Experience machines and video games


Note this post was probably posted earlier than the date. What’s on record is when I ported this from a squarespace to a wordpress site.

Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia asks us to imagine a machine that we can plug into and it will simulate anything we desire. While we’re inside, we can experience the joys associated having a fulfilling job, listening to good music, falling in love, or talking with friends. Think of it like a pleasant Matrix. All of these images and corresponding feelings are produced by some clever electrical stimulation of our neurons and as long as we are plugged in, our experience is indistinguishable from real life.

Nozick says we gain something by imagining such a machine and then “realizing we would not want to use it.” He believes our repulsion to plugging in is summarized in three points.

  1. We actually want to do things and not only have the experience that we’ve done them. Wanting the experience of doing something, as Nozick says, is often just an indicator that we want to do the thing. How else are you going to get the experience?

  2. We want to be the type of person that actually does things. To plug into the experience machine is to acquiesce to the triumphs and vicissitudes of real life and become a type of “indeterminate blob,” according to Nozick. With every experience preordained, there is no opportunity to indicate or build one’s general, or moral, character. If we’re plugged into the machine, it’s impossible for us to know whether we are “courageous , kind, intelligent, witty, or loving,” and depending on what you believe, if we don’t have the opportunity to exercise these traits outside of a determined environment, we can’t be any of the above.

  3. Plugging in limits us to an artificial reality. This cuts us off from any type of “deeper reality,” and the potential spiritual experience that can come with it.

I would not use the experience machine, and I think if you asked most people they would say they wouldn’t either. (If you believe that pleasure is the chief human good, then I can see how you could argue that plugging in is the rational thing to do, as pleasure itself is not concerned with whether it is caused by electrodes tickling your brain or some good pasta. If you have that position send me a message; I want to talk about it). Yet, I think there’s a paradox here: if what Nozick says is true, why do so many people play video games?

There is, I admit, nothing wrong with the act of playing video games. Yet, I’ve observed many people, mainly college-aged males, devote hours and hours of their days to staring at their computer screens, engaging in what is as close to artificial stimulation of the neurons as you can get without cracking your skull open and poking around. I know very little biology, but video games, I believe, stimulate the same areas of your brain (nucleus accumbens) as drugs and alcohol, and are certainly as addictive. They are approximate experience machines.

So, why do people game so much? I offer some potential explanations.

It could be the case people do not realize they are “plugging in.” When someone fires up their computer, they are probably not opening fortnite with the intention of getting spoon-fed pleasurable experiences, but rather think they are just killing time. Nozick doesn’t pop out and give us the run-down of what we are about to do and the ramifications of doing it. To gamers, playing is only a slight diversion and not an artificial all-encompassing world.

Video games and the experience machine may also be very different things. Inside the experience machine, you’re under a type of grand illusion, believing everything you do is real and has significant importance to your own life, but it isn’t really happening. By contrast, very few people are under the illusion that they are actually inside a video game when they’re playing, and even if they did believe that, it would be another leap to assume that what they experience in the game constitutes their entire life. Because people can recognize the division between video games and what is real, they can presumably get up and choose to participate in either one whenever they please.

The distance between video games and the physical world is also getting smaller. What I mean by this is that in-game events are beginning to have a significant and lasting impact on actual lives. Consider Ninja, the internet star whose video-game prowess nets him an estimated $500,000 a month, and has made him something of a celebrity. For Ninja, video game actions and decisions are real-life actions and decisions, as they determine his income and public reputation. Video games, if played with others, can also encourage pro-social behavior. Trying to win a round or match on a team in any game requires a fair bit of coordination, and video games might be one of the only places some can cooperate with others in a constructive manner.

I feel old and crotchety writing this, but it concerns me how much time we spend in these types of “constructed worlds.” Video games, I feel, are inherently different than the constructed worlds of fiction and movies as those are focused on communicating a specific narrative while video games are just mindless. I know there are narrative-focused games out there, but those aren’t the kinds people are addicted to.

This piece is highly speculative. If you disagree or have something to add, please leave a comment. I would love to listen.

Link to the text of Anarchy, State and Utopia.