Deism and Digital World-Building


Black & White (Lionhead Studios)

Nearly every aspect of archaeogaming can be considered on two levels: in-game and extra-game. As Raiford Guins writes in Game After, “players are not privy to the ‘inner space’ of games, and only play its ‘outer space.’” Archaeogamers, however, can look within to study a game’s “inner space.”

This post on world-building will not address games with a “god” mode for creation (Minecraft), invincibility (Doom), or where you play as a god (Black and White—apologies for misleading you withe the opening image. Viewing the games as site-artifacts, however, one recalls these as end-points of a creative process released to people who had no (or in the case of QA testing and beta-play, little) input in that creation. The players have inherited a pocket universe from a developer/publisher who most will never know or interact with in person. Welcome to deism.

Deism is the recognition of a universal creative force greater than that demonstrated by mankind, supported by personal observation of laws and designs in nature and the universe, perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of claims made by individuals and organized religions of having received special divine revelation.

The World Union of Deists

Game developers are gods. They create worlds and rules to govern how those worlds behave, and to govern how players interact within those worlds. They are the creative force implementing both logic and design. They have the power to change the worlds they build and the rules they create at any time and for any reason. They are largely unreachable by players and communities. They are prime movers, creating space and then stepping back to let players inhabit their creations.

All players are deists. We opt in to playing and exploring in these gaming spaces prepared for us. We consciously or unconsciously abide by the rules established by the Developer, experiencing a mix of both fate and freewill in the process of discovery. This happens on two levels. On the gameplay level, the player’s avatar navigates a game’s rules in order to accomplish a game’s goals. Players are rewarded and punished. In poorly designed games, that punishment can be arbitrary (e.g., crashes, glitches). On the player level, we consciously decide to subscribe to the set of rules set within a world we elect to enter, establishing a covenant with the Developer where we will fulfill our role as players as the Developer has fulfilled the role of creator. In deism, it is trust, not faith, that drives the ideology: trust in the laws of the world derived from logic and reason. Digital games mark the return of Enlightenment thinking; games do not model our universe, but are instead their own discrete universes. Why play by the rules? Playing has no other objective than to prolong the playing. It is the player’s duty to play.

The code is the Word (and is also an artifact of the world-building process). The Developer cannot create gamespace without first translating creative impulse into lines of code, which contain the rules by which the gamespace operates, and the players within it. “In the beginning was the command line,” author Neal Stephenson wrote. The code is interpreted by whatever it was written to run on. “Interpreted” here is a loaded term; at this writing, gaming systems (including consoles, PC and Mac desktops, mobile hardware, and internet browsers) are not yet “smart” enough to complete any kind of high-level interpretation, which implies subjective reasoning in an attempt to understand instructions. Computers cannot do that yet; they do what they are told. Garbage in, garbage out. As code changes, is revised, is rewritten, is expanded, layers of linguistic stratigraphy emerge to create a syntactic patina. To see the code warts and all is to conduct a kind of computer palaeography, identifying palimpsests in the structure, looking for commented lines, and creating a history of creation. Did the rules of the game change during development, and if so, how and why (and perhaps by whom)?

Individual rules and lines/clusters of code, combine to create new, higher-level rules contributing to complexity and emergent behavior. It’s a kind of evolution created by the original code, which at times generates unexpected behavior even though that behavior does not violate any of the underlying rules. When the player interacts with the game, the experience reveals the rules but not the code, which will never be seen by the player until the Developer decides to make that code available, not unlike the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. For some players, it’s rewarding enough to play a game. For others, we want to know more about how the game was made.

In procedural games, the interpretation of the code takes on an additional level of complexity. The code allows for player interaction with the gamespace to affect what happens next. Interaction with the rules creates new/alternate narratives, new environments to explore, still governed by the code, yet different every time, sometimes in simple, subtle ways, and other times with complex, unanticipated outcomes. Players enact freewill while the rules set by the code of the Developer bound that behavior: fate. Adept players learn what the rules are and how to exploit them to their advantage within the space of the game, but even the best players remain unable to transcend the game. Even with modding, the mods and hacks are still beholden to the original code and work within that framework. We can hack the universe, but it’s still the universe. The game was made for players, already a legacy on its first moment of release.

All digital games are amoral when viewed from the level of code, removed from human application of worldviews. Developer morality becomes part of the code as it is written, but the world created reflects that code and nothing else. Players bring their baggage with them, using real-world experiences and interpretations within a game created from whole cloth. The two worlds are separate despite the digital connection from the player’s brain through the controller and into the gamespace. Most games remain unaware/uninformed of real-world history, actions, events, existing in a rules-based bubble with their own independent laws.

Created by people for other people, their release often culturally significant events, these games enter the archaeological record even before they are played with all of the artifacts of communication and materials of creation occupying the studio. Meaning, however, comes through play, something which Frans Mäyrä calls “ludosis: making meaning through playful action.” Players imbue the gamespace with life, sentience, curiosity, emotion, making the built environment more than just a set of rules. People become a community, build a history and lore, and spend as much time in the virtual world as they do in the real one, a world made just for them, which they in turn make their own whether they think of the Developer or not. It is a pantheist view of the pocket universe. And while players may not think of the Developer while playing in that new world, the Developer was certainly thinking of them during its creation.

Claus Pias in his study on the agency of players on video games wrote: 1) computer games can manage entirely without humans; 2) players are viewed from their least human aspect; 3) the human-machine construct is a mutual test that implements a totally ordinary sense of duty and being on-the-spot, which is normative and “technical” (in the Kantian sense).

The universe (of the game), while a created construct, can live forever without players, but certainly becomes more interesting through human interaction, which is the intent of the Developer the entire time.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

2 thoughts on “Deism and Digital World-Building

  1. Pingback: Recap: Archaeogaming’s (Jump the) Shark Week | Archaeogaming

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