. But this “meaningfulness” is like a bubble, and it can be popped.

Release a hard game, then make it easy. Brace yourself for incoming complaints: “I spent hours earning that, and now any noob can get it in ten minutes?! Now the achievement means nothing!”


Players complain about high-priced items in games, but in many cases, the item is good because it’s so hard to get. If it was easy to get, it would become the baseline, ordinary and boring. If the price was lower, the item would be less valuable.


One last thing to consider: victory is boring.

You’ve found all the best items, you’ve gotten the best possible stats, and you can beat any enemy in the game in two hits. Go ahead, revel in your victory. But that won’t last long. You’ve worked hard on this game, but there’s nothing meaningful left. Even the strongest enemies are beneath you.

Don’t you wish there were more challenges? Something harder than the final boss, which you could fight in order to really show your strength? But after that you’ll want something even more challenging…

Soon enough, you’ll switch to a new game. Something with new challenges.


Things in life are worth more if you have to work for them. (This includes physical things and immaterial “happy moments.”) And there’s no such thing as having accomplished “enough.”

Even a carefree paradise wouldn’t be enough. It just wouldn’t feel meaningful. Soon enough, we’d switch to a new mode of life. Something with challenges.


tl;dr: Games are all about giving people experiences that they want to have. They’re used for escapism, and sometimes wish fulfillment. Yet for some reason, they tend not to be simulations of “the easy life.” They tend to be challenging.

Utopia, I suspect, would look more like a video game than a storybook ending.

 
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It’s worth noting here, that most alternate life sims, aren’t games. They are however as close to utopias as can currently be achieved for mainstream PC users with the associated limited access to hardware and processing power. Each is designed to facilitate a given lifestyle by it’s owners and residents. To create a community with a common purpose rather than a game.

As such, the difficulty and really, the attraction doesn’t come from any game mechanics, although such are often present via user scripting. Both come from the other people there. The community is both the primary source of drama and the reason to keep on coming back. The connections made and the events shared.

I rather suspect utopia when it comes, will be a plethora of the great grandchildren of these environments. A multitude of synthetic realities each devoted to a particular lifestyle, and attracting disparatly scattered individuals. Whilst such would by necessity be much more advanced in the interface, interaction and graphical realism departments, again the primary attraction and primary source of difficulty will come not from the mechanics of the environment (although the limitations of the capabilities of the environment, however advanced, will be a source of frustration just as now). Rather it will come from the community; the like-minded and curious individuals who populate these utopias, along with the logistical difficulties inherent in trying to live out the preferred lifestyle and unexpected hiccups therein.

 
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With all the advances into neuroscience these days, I have to wonder(and ask our resident brain expert, vikaTae) why aren’t we cutting out the middle-man of having suited environments, synthetic realities, human connections etc. and simply hooking ourselves to a pod that supplies us with nutrients and such, run by robots, and then stimulating the pleasure portion of our brain all day long?

 
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Other than the ‘pleasure portion’ likely not actually existing as a discrete section, you mean?

I suppose the primary problem other than our not actually fully understanding the distribution of the pleasure center network in the brain, is that by doing that, assuming you could implant deep brain stimulators in the correct places, is your brain’s more specialised functions would atrophy over time, due to disuse. You’d lose the ability to reason, essentially, and just be a circuit in a non-sentient machine.

Deep brain stimulators always damage the brain during implantation. It’s impossible for them not to, as you have to drill a hole through the brain in order to implant them. The gradual accumulation of scar tissue around the implantation site, that is the primary reason for implanted neural readers to fail within two years isn’t a problem, as you’re just broadcasting a relatively high power blanket signal. The brain’s plasticity will respond by devoting more and more neurons to the task being stimulated, which over time will require that the signal strength be amplified, to cover the new capability. Eventually there will be nothing left in the brain but pleasure circuits. No memories, no thoughts, no nothing.

At that point, you might as well turn off life support, and take the by now entirely redundant brain out of the circuit. You won’t impact the function of the circuit one iota, and there won’t be a sentient being involved to notice, anyway.

 
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not actually existing as a discrete section

Huh, I didn’t know that. I always hear about scientists measuring brainwaves and such and then comes the statement about the “pleasure portion of your brain lighting up” when people talk about scientific experiments.

As for the brain devolving, why not artificially stimulate the other areas? Pump adrenaline into it, use the virtual reality version of, I don’t know, Math or whatever stimulates your brain. Or you could go the other way round and simply destroy the “pain and displeasure” portions of your brain(unless those don’t exist as well).

Have you ever considered using sex? Unlike other pleasurable activities, the desire to have sex does not fade over time just like you don’t feel like not eating food because you’ve eaten a lot of food in your life- it is a basic need and hardwired into our evolutionary impulses. You don’t even have to hardwire anything. All you need is something to artificially stimulate sex. A virtual reality, sexually desirable person plus maybe wires plugged into your sexual organ to simulate an orgasm and there you go. And because it’s VR, you can do what you want. Pedophiles, deviants, homosexuals and so on can satisfy their urges without breaking any laws.

 
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Originally posted by vikaTae:

your brain’s more specialised functions would atrophy over time, due to disuse.

This is potentially solvable with an adjusted setup. Maybe a little fancier than what Helltank described, but it shouldn’t take that much to maintain a bare minimum level of sentience.

Even then it would be a bad idea. My true rejection, and I suspect most other people’s, has nothing to do with feasibility. It has to do with the fact that we don’t want artificial happiness.

We want happiness, but we also want meaning. (An ill-defined term, I know, but I’d be willing to bet that most people would not call the pleasure-stimulator scenario “a meaningful existence.”) We want status, accomplishments, challenges, freedom, and perhaps even the occasional painful failure.

We don’t just value our happiness, we value the things that have traditionally made us happy. Or better yet, both at once.

When I met the futurist Greg Stock some years ago, he argued that the joy of scientific discovery would soon be replaced by pills that could simulate the joy of scientific discovery. I approached him after his talk and said, “I agree that such pills are probably possible, but I wouldn’t voluntarily take them.”

[…]

The value of scientific discovery requires both a genuine scientific discovery, and a person to take joy in that discovery.

 
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Can I ask if you’re a regular lesswronger?

Also, if you’re going by what people want, it would be better to have an artificial world that you can adjust to fit your needs. If you want sex, change the settings to “Playboy Mansion”. If you like scientific discovery, simulate a laboratory and experiment on.

 
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Player 03

Originally posted by player_03:

This is potentially solvable with an adjusted setup. Maybe a little fancier than what Helltank described, but it shouldn’t take that much to maintain a bare minimum level of sentience.

Even then it would be a bad idea. My true rejection, and I suspect most other people’s, has nothing to do with feasibility. It has to do with the fact that we don’t want artificial happiness.

We want happiness, but we also want meaning. (An ill-defined term, I know, but I’d be willing to bet that most people would not call the pleasure-stimulator scenario “a meaningful existence.”) We want status, accomplishments, challenges, freedom, and perhaps even the occasional painful failure.

This is my own feeling on the matter. I want to be with the people I love, and share accomplishments with them. I wish to gain happiness through making a positive difference in the lives of others, rather than an empty shell of fake happiness.

Problem is, like you I struggle to define exactly what the difference is in impartial terms that don’t rely on the reader’s ability to understand emotional states and interpersonal relationships. Helltank has repeatedly both stated & demonstrated he does not understand such things. So I shied away from that reasoning, precisely because I could not think of an acceptable way to phrase my rejection in an impartial, non emotional way he would understand.


Helltank

Pedophiles, deviants, homosexuals and so on can satisfy their urges without breaking any laws.

Lumping homosexuals in with ‘pedophiles and deviants’. Really?

Ignoring the poor choice of association there, this is not a great idea. Unless we are at the stage where the VR interface offers an equal or preferably superior set of sensations to the physical act, all that will do is increase the person’s desire for more sensuous, real experiences. You will make them more likely to abuse others, not less.

As the current state of the art in teledildonics stands, it is not remotely close to equalling the normal physical act in terms of sensation. Much less all the foreplay that leads up to the act itself. There are severe limits on telehaptic capabilities. Whilst you can feel the pressure of the touch of the person you are being intimate with remotely, providing you are wearing the right, fairly bulky hardware over the right part of your body, texture is quite another matter, and nobody has yet successfully replicated heat and cold sensation properly with any fidelity, without resorting to ice, flame, or other temperamental methods.

Even Stuart Meloy, the lead researcher on a very cutting edge team that does the same as I do with arm neural codes using the neural codes of the reproductive organs, is nowhere even remotely close at the moment to being able to virtually recreate the correct codes in a meaningful order, without involving actual physical stimulation. His team’s the only one working on the issue, so nobody else is going to be close any time soon. Currently he can trigger female orgasms upon command, but lesser sensations are far, far trickier (and even that currently requires a lumbar punch).

There is far, far more to meaningful sex than the act itself. Whilst I have worked in a minor capacity to help others enjoy teledildonic sex via a VR, in those instances they gained the capability via sinulator teledildonic devices whose functionality had been hacked to make them compatible with the VR software of their personal choice, and even then only really effective for those who had entirely lost the capability for normal physical intercourse.

VR sex for the mid-term future (next several decades) is only really useful for those with diminished or non-existant ability to partake in actual physical intercourse with their loved ones due to physical disability or long distance. It’s not a replacement for the physical act, and there is still a hell of a lot we still have to work out before it could even begin to come close.

Sure it is theoretically possible for it to exceed the capabilities of the physical act, but the difference between theory and practice is that in theory there is no difference.

Huh, I didn’t know that. I always hear about scientists measuring brainwaves and such and then comes the statement about the “pleasure portion of your brain lighting up” when people talk about scientific experiments.

There are many such areas, scattered across the midbrain and cortex. How they interact, we don’t yet understand. That they do interact, we do understand. Stimulating the main ‘pleasure center’ as we did with rats in the 60s does not produce the same fMRI scan of brain activity as actual pleasurable activities. It’s providing a false shadow of pleasure. Likely intense but empty, which would explain why the rats in that experiment stopped caring about eating, drinking, doing anything but frantically trying to get more pleasure. Likely it was producing something with a direct parallel to sexual tension. Right on the cusp of it, but never actually tipping over into joy.

Or you could go the other way round and simply destroy the “pain and displeasure” portions of your brain(unless those don’t exist as well).

Bad, bad idea. Pain and emotion are intricately tied at the wiring level. It is central to the drives of the midbrain, and is decentralised all throughout it. Pain’s tied deep into the hindbrain and into the cerebellum as well. Cerebellum is by far the densest packed area of the brain as well as one of the oldest, far, far predating the time we were human. We still struggle to interface with the rest of it.

Let’s put the cerebellum into perspective. Fifty percent of all the neuron cells in the brain reside in the cerebellum. Fifty percent. It is insanely tightly packed, and subdivided into hundreds ofthousands of sub compartments, with nothing like the sense of structure we get from the rest of the brain. It’s up in the air still, as to how function is divided up in it. You play about in that the same way we interface with the rest of the brain, you will permanently break that person’s bodily and autonomic systems control center.

Even if you managed to isolate pain from the cerebellum, it still travels up through the pons, into the mid brain. Avoidance of pain is a central engine for drive. It is a central engine for emotion, for many of our instincts. Assuming you managed to strip it from entering through the brainstem, it’ll still enter through the cranial nerves.

In the end, you would literally have to dismantle the entire brain to get rid of pain. Very likely, that’s how it will be for pleasure as well.

Leave pain alone. If you need to remove it, remove it peripherally. Prevent the signals from reaching the brain.

Also, if you’re going by what people want, it would be better to have an artificial world that you can adjust to fit your needs. If you want sex, change the settings to “Playboy Mansion”. If you like scientific discovery, simulate a laboratory and experiment on.

Woefully over-simplistic. You would use the same environment as your base, giving you a standardised interface if you were involved in any VR for prolonged periods. Much of the time you would be able to get away with using the self same environment for both personal pleasure and work.

These things aren’t games. There’s no ultimate goal, or style of play. They tend towards realistic interactive environments, where realism is key. The rules of physics may well be incompatible for extreme applications; eg the heavy-duty particle swarms of a surgical simulation being a very different environment to the CAD-based vector measurements of an architectural draft or engineering plan. For such disparate applications, you’ll need to switch most of your engines around.

However, because of our natures, if such environments are going to bhe used over long periods of time, and it is common to switch between different environments, the worlds will be designed so they flow together. They’ll have to for our brains to be comfortable processing them. As immersion increases and the virtual feels more and more real, sudden disconnects and disorientations as you flow between programs will be increasingly unacceptable.

 
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Originally posted by Helltank:

Can I ask if you’re a regular lesswronger?

You certainly can. :P

If you did ask, my response would be that I don’t post there regularly, but I have read a lot of the posts, and I mostly agree with them. (If you want to discuss further, please PM me, because it’s not the topic of the thread.)

Originally posted by Helltank:

Also, if you’re going by what people want, it would be better to have an artificial world that you can adjust to fit your needs. If you want sex, change the settings to “Playboy Mansion”. If you like scientific discovery, simulate a laboratory and experiment on.

That’s better, but now we’re getting back to my main point. Most people don’t want to be given everything. It’s more satisfying if they have to earn what they have.

Why do you think people play Minecraft, when they could download Blender and make the same thing in half the time and twice the quality?

How about painting? Why do people paint things when everyone has a camera? Painting can take hours, while cameras take much higher-quality pictures instantly.

It’s because effort makes the thing worthwhile.

Originally posted by vikaTae:

I could not think of an acceptable way to phrase my rejection in an impartial, non emotional way

That’s a difficult task you’ve set yourself, even without the part about explaining it to others.

 
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If they want a challenge, wouldn’t it be then possible to set the settings to “increase challenge, spawn obstacles”?

 
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Reading through this discusion_: Hmmm… Helltank has taken it upon himself to play the Devils Advocate.. And vikaTae is just posting incredibly verbose walls of text with Player03

 
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Originally posted by Helltank:

If they want a challenge, wouldn’t it be then possible to set the settings to “increase challenge, spawn obstacles”?

That would certainly help. Especially if a bunch of people did it together and built a community around it.

I was going to refer back to the sample complaint about things becoming too easy. Then I realized that I also gave examples of people choosing to do things the hard way despite having an easier option. (Minecraft, painting.)

Actually, painters probably did complain when cameras got popular. “Creating images used to require skill, and now anyone can do it! Everything is ruined forever!” But some of them still paint, so I guess they can live with it.


So your scenario might work. You could go live the easy life, while others “play on hard mode.” Enjoy!

But there would be a reward for the latter option. The people who challenged themselves would get something for their effort. Ideally, they’d be allowed/able to do things that you couldn’t. At the very least, they’d get an award, something to prove they did it.

Originally posted by SypherKhode822:

Reading through this discusion_: Hmmm… Helltank has taken it upon himself to play the Devils Advocate.. And vikaTae is just posting incredibly verbose walls of text with Player03

And you’ve taken it upon yourself to…?

(I honestly have no idea what you’re getting at.)

 
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Originally posted by player_03:

But there would be a reward for the latter option. The people who challenged themselves would get something for their effort. Ideally, they’d be allowed/able to do things that you couldn’t. At the very least, they’d get an award, something to prove they did it.

I would still argue that the best scenario is to use the game / sim as an enabler, a highly, highly interactive and immersive backdrop if you will. The greatest challenges come from long-term interpersonal interactions, and so too do the rewards.

There are I will concede, some scenarios in which the coding can help give rewards. Well over a decade ago, (it is kinda depressing to think how long it’s been) a small group of us were trying to create a new, far more balanced magic system for a MUD I was deeply involved in. We were basically heading the way of an elemental-based scripting language, letting users create their own spells from hard research combined with individual player character affinities so researched spells couldn’t just be copy-pasted. Well they could, but if you didn’t have enough affinity for the element and skill when you tried to cast it, it would drain your mana, then your life force then you exploded. This was usually not the desired result.

We never did get the system functioning as well as any of us had hoped, but it would be a great example of how the in-world mechanics give powerful rewards. Put the time and effort into researching spells and the practice into building up your magical muscles, combined with a little luck in which element it turned out you had the greatest affinity for, and you could quite literally be a walking powerhouse in-game.

However, even then, it was how you then used those powers in your interaction with other players participating in the game that was really most rewarding.

 
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Originally posted by vikaTae:

The greatest challenges come from long-term interpersonal interactions, and so too do the rewards.

I think I have a different perspective on this, due to being more introverted than you. I prefer my challenges to be of the artistic and PvE varieties, though I respect the challenges and rewards of social interactions. (And I also realize that art and PvE accomplishments are often done for status, giving them a social component anyway.)

Originally posted by vikaTae:

There are I will concede, some scenarios in which the coding can help give rewards.

Actually, this isn’t quite what I was getting at. It’s part of it, but I didn’t just mean for the reward to be “unlock special powers.”

An equally valid alternative would be practicing skills, and the reward is that you’re better than people who didn’t practice. The only thing that needs to be coded in is something which requires skill.

Art would be another alternative. For this, all that the code needs to do is not provide an easier way. Minecraft has creative mode, but that’s as easy as it gets. Sure, you can fly and place any block you like at any time, but you still have to place the blocks one by one. The pixel art shown there was created “by hand,” not by pasting in a PNG file and telling the game “build this for me.”
The resulting art can also be seen as an award: thanks to your effort, you now have something that other people don’t. Feel free to gloat.

I’d certainly be interested in playing a VR RPG or two, but that’s not the only alternative to social challenges and rewards.