Outside

When was the last time that you played Outside? I know the answer to this question, but we should go over our terms in order to bring it about. By Outside, I mean

… a free-to-play MMORPG [massively multiplayer online roleplaying game] developed by Deity Games and the most popular game, with 7 billion+ active players.

Matrix-like in the scope of its illusion, the game Outside is always being played by each and every human being. We do not all roll characters from stat pools of equal size. We are not all able to reach the highest levels. What counts as reaching a high level is mostly also an illusion. But we can discuss these imbalances and inequalities, disagree about them and decide whether they are permanent features of the game’s design, or are rather reproduced into perpetuity by its players. We employ a gamified technodigital language to break down the constructs that restrict our access to the full game as players. We deconstruct. Not necessarily so that we can improve – for most suppose it is outside of our power to do so – but, so that we can understand.

Outside is a subreddit community, featuring mostly text-based posts written in the language of gamers and some images presented with a title reflecting the context of gamification. The sub is without a doubt at its best when the language of dedicated gamers discussing design features is used as to probe deep social and philosophical issues (some personal favourites include Broken gender change feature and horrible community reaction, and Has anyone here ever seriously considered deleting their character?)

It appears to me that all players who actively engage with each other through the sub have invested points in the Philosopher subclass. But what kind of a philosophical context does Outside provide? It would be a mistake to think of the game as a simple mind-in-a-vat exercise in the vein of Cartesian mind-body dualisms. There is a hard ontological distinction to be made here. Most design-conversant players of Outside accept metaphysical monism, while players who dream of ‘unplugging,’ or who claim to have encountered non-player characters (or NPCs) are regularly branded solipsists. There is nothing outside of Outside. Corollary: all is inside Outside.

A possible refutation: what about the developers of Outside? While there are presumed to be some staff up in the offices at Deity Games, it is not clear that they are metaphysically distinct from the rest of what makes up the game. Even if the devs are of a fundamentally different stuff, players accept that they “are lazy and rarely do much.” And the existence of an outside of Outside for the developers does not imply the existence of such an outside for the players. We can imagine, then, that all but the most lofty metaphysicians of Outside qualify as theoretical monists with a pragmatic twist; what more there may be to the universe is likely a waste of time for us to think about[1].

Philosophers of Outside have more in common with a modern day Aristotle than with the machine-headed dreams of Descartes, and its developers are more like unmoved movers than the cruel and compassionate gods of reverent theologians. Aristotle was expressly concerned with the apparent role of design and purpose in his theory of causality: in addition to matter and material processes, the final cause of the thing somehow figures uniquely through its form. More simply, the question of what something is for, is closely related to the question of what it is. I have often quoted Dylan Thomas as having a poetic affinity for Aristotle. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” is a final cause, driven towards its form (the flower) through the green fuse (material/efficient causes).

The motivation for design and purpose has always been built through some psychologistic metaphor. Both Aristotle’s Physics and the Metaphysics contain passages which provide colourful comparisons, yet are somewhat lacking in argumentation[2]. The foundational metaphor, grounding much of Aristotle’s discourse on causality, is that of technê – art or craft – imitating nature. The formal and the final cause for a bronze statue of Apollo is the form of the god of the sun, driven through the sculptor’s hands by virtue of his craftsmanship. So it is in nature.

The world has been uploaded into the language of the game; it is thereby transcendent. Aristotle’s onto-epistemological foundation for the natural sciences was highly in fashion for a millennium, eventually shedding hitherto faithful co-conspirators in physics and astronomy to Copernicus and Galileo, but holding on to most modern day biologists, with chemists bouncing somewhere in between. Outside uproots Aristotelian naturalism by reversing its foundational metaphor, in Heideggerian style. Technê takes flight from nature and comes back to plant GMOs! – the mirror changes hands, and nature comes to be seen as an extension of the highest power believed harnessed by humankind, thus extending the story of man’s improbable dominion.

In The Question Concerning Technology (1954) Heidegger reveals the essence of technology as Enframing. I shall be brief and inadequate. More than just the totality of machinery and gadgets that we come to accumulate, technology is something of a sphere of perception. Technology has been more yielding to the impetus of humankind than nature has (we are brought to believe), so technologicism replaces naturalism. Whether we stand freely in relation to technology, or whether it steers us under the illusion of our control, is an important question. And here is about the spot where we can find Outside’s clever subversion.

Derrida would delight in this techno-deconstruction with a Heideggerian heritage. The total gamification of being presented by Outside suggests total Enframing. The discursive practices of design-conversant players of Outside are in truth a deconstruction, in the sense of a construction taking place within a destruction. Outside falls like an incoming game in ReBoot, but all encompassing. It is inside of this destructive fallen game that these players make their constructions, theories about their observations and experiences, all codified in the language of the encompassing game’s design.
 

 

Where is this deconstruction taking place? Recall our (minimally functional) commitment to monism. The location of deconstruction is irrelevant and confusing, for there is no deconstruction in Outside without a deconstruction of the self. We are fully absorbed into the game, our selves fully uploaded. Players role-play as themselves. Admitting the rules of the game implicitly forgoes the illusion of control. Outside is a mockery of Heidegger’s warning, of the essence of technology posing an affront to the possibility of our freely determining our Being; the world of our Being-in-the-world is reclaimed as the world of pure technê. Technological monism arrives with a replacement thesis at its behest, supplanting itself for dusty old green naturalisms.

I am not here to judge. We are everyday uploading ourselves to new worlds online and aspiring to become them. Seldom has there been a craftier instance of Aristotelian causality bearing on the self, and our own becoming. The Outsiders are, perhaps, the early colonizers of new digital worlds, which even others are consumed by (to varying degrees), however may they be by wilful or blissful ignorance reluctant to accept it. The threat comes not from the players, but from the game which destroys the world. We as players are wholly overcome, sublimated by it. But if the wake of its destructive force can be exploited for a while, let us dispatch of more proximate oppressive features of the game, whose contradictions might be better exposed when weakened by our myth and our canon.

[1] While there are religious guilds consisting of players who worship more interested gods, which are supposed to exert a greater influence on the game, I would say that either those players have been in the business of constructing an elaborate myth as a set of guidelines for their moral, spiritual and social conduct; or, they have been the result of the side-project, mini-game or bit of erratic code introduced by a rogue developer, or ex-employee of Deity Games.

[2] See for example, Physics 195a6-8; Metaphysics 1013b6–9.

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