Science in MMORPGs
November 20, 2006 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Science and Metaphysics from the inside of virtual worlds?

I've been reading a lot of books about the 16th and 17th centuries recently, and of course, one of the recurring themes is the development of 'natural philosophy' -- that is, science.

There has been a lot of talk about the sociology of MMORPGs and virtual worlds, but what about the physical sciences and metaphysics?

What can you say about the nature of virtual worlds, without making references to anything 'outside'? Where does it come from, what sustains it? What are the objects made of? How is a tree different from an 'creature'? Can you say anything at all that's non-trivial about it? -- that is, something other than 'that is a tree, because it was programmed to be a tree'.

In a perfect 'role-playing' world-- that is, one in which no players make references to anything that there character wouldn't be able to see, would there be anyway to determine anything about the 'world outside'? Or the computer that holds the simulation?

One thing that immediately strikes me is that there are no 'instruments' available in most virtual worlds-- no microscopes, yard sticks, measuring cups. What kind of experiments could you do without any of that?

Sorry, this may be a little bit chatty, but I'm genuinely interested in the answers, or if anybody has written any articles about this (even if they're jokey)
posted by empath to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
The most distinguishing feature of virtual worlds is the realtively large scale of what constitute that world's atom. You don't have microscopes because there isn't anything microscopic to see. In most cases, objects break are created of a few polygons, so those are the molecules of the virtual world. Thus everything is the same (made of triangles), unless the Creator programs it to be different, or creates very simple narrow rules to make some things different than others.

More to the point, you don't need to do experiments, because the world is fully defined by the physics and graphics engine that creates it. Thus in the real world, to say that something is a certain way because God made it that way is silly, but in the game it's accurate. Even games like spore generate worlds from simple rules.

To a plyer in the game endowed with human intelligence, he would conclude that there was a creator, because somethings are different from other things without any reason - for the same reason that most cultures reasoned their way to gods manipulating the universe before anyone invented telescopes or microscopes, the players would probably reach the same conclusion.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:01 AM on November 20, 2006


Experiments? You can run in one direction and see if you ever hit a wall. Smash an object that you should be able to smash. Cut down a tree, is there sawdust? Where did it go? Slice open a peasant and pull out his entrails. Why aren't your hands covered in blood? Why isn't he screaming in agony for hours and hours? Can you even do that? Try to do something you know is physically possible, but that you suspect hasn't been coded for in the game.

It would be very easy for you to determine, using no outside references, that the game world is surprisingly limited. As for learning about the outside, when your world goesapeshit you should have some clue that something's up. Actually figuring out the nature of the world outside the game would be very difficult but possible.
posted by Science! at 8:04 AM on November 20, 2006


Sorry goesapeshit should be goes apeshit
posted by Science! at 8:06 AM on November 20, 2006


Science!, a character in the game, without knowledge of the outside world, would have no cause to be surprised at any of these situations you describe.
posted by jepler at 8:27 AM on November 20, 2006


Unless we're talking about a very (as yet unseen) advanced virtual world, I would think that the first tip-off would be the kind of thing that Science! is talking about.

Hey, here's a fence, but I can't hop over it because... I can't. Until designers get much better at designing limitations that flow naturally from surroundings instead of arbitrary game rules, the virtual nature of the world will continue to be obvious (to anyone from the "outside").
posted by dreamsign at 8:30 AM on November 20, 2006


Yeah, i was mostly speaking to what you could learn WITHOUT knowledge of the outside world.

Using only the metaphors that would be available to an inhabitant of the world, to describe the world.

Is there a point where a virtual world becomes complex enough to support some kind of internal scientific exploration of it, that doesn't depend on bringing in information from outside, and are any worlds right now that complex?
posted by empath at 8:33 AM on November 20, 2006


Science!, a character in the game, without knowledge of the outside world, would have no cause to be surprised at any of these situations you describe.

The questioner is using both "player" and "character" in his question, I took that to mean the players (humans) are engaging in a kind of thought experiment. I don't think "The Perfect Game" one in which no players make references to anything that there character wouldn't be able to see means the humans are unaware, but that they're making the conscious effort not to bring the real world into the game and to instead trying to fully explore the game world.

If the questioner does mean the players (humans) are actually unaware of the game, that's another story.
posted by Science! at 8:37 AM on November 20, 2006


Shoulda previewed. With the clarification I think Pastabagel hit it.
posted by Science! at 8:39 AM on November 20, 2006


In one of James P. Hogan's "Giants" novels (I read them a decade or so ago--they're interesting, but his philosophical/political views are laid on a bit thick sometimes) there is some extremely high-powered computer. Inside it, as a byproduct of the rules of computation, life forms naturally arose, including ones capable of at least human-level thought. The geometry of the world was related to the structure of the computer hardware, and for the creatures inside these is constituted "the laws of physics". I don't remember any of the details that Hogan gave, except that for some reason it was dangerous to "spin", with linear motion being preferred by the inhabitants.

In real life, both the behaviors of our minds and our bodies are constrained by the same natural laws -- brains, muscles and bones are all made from the same stuff. On the other hand, if a polygonal avatar in Second Life really was capable of abstract thought, it would not be because of some physical property of its polygons or textures. If it has a sensorium, the experiences in it would not be due to any particular process going on in "sensory polygons". You'd have a devil of a time explaining "how" you thought or perceived, compared to real life. In a virtual world there are two levels of reality: the polygon level and the code level. Mind-body duality would be true, not just some discarded idea of an early western philosopher. The same goes for the platonic ideal -- chair polygons really are an instance of the code (ideal) of Chair.
posted by jepler at 8:48 AM on November 20, 2006


The clearest analogue to science in a virtual MMORPG is probably exploring ways to "cheat", or hack into internal glitches in the logic of the game.
posted by Laugh_track at 3:07 PM on November 20, 2006


In a perfect 'role-playing' world-- that is, one in which no players make references to anything that there character wouldn't be able to see, would there be anyway to determine anything about the 'world outside'? Or the computer that holds the simulation?

That's absolutely doable to at least a limited extent. The biggest thing you can track is how the number of people online is going to vary by time/timezone but that periodicity is also going to correspond to something regular in in-game time as well. Active population at any given time should in turn affect tons of other things.


The clearest analogue to science in a virtual MMORPG is probably exploring ways to "cheat", or hack into internal glitches in the logic of the game.


The large majority of such hacks/exploits rely on applications/scripts/config files/whatever from outside the world of the game itself.
posted by juv3nal at 2:27 AM on November 21, 2006


Also...

One thing that immediately strikes me is that there are no 'instruments' available in most virtual worlds-- no microscopes, yard sticks, measuring cups. What kind of experiments could you do without any of that?

As with the population over time thing I mentioned above, you can measure time (assuming some sort of in-game night/day cycle) and you can count things (people).
posted by juv3nal at 2:30 AM on November 21, 2006


I don't know if anybody's still reading, but Terra Nova is the place where academics wax rhapsodic about these sorts of MMO questions.

The clearest analogue to science in a virtual MMORPG is probably exploring ways to "cheat", or hack into internal glitches in the logic of the game.

The large majority of such hacks/exploits rely on applications/scripts/config files/whatever from outside the world of the game itself.


Don't discount "emergent gameplay," or "creative uses of magic," or "stuff that the team really should have anticipated and is very embarassed that they didn't."

Exploit hunting does form much of most online games' "scientific research," as does reverse engineering of combat formula and the like. For a current example, check out this stab at damage over time at WoW Wiki.
posted by liet at 10:28 PM on November 28, 2006


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