Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fractal gaming

I imagine quite a few of us have a played a game within a game, where the characters themselves are playing, gambling say. But how often is this a game of the very same type - meaning an RPG inside an RPG, or a wargame inside a wargame?

This kind of 'fractal gaming' shouldn't be too hard to do with a rules-light RPG, with its freedom to improvise and rewrite rules on the fly, but it could be tougher with the narrower focus of a wargame, where we're given less scope for non-destructive interaction between individuals. Hold the thought.

Could we and the dice be seen as gods to the characters in our games? Collectively, we are the creators of the fictional world, and to the inhabitants we're potentially omnipotent, as omniescent as the game needs, and possibly even omnipresent: after all, the events exist only in the players' minds; things only happen if we go there. Hold that thought too.

But can we actually be gods to characters in our games? They're supposedly fictional, with no physical basis in our world beyond the firing of our neurons, the movements of our muscles and vibrations of the air between the players; even with character sheets, maps, terrain and miniatures, the fictional reality is just a mental consensus between the players, mediated by the designers and manufacturers, and the various inspirations.
Then again, what we see as reality is also a mental construction. What we understand as sensory information triggered by the real world is processed by our minds. We have to trust our minds are telling us the truth. For example, can we each know we're looking at a screen right now? Can we each be sure the others really exist, somewhere else on a thing called a planet called Earth? Can we guarantee what we process has the source we imagine it does, that each brain isn't floating alone in a vat, in the dark, being fed it?

Could it even be that the 'brain in a vat' concept is designed to make us feel better? That maybe we don't even have our own piece of grey matter to call home? Could each brain just be a constituent part of a larger thinking organ of unknown structure, a structure not necessarily organic, or even physical? Whatever, if we can't be sure we're not figments of a larger imagination, who are we to say the characters in our games aren't 'real'?

Coming back to the idea of games within games of the same type, when the characters in our game play their version, what rules do they use? There's an interesting practical issue of reduction to deal with: when we write rules we're reducing observed mechanics of our world to a ruleset simple enough for the kind of game we want to play; would our characters have to reduce these rules in turn, even further, relative to their framework?

Following the reasoning above, would they then become gods to a whole new reality of their own creation? Or gods to what they might think of as their own creation - because they are subject to us in turn, and we have to imagine them imagining their creation, and our dice would presumably still be producing the 'random' numbers they're using.

In which case, could the 'fictional' realities run not only downwards, but also up, with pantheons above pantheons, and gods of gods of gods? If so, where could the impulses ultimately be coming from? Who or what rolling the top dice? Could it be a closed loop?

I think Hawking wrote that since Laplace's approach, mainstream physics has accepted a determinism suggesting any gods must be somewhere beyond observed mechanics, and this seems to have held even with the development of quantum mechanics. But it isn't necessarily the case of course, based on the same reasoning above; who's to say we're not each simply being fed the data needed to support the given interpretation?

Regardless, the subsequentialism of Orion's Arm and Tipler's Omega Point, to take two examples, also suggest god-like powers within the mechanics as we comprehend them.

What mechanics could govern a god even outside of ours, one world up? Would they even know we're alive in the way we feel we are? Could the characters in our games have lives we don't comprehend, powered by infinitesimals of our unused capacity?

More prosaically, are the game designers, or maybe their bosses, more god-like than the homebrewers, and are they more so than the house rulers, and they in turn more than turn-up-and-players? How do the shareholders fit into all of this? Are there devils?

Can we believe any of this? Simple answer: if it's unfalsifiable, can we disbelieve it?

A summary then. Is there a case for the category of 'ludic reduction'? Does reduction to inner worlds imply expansion to outer, or is that a fallacy of composition, assuming the fallacy here is falsifiable? When so few games openly suggest a fractal depth, many not even allowing objects to be moved, or spoken interaction within the world, are gamers an Alice not quite able to fit through the door? Or even see the door? Can gaming be seen as knowing there are minds of gods? Is the rules-light game a revelation? Is collaborative gaming us being offered a Promethean fire? Could we break on through to another side?

What set this off? A fine short story by Garrisonjames helped, and so did the ever-giving discussion with Loquacious, not to mention The Secret Sun, which has a lot to say on related themes. I've also been working on a stripped-down version of what should be an unusual core set for a tactical RPG or skirmish wargame, with part of the point being a smoother transition between worlds. I'll probably come back to the thinking here soon.


garrisonjames said...

Welcome back. Glad that the story did some good then. We're doing a few revisions based on your comments and a second brave beta-reader has leaped into the fray to throw themselves upon this thing like in the Dirty Dozen...we'll keep you in the loop as to what happens next. Thanks again for your time, effort and excellent/insightful feedback!

Cronickain said...

Welcome back!

Joe TwoCrows said...

For a fictional (as in science fictional) treatment of this idea, I recommend the late Robert Heinlein's last (1980- ) set of works. As Wikipedia notes, one phrase used for these is 'the World as Myth'.

As a game idea, it intrigues me. I'll be interested in its evolution.

Loquacious said...

Yes indeed, welcome back. I missed you, as you know.

The Heinlein comment rang true, as I've read him extensively and remembered many journeys down a rabbit hole via his works.

I think this is on a plane higher than I think on a regular basis, but interesting to consider at least a little. Being pushed is uncomfortable stuff, though.

Porky said...

Oddly enough, I don't feel so much now like I left at all, but then I don't feel like I'm quite back either. That's not to say I'm not glad to be in touch again, because I am.

The Heinlein association is definitely there in the World as Myth idea. Reading your comments, I did start to wonder if I could find any specific source of inspiration and for some reason I came up with Dennis Potter's Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, the second of which, perhaps not surprisingly for the suggestion, ties in with the Lazarus Long character in some of those Heinlein stories. That particular suggestion - of ongoing life - is in a sense what a lot of things still come down to.