The Potential Dangers of Minds Getting Played

I clearly remember hearing about a new kind of game back in the late 90s- a friend handed me a magazine while I was playing Descent. The article detailed a new genre of game: Alternative Reality, in which the content of the game connected with the real world, and the gameplay was woven through physical space as much as game space. The article focused on a game called Majestic. Even before law school secured my youthful cynicism, I was already concerned about the potential for disaster with this game: trespassing, distracted operating of motor vehicles, unfortunate confusion with actual crime- by both police and criminals, etc. The game, and the genre, never really took off, and so a lot of the issues got pushed aside and ignored for a decade and a half.

Then Pokemon Go came out.

I) How do we Distinguish Alternative, Augmented, Virtual Realities from Plain Ol’ Boring Reality?

As Jerry “Tycho” Holkins has pointed out, when someone is experiencing a reality that differs from the reality that others are experiencing, we usually conclude that the singular experience of reality is a hallucination of some kind. So, inviting a parallel version of reality is a bit ambitious for a species that still has some fundamental questions about the nature of reality and the capacity to perceive it. But humans tend to be ambitious.

Metaphysics has tried for several millennia to explain what reality is, and epistemology and philosophy of mind (now backed up by nascent efforts of neurobiology) have tried to understand how the human mind interacts with whatever reality is. These kinds of questions seem tiresome and sophomoric because they seem to be trying to solve a problem that we don’t have. Fortunately for philosophers, scientists, and lawyers, humans are good at creating interesting problems.

II) Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Social Media, and AI: A Combination for Confusion

The biggest danger isn’t really just immersing the human mind in an alternative reality. Literature and media have been doing that since the first tools of imparting imagination were created. However, there have always been clear markers about the borders of fiction and reality: the edges of pages, the entrance to the theater, the “play” button. Since video games started making recognizable depictions of reality, political bodies have been concerned with the ability of the mind to keep the fiction of the game separate from reality.

Some games have recently made a deliberate effort to blur the distinction between the game and reality. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the villain Scarecrow created a visual effect that looked to the player as though the game-machine itself was having technical problems. Metal Gear Solid villain Psycho Mantis had similar behaviors, interfering with the usable controller ports on the Playstation, reading memory cards to learn what other games the player plays, and giving the appearance of technical problems with the visual display.

The connection of games to social media platforms and profiles perforates some barriers between games and reality. These perforations tear wider the more the game uses them. How much more of a leap would it be for a game to read the social profiles of a player and allow a villain to make threats against the actual friends and family members of the player?

This trajectory, combined with increasingly better artificial intelligence programs that can learn and affect both game worlds and real worlds, creates the potential for some bizarre problems that will still seem like science fiction even after the first time we read an article reporting on why a 22 year old is dead after a cat walked across her keyboard while she got a soda. It may not be long until someone is arrested in real life for a murder committed in a game due to a bug or an AI program getting out of control. Or, perhaps even more likely, some hacker will make use of the obfuscated and blurred boundary between the game and reality to either commit a crime or frame someone for one.

III) Pokemon Go: Traps, Muggers, Molesters

If these possibilities seem like pure fantasy, we should remember that we’ve already seen some of the first iteration of the dangers of people trying to handle two realities simultaneously. Pokemon Go serves as an example the nature of the problems and the sometimes tragic stakes of not handling the problems well. There have been reports of muggers and sex offenders using the game to their own malicious ends, as well as reports of accidental deaths and car accidents from the simple carelessness of distracted (or overly-ambitious) players.

If you die while playing Pokemon Go, you die in real life.

IV) Philosophy is still relevant

In 1967, Phillipa Foote introduced the famous “Trolley Problem”: a hypothetical dilemma of choosing to allow a train (or trolley) to kill several people, or choosing instead to intervene and divert the train to kill only one person. The problem was meant to probe people’s moral intuitions, as the goal was not so much the answer to the problem but the justification for the choice. Many people outside of philosophy dismissed this hypothetical as irrelevant nonsense that showed how stupid and meaningless academic philosophy had become in the enlightened, advanced age of the 20th century. Then, in the early 21st century, automotive engineers and programmers confronted the exact problem in determining how to program self-driving cars when confronted with similar dilemmas.

The story for the philosophical field of Aesthetics (the area concerned with understanding art and beauty) is similar. In the coming years, the interactive entertainment media industry will have to confront problems of understanding the boundaries of how, when, and why fiction is experienced. The analysis of essays on the use of the fourth wall and meta-humor will be important to cutting-edge games looking to balance novel thrills with consumer safety.

V) Solutions: Design for Safety, Be Helpful

The law can make some efforts to protect the public, but it’s almost always going to be reactive, not proactive, in these matters.

Developers should design for Audience Meta-Awareness. Yes, the much-touted quality of immersion adds fun to the experience. However, it is necessary to provide safety outlets for that immersion. The game creates a space- players need to always be able to see the door to the space and get out of it. They need to be clear about when they are in that space and when they are not. Games that actively seek out players to update them about the game undermine that distinction. Games that don’t allow players to put down the game, or don’t allow players to know when they have put down the game, are looking for problems.

The community can create safety nets, as we saw with Pokemon Go players acting as safety guards in potentially dangerous scenarios. However, if we’ve learned anything from the internet, it’s that groups of people knit together by cyberspace are not always a recipe for safety and well-being. Still, the more that games resemble mind-altering drug experiences, the more important it is to have a sober friend nearby.


4/14/17 UPDATE: One of my favorite web series on game design, Extra Credits, apparently also thinks this is an interesting subject. They provide a lot of examples of the concepts I addressed.


Dragonrend: The Power Of Language is the Expression of Ideas

Language is a difficult and important thing. It is the bridge between two minds. Skyrim subtly poses a question about what happens when those two minds are phenomenological incompatible (experience reality in different ways).

     I recently finished the main storyline in Skyrim (I’m usually not very fast at finishing videogames). I was quite pleased with the story’s depth and writing quality. My favorite part, by far, was the idea of the Dragonrend shout. For those who haven’t played Skyrim, “Shouts” are a sort of magical spell the player can employ in the game. The story holds that the famous fire-breath associated with mythical dragons is actually the ability of the dragon to speak (or shout) in a way that its voice commands  and becomes a force in itself. This interpretation of the dragon allows for great writing opportunities, as the very concept of “words” and “speech” have a rich history in human (especially Western) civilization and history.

     In gameplay, the Dragonrend shout has the effect of temporarily weakening a dragon, forcing it to rest on the ground (rather than fly overhead), thereby making it easier to attack with a sword (or even an easier target for arrows). It is extremely helpful in defeating dragons (especially if you have specialized in melee weapons).

     The Dragonrend shout is enormously philosophically interesting for a few reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with what the shout is, what it refers to, what it represents for humanity, and what it implies about language and experience. Language is sometimes discussed as technology, and this makes Dragonrend interesting because it was invented by humans, not passed on from dragons. While it is spoken in the Dragon language, it is not entirely comprehensible to dragons. As far as I can tell, it exposes the dragon to the concept of morality, temporality, and the finite. The implications of this are delightful.  Is this shout an interpretation of Nietzsche’s famous “Abyss” or the “Despair” spoken of by so many nihilists and existentialists? Does the shout summarize Being and Nothingness, thereby weakening the dragon’s will to go on? Is the struggle of a Dragon to comprehend the finite analagous to the struggle of a human to comprehend the infinite? If so, is the effect of Dragonrend similar to Kant’s account of the mathematical sublime, in which we experience an aesthetic awe when presented with sheer vastness (such as the stars in the sky or tremendous landscapes)? Is Dragonrend a blend of aesthetic pleasure and agonizing despair?

     More interesting than “what” the shout is, is the question of “why” it works. Can language bring us to perceive what we cannot phenomenologically experience? What is the relationship between the phenomena we experience (or may possibly experience) and the language that describes it? The effect of the Dragonrend shout seems connected to the question of how our experience relates to the language we employ to describe our experience. How can words expose our minds to what we cannot comprehend or experience? (For that matter, what is the connection between comprehension and experience?) This is what I loved about the concept of Dragonrend in the game Skyrim. This device synthesized gameplay and story in a way that opened up speculation both in the gameworld and in the real world.

     More generally,  this is an example of where I think most good videogames are right now: Games don’t often directly educate, but I think they often provide a great deal of material that is ripe for teaching. Skyrim doesn’t quite posit philosophical questions of language as explicitly as Deus Ex poses questions of humanism, cyborg theory, or post-humanism. But for those who are curious, interactive simulations of stories are tremendous resources for exploring any issue the game designers choose to present.

The Metaphysics of the Corporation: A Nexus of Contracts.

The Supreme Court issued a total of 5 writings in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission.  The metaphysical nugget at the heart of this politically charged case was whether corporations (and other legal entities without physical personhood) could claim certain constitutional rights or protections. The outcome, that a corporation could be considered a “person” and so have “free speech rights”, shocked many and was ridiculed somewhat. The core of the joke is obvious: a “corporation” isn’t even close to a “person.”

Corporations cannot be touched. They do not smile, they do not cry. They cannot get a driver’s license. They cannot go for a walk in the park. They are concepts. They exist as legal entities, as shorthand for a set of agreements. They are a nexus of contracts.

And yet, corporations can own assets, owe debt, pay taxes, and even die (no one escapes those certainties, right Benny F?).

So the metaphysical puzzle is presented: how do we assess the nature of the corporation’s existence? I’m interested in this question for two reasons: First, I think it is extremely similar to many of the questions of the metaphysics of cyberspace (things that appear to have ontological force without physical presence). Second, corporations and business entities are enormously important in countless ways to the developed world (and, in a different way, important to the developing world). I find it striking the Internet and the Corporation are the two most dominant forces of the 21st century and have (potentially) similar metaphysics. Politicians and jurists need to take questions of metaphysics and ontology seriously as entities and locations of legal importance become less obviously physical. When policies or rulings are handed down without proper reasoning, the door is opened for the kinds of rulings in which a person is prison is not found to be “in custody.” Courts are forced to work backwards from statutes and precedent to the facts before them, and if their starting point is problematic, those problems can be magnified in the court’s efforts to force the square peg (the law without proper basis or explanation) into the round hole (the facts of the case at hand).

The deeper joke is that the word “corporation” comes from Latin word “corpus,” literally meaning “body.” In one sense, the corporation is the joining together of many bodies into one unified body, and yet it has no actual body of its own. Why couldn’t the late-night comedians and pundits glom onto that hilarity? Or at least meet this level of humor:

“Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” -Ambrose Bierce

What Good is a Philosopher?

The proper aim of the philosopher, I think, has always been to try to awaken others out of dogmatic slumbers. Before the 18th century, most philosophers were also scientists and mathematicians—also suited to explaining the world to others in ways that may surprise them. I take it that this is what was meant by the blogger who cried out for a philosopher of programming languages: someone to defeat the crippling dogmatism of the field and so allow it to move forward. But defeating dogmatism is no simple task, and it must be done carefully so as to avoid merely shifting the masses to follow a new dogma.

David Hume advocated being a man first, and a philosopher second. I think to be properly human involves a philosophical core: to ask why, to seek answers to questions, to pursue curiosity, to appreciate one’s self and one’s world. Philosophy is largely the practice of grasping onto questions tenaciously- to refuse to let go of something when it becomes complicated or confusing.  Philosophers are like explorers in that the better ones are those who continue exploring after the point where others would give up in boredom, fear, frustration.

To function in our society requires a measure of ignorance or apathy, even if it is only feigned and a suspension of one’s questions and deep concerns. Philosophers tend to struggle with functioning in society because they are unwilling (or perhaps unable) to suspend their own queries of what really matters in favor of sitting through vacuous classes, business meetings, and other meaningless gloss that we slather heavily on our lives. As a result, it can seem like philosophers are defective in some important way- that they’re all weirdos to be shunned. Perhaps they are defective, but they might respond that society itself is defective in some meaningful way. They might conclude that those who operate effectively within this defective society are actually defective in some way, and it may be that certain ways of being defective in a defective system are signs of a higher, proper functionality.

Because of (or perhaps in spite of) all that, the unwillingness of the philosopher to be complacent with the illogical, unreasonable, or unethical portions of society can be (and maybe has been, through history) a useful force for progress and refinement. (Even if Socrates and Plato were not able to change their Greece, their example was understood by the framers of democratic constitutions in the modern era.)

In the digital age, philosophers have an opportunity to contribute their ideas and questions to issues that arise in the face our daily technology. Most arguments over the validity of Wikipedia as a source come back to issues in epistemology. Questions over where transactions take place when done online (for issues of jurisdiction) can be framed in terms of ontology (the study of being; where is the thing we call a “transaction”?) Although philosophy is often thought of as history—something that happened in Ancient Greece and then again in Modern-era Europe— and no longer relevant, good philosophy is an essential element of progress in any age. I see no reason why the same curiosity about natural sciences and methodological thinking is less useful in the 21st century than it was in the 4th century BC or 18th Century. There is as much need for careful thought about complex issues today as there ever has been in the world.

Epistemology in the Age of 24-Hour Fingertip Media

“Suppose I tell you an alleged fact— that it rained last night in Jacksonville, FL. On the count of three, believe this fact. 1…2…3. What do you believe about last night’s weather in Jacksonville, and why?”

This experiment (presented to me in a discussion of the ethics and epistemology of Spinoza compared against Locke) is not really interested in causing any beliefs about past weather events, of course. It is meant to explore notions of what it means to “believe” a proposition about the world (and, possibly, what we consider “evidence”).

To avoid potential for perjury, evidence is sometimes entered into court “on information and belief.” That is, information has been given and someone believed it (it isn’t firsthand knowledge). But something more must be going on, as we obviously don’t merely believe anything we are informed of.

One question at stake is whether we choose our beliefs. This is difficult because philosophers use “belief” to describe the kinds of things which normal people count as knowledge: that there is a chair I am sitting on at this moment, that all triangles have 3 sides, that the sky is blue, that I like toast, etc. As well as the things normal people often describe as belief: whether there is an afterlife, whether it will rain tomorrow, whether a person is lying, etc. Some might argue there is a choice to be made in these second kinds of beliefs, but not in the first kind. I will depart from the epistemologists here because I have introduced my theme: Believing a proposition can be more complex than we take for granted.

This is all foundational to the issue we face in a world where nearly any information can be immediately accessed wherever we are: What do we believe, and why? Each information source is a filter, and must necessarily choose what to include or exclude, and so will—and can—only offer a single viewpoint on a subject. Every journalist’s work, every news network, every news blog, is a set of information with the implicit instruction: “Believe this.” In the past, we believed such sources in good faith. However, “information and belief” has become somewhat diluted of late. Largely as a result of a 2009 SCOTUS decision (Ashcroft v. Iqbal), there are very few pleadings entered in court “on information and belief” anymore. This is because the standard for a well-pleaded complaint was raised to require more than mere “information and belief” could provide. Should we raise the standard for the increasing number of pleas for our own judgment to something higher than “this is information- now, believe it”?

I think there a cautious-pragmatic approach that appeals for handling [perhaps not quite all] such information. The general premise is that the strength of the belief should be limited by both the demands of the belief and the evidence (supportive, absent, and contrary). So I may be free to believe that it rained last night in Jacksonville because I know that Jacksonville is a place where it rains with some frequency and no one has informed me that it did not rain there last night. However, I might be quite cautious to wager $5 on this fact until I obtain more evidence, and still more cautious and more demanding of evidence as that wager increases.

Is Post Modernism a Cynical Reaction to Shattered Dreams?

Post-Modernism takes as axiomatic the death of the grand narrative. Prior to the 20th century, the story goes, humans lived under “grand narratives” about God, justice, truth, morality, power structures, nature, assurances about eventual rightness, and so forth.  At the start of the 21st century, few[er] people in the Western world take governments, economies, corporate leaders, monetary systems, treaties, political speeches, religious belief, natural law, etc. seriously or literally. I wonder: is PoMo an attempt to describe how Western Civilization moved from the former to the latter?

PoMo is often characterized as a radical rejection of the fundamentals of metaphysics and epistemology, to the point of a total disengagement from the reality of the chairs in which we sit. Thus understood, it is rightly mocked as both pretentious and worthless. However, it may be that this school of thought is mean to describe a loss of faith in power and authority and a rejection of social institutions. The more extreme, hard PoMo might be about not thinking that the objects in a room are “real,” either because words have no meaning or objects are constructs of our minds; the softer approach is to see PoMo as asserting that there is no “justice” in a law because a legislative (or judicial, or executive) body may be subject to error or corruption (from selfishness, lobbying, or outright bribery and graft), or that there is no settled “truth” in a society which learns through sources which often conflict. It is undoubtly easier to swallow that the “objects” which may not be “real” are the objects of our social world, not of our physical world. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but it’s hard to keep an analysis of Post Modernism down to approx. 500 words.)

Baseball might be my least favorite sport (at least cricket has funny Anglophonic accents), but there’s a useful analogy to tie together legal realism and this “soft PoMo” idea in the act of a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes. One umpire, when asked about whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, boldly asserted, “They ain’t nothin’ til I calls ‘em.” Some schools of legal theory feel there is a fact about laws and justice, and it is the work of judges and lawyers to find that fact—just as scientists experiment on objects to find their mass, density, specific heat, and other qualities. Through the 20th century, a competing school of thought posited that there was no fact about law (or maybe even Justice, abstractly), and so there was no such science-like experimentation to be done. On this view, the law is like calling balls and strikes: and the law is nothing until it has been judged (and even then, the judgment may be judged).

This view of PoMo makes the movement sound more disaffected and bitter than radical and delusional. Perhaps the great manifesto of this view is President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. (text: )His description of a loss of hope and trust in government, both in policies and persons, (and I would extend that to at least news media), could be read as a eulogy (or the Last Rites?) for thee grand narratives of authority, justice, and progress.

So, what does this mean for IP law, specifically? For one thing, it bears on whether patents and copyrights are matters of doing just and right things for inventors and authors, or whether they are merely functional tools to serve consumers. Further along this line, accepting PoMo may make it easier to accept media piracy because there is (on this view) no absolute truth about the wrongfulness of copyright violation. But it might shed light on why we might be inclined to reject such absolute truths: the story of America in the 20th century might be the story of 4 generations learning not to trust authority figures and not to believe in the ideals and morals born under the Grand Narratives of ages past.

Philosophy and the everyday

Philosophy is sometimes disregarded as irrelevant and unimportant in the 21st century. I think this shows a misunderstanding of what philosophy is (maybe even by those who claim to be proficient in it). I chose to study philosophy because it was obvious to me that it was a study of the subjects of our daily conversation. Every argument we have, every thought we think, every decision we make, is filled with issues in metaphysics, epistemology, logic (and mathematics), ethics, aesthetics, and rationality. From sports talk shows (almost exclusively filled with counterfactuals and predictions of decisions) to interior decorating to social gossip, our lives are filled with the very stuff of academic philosophy. It seems that even anthropology does not come so close to the useful study of being human as does philosophy. Yet, in the last 50 or 100 years (or last 2000 years), philosophy became the boring and irrelevant study of stupid questions (“does my hand exist?” or whatever).

Shortly after I started studying philosophy, I found a blog post about the need for philosophy in computer programing languages. The author felt that a philosophy could end the fighting and competition between programing languages and thus move the entire technology forward. Notwithstanding the issues with that, he made mention of his view that philosophers pulled society out of the dark ages and into the modern era; releasing them from the bondage of superstitious beliefs and delivering them into the scientific revolution. He noted that after philosophers taught people how to think, people forgot why they needed philosophy.

I am convinced that a return to the value of philosophy (combined with many, many other things) would be greatly beneficial for civilization. I think that a great emphasis on thinking, wonder, creativity, reflection, with a deeper understanding of rules of logic and reason—as well as the ability to properly question such rules—would greatly enhance the political, economic, and social systems of our time. Even arguing about whether philosophy is important is itself a philosophical exercise. Questions about what is and how it ought to be are both questions of philosophy. If there are other sorts of questions, discovering them would also be a philosophical endeavor.