All the World’s a Game

Origin SystemsI’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately. Exploring its complex, primal, randomly-generated environments has helped me to firm up an intuition about games and religion—at least my religion—that I’ve been toying with for years.

The intuition started at the first game company I worked for: Origin Systems. Origin’s slogan was “We Create Worlds,” and they were right. Origin created the Wing Commander universe with its planets and starships and leonine aliens. It developed the world of Britannia, featured in the Ultima series. The dystopian cities of the Crusader games, the Citadel Station in System Shock, the moon Daedalus from Bioforge… Origin created worlds and more worlds.

As a player I wanted to discover those worlds, to explore and enjoy them. As a programmer I wanted to create new worlds of my own. A lot of the appeal of games and game-making is the opportunity to experience new places with new rules, undiscovered beauty, and intriguing new challenges. It’s this appeal that has kept me involved, playing and making games, these last fifteen-odd years.

Now if it’s true that a game is a kind of world, then it’s also true that a game developer is a kind of god. This need not be an arrogant or blasphemous notion—a sane game developer makes no claim to being a god of the real world.

But within the domain of the game itself the developer is divine. He (or she) has all power: to set the bounds of the world, to determine its shape, to set the gravitational constant, to eliminate gravity, or to replace it with some other force. The developer decides what creatures live in his world, how they look, how they move, what they want, how they think. He has the power to stop time, to record at one moment the state of things, to skip ahead to the future, to rewind to the past. He decides whether the sky is blue or green or chartreuse or whether there’s no sky at all. In every respect, from the smallest pixel to the broad expanse of time and space, the game developer owns and controls his world. In every way he is its god.

And this makes me wonder whether the world we’re living in is also a kind of game, with a Developer of its own.

If we follow this idea out a little way, it seems to me that there are a lot of similarities and at least two big differences between digital worlds and the real one.

The first difference is the question of design. When we think of a video game, we normally think of a world that has been hand-crafted by a highly active human designer. In a world like the Wasteland of Fallout 3 or New Vegas, artists, level designers, and programmers painstakingly contour the land, lay out mountains, highways, and buildings, then populate the terrain with each and every rock and tree and blade of grass. The world is pervasively designed. There is no evolution in the Wasteland. It’s intelligent design all the way.

If we take this idea back over to the real world, we’re led to imagine that the real world might have been carefully hand-crafted in just the same way. Now many religious believers will have no qualms with that suggestion. But many other people, from a variety of religious persuasions, will reject this idea out-of-hand. “No god or gods,” they may say, “placed every mountain and boulder or designed every creature in the real world. In this respect the real world is nothing like a game.”

I actually don’t think that this conflict is a terribly important one. To see why, take a look at Minecraft.

Despite its simple graphics, Minecraft is a very sophisticated game. Although the game itself is programmed, it has no level designer. Instead the world is generated in a pseudo-random manner, fresh for each player who starts a game. The world generation algorithm lays out the earth and sky. It carves out mountains and valleys, caves and caverns. It fills the earth with water, hides seams of coal and iron and jewels, and sprinkles plants and creatures wherever they may go.

The result, to my mind, is even more beautiful, more diverse, more ripe for exploration and more full of discovery than the most skillfully crafted hand-made world in any game I’ve played. The world of Minecraft is not designed—it is produced. It is crafted indirectly, through rules that are themselves carefully designed by a thoughtful and skillful programmer. The gods of Minecraft—that is, the programmer named Notch along with the other developers at Mojang—don’t dictate every leaf or pond or mountain. Indeed, they have never even seen the world that I’m playing, because it was made just for me on my computer. They only dictate the rules by which the world is created.

It may be that the real world is something like that. Perhaps God didn’t lay out every sea or mountain so much as he carefully crafted the rules—rules of matter, energy, motion, magnetism, gravity and the like—that would produce a world such as ours.

This is hardly a new idea. What I’ve just described is Deism, a concept that was popular in the 18th century. As we look at this analogy between game-worlds and the real world, I think we can and should go beyond Deism.

I said that there were two big differences that might harm the analogy. The first was the concern that whereas most game worlds are carefully designed, the real world seems to be more indirectly produced. We’ve just seen that a game like Minecraft helps to resolve this dilemma.

The second big difference is the question of players. In a game, players and developers are the same sort of thing: they’re all human. Notch may be the god of Minecraft, but he is still just a regular Joe like you or me. In a game, the god of the world and the inhabitants of the world are in truth the same sort of being. Our difference is capability, not nature. Notch and I are different because he can change the code and I can’t (well, not easily). That gives him powers within the digital world that I don’t possess. But if we were to meet, I expected I would discover him to have much the same sort of nature as I have. He probably wouldn’t emit light. He probably wouldn’t be able to move elementary particles with his mind. He probably wouldn’t float beyond the linear course of time. He’d be a regular guy, ontologically speaking.

But the Developer of the real world can’t be the same sort of thing as me. He—if “he” is the best pronoun for this person—not only is bigger, more powerful, and more capable, but he fundamentally exists on a higher plane than I do. I am entirely in and of the real world. I am made out of its particles. I cannot escape its flow of time. Yet whoever created this world made the particles and established the flow of time. He is beyond this world, not subject to its rules. Just as a human is “beyond” a game, God is beyond the universe.

So perhaps a better analogy between the real world and the game would compare a human in the real world to a character in the game—a character like Alyx Vance from Half-Life or Joe “Red” Hartsock from Brothers in Arms. A character doesn’t exist outside of the game. It is crafted from the same pixels and vertices and transforms as everything else inside the game. I am a character in the real world in just that way: although I am hardly a lump of dirt, I am like a lump of dirt in the sense that I am made out of the same “stuff”—the same rules, the same particles—as the dirt is made out of.

Before this begins to sound too demeaning, let me point out that to be a “character” in the real universe turns out not to be such a bad deal. Maybe the universe is a game, but if so it is a very fine game. A computer game can only host characters with artificial intelligence, but characters in this Game have real intelligence. Characters in a computer game are not aware of anything, but characters in this Game are aware of themselves and everything around them. Characters is a computer game are disposable—mere pixels and bits. We can blow them away without remorse (even if senators will ring their hands while we’re at it). But characters in the Real Game are valuable, beautiful, anything but disposable.

At this point we may very well ask, “Are we really that valuable? Are we really anything but disposable? We see it that way but does God see it that way?” It’s a fair question. If we gods of the digital game have no compassion for our characters, why should we think that the God of this Game has compassion on us?

This brings me to the crux of the analogy. Because as a Christian, I don’t believe that God is merely a designer or developer, programming his game in some darkened office, hacking and clacking, tinkering and toying. I don’t believe, like the Deist, that God wrapped up the code, committed the revision, built the project, and shipped off the game, never to play it. I don’t believe that he clicked off his light and left the Game running a soak test overnight.

As a Christian I believe that God stayed with the Game, watching and guiding, steering, perhaps tweaking it. I believe he stayed involved.

More than that, I believe that he took the ultimate act of involvement. He became a character, joining in the Game to play it along with us.

As Jesus of Nazareth—I read it on his gamertag—he did the things all characters have to do, being born, growing up, living, and dying. Along the way he shared what he knew about the Game: what it really was, how to play it well, how to get all the achievements, how to win.

He didn’t just talk. He also did things—lots of things, seen by thousands and well documented—that showed he was from beyond the Game, showed he was more than a character. Things like manipulating particles at will. Reading minds (easy for a programmer with access to the mind’s source code.) Escaping the confines of time. Even the ultimate particle-mind manipulation: he brought the dead back to life.

I think it’s true that he himself rose from the dead and in some strange way now exists both inside and outside of the game. I believe he is there now, or perhaps I should say “here”—absent yet still involved. Waiting for the end. Waiting, as we all do, for those bittersweet credits to roll.

I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately, and it’s got me thinking about worlds and creators, players and characters, design and chance. I don’t know if all the world’s a game—whether that’s the best analogy. Shakespeare thought it was a stage, but then he was a poet and I’m a game programmer—maybe everybody casts the world in the terms they know best.

Whether it’s the best analogy or not, I think it’s an interesting one, and I hope you’ll explore it with me.