Westworld Virtually

‘Westworld’ is one of my favourite science fiction films from the 1970’s. Drawing its influence from the ‘imagineering’ theme parks and animatronics of Walt Disney, this was Michael Crichton’s first cautionary tale of a theme park going into meltdown that would later evolve into the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise.

But it is also more than that. In an article by Emily Asher-Perrin the author has written:

  • ‘Westworld’ is not meant to be a cautionary tale about the terror of technology. It’s a cautionary tale about humanity’s failure to recognize its own fallible nature, our tendency to believe that all innovation is good innovation, and our inability to see past the monetary value of progress. All of these themes are commonly present in Michael Crichton’s work, and ‘Westworld’ offers another fascinating backdrop to consider these foibles.

The moral implications of creating humanoid robots complete with Artificial Intelligence have since been explored in such cult classics as ‘Bladerunner’ and with the continuing progress of technology accompanied by a lack of progress in human nature it seems as though the questions raised in ‘Westworld’ are more pertinent than ever. Indeed it is no coincidence that HBO have recently released a new television series from this franchise.

‘Westworld’ challenges us to think about the value of human life and whether sentient beings should be treated as objects of pleasure?

We have to acknowledge that some human beings have treated other human beings as nothing more than ‘objects’ for pleasure or profit. This is true historically and even now, for example, slave trafficking continues to the present day. Dr Molefi Kete Asante stated in a Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture in 2007:

  • One might claim that the leading opinion-makers, philosophers, and theologians of the European enslavers organised the category of blackness as property value. We Africans were, in effect, without soul, spirit, emotions, desires, and rights.

Historic arguments of whether African slaves possessed souls amid European academics of the eighteenth century resonates to a degree with the speculation of science fiction writers today concerning artificial intelligence becoming self aware and thus possessing rights and dare it even be said, a ‘soul’?

The question remains – Should sentient beings be treated as objects of pleasure?

Crash Dummy

Although we may be a long way from creating an adult theme park in which we might imagine that humanoid robots have rights, the world of video gaming is coming ever closer to meeting the darkest fantasies of our human nature.

I am not  a prude about video games but they have come a long way since the days I used to queue at fairgrounds to play ‘Space Invaders’ as a young boy. Although it is in its infancy, ‘virtual reality’ gaming is now a marketable commodity in the living room and is sure to develop just as mobile phones have developed exponentially in the past two decades.

Although the inspiration for ‘Westworld’ may have come from Disneyland it seems that virtual reality will bring the moral issues of this cult classic closer to home sooner than we may imagine. ‘Westworld’ is virtually here and it beckons the question of how this may affect our moral compass as human beings as virtual gaming develops and becomes more accessible. Paul Tassi puts it like this in a recent article:

  • ‘Westworld’ is essentially the endgame for video games. As a physical space on the show, it’s obviously not a virtual experience, but it might as well be, as it deals with all the same issues. I’m not worried about video game characters becoming self-aware and trying to murder me, but I am a little concerned about the ability for nearly anyone to act out wildly violent fantasies in increasingly realistic scenarios that may someday contain characters that feels as close to real as you can get.

CyberfizhVR

In a Storymen podcast on ‘The Theology of Westworld’, a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Minister discuss the dehumanising effect of a theme park with no moral rules and the implications of this on the human spirit. Technology is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool. But technology often raises moral questions as to what it can empower us to do.

When mobile phones first became accessible nobody envisioned the moral debates we would have about social media over mobile phones today. To that degree most people would agree that mobile phones have not only changed in themselves in the past twenty years but have radically changed the way we communicate and function as human beings. Studies have shown for example, how these technologies stimulate dopamine within the human brain and the addictive behaviour that can incite.

As we are witnessing the birth of virtual reality gaming on a viable commercial basis in the domestic market, some questions emerge in my mind on the future of this technology:

  1. What may virtual reality empower us to do, for good or ill?
  2. What behaviour will virtual reality incite as it develops?
  3. Are we on the cusp of creating a digital ‘Westworld’?

Olympos Games

Olympos Games

“Love was as hardwired into the structure of the universe as gravity and matter.” (Dan Simmons)

Dan Simmons is an American science-fiction writer whose works often include themes of history, fantasy, religion and horror. Simmons is mainly known for his novels such as the Hugo award winning ‘Hyperion’ (1989), ‘Ilium’ (2003), and its sequel ‘Olympos’ (2005).

In these particular works Simmons cleverly interweaves the storylines from more classic writings such as Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in ‘Hyperion, and Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ in ‘Ilium’ and ‘Olympos’. If you are not familiar with any of the works of Dan Simmons then an in-depth introduction of  ‘Olympos’ is provided below by www.thescifichristian.com.

An abiding question in ‘Olympos’ is ‘What does it mean to be human?’

This is a question older than Homer’s ‘The Iliad’. Within Homer’s culture of Ancient Greece that question was not only explored intellectually via epic stories but physically through the Olympic games. Beginning in Olympia 2700 years ago the original games honoured the Greek gods, they were as much a religious and political statement, as well as a sporting celebration of human prowess.

Today the Olympic games may not honour the Greek gods but they can still be emotive when combined with political issues and as such may confront us unexpectedly with the perennial question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’

Hercules

We have a clear example of this in in the current Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before the games began riots erupted in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in protest of the wealth of resources invested in the Olympic games in contrast to the absolute poverty typified in the city’s favelas. Furthermore, the recurring scandal surrounding the drug testing of athletes prior to the games compounds the whole question of the purpose of the games themselves. For critics it literally begs the question, ‘What on Earth are we doing?’ Or more fundamentally ‘What does it mean to be human?’

To some degree ‘Olympos’ is a morality tale reflecting on the human desire to be ‘god-like’. This is a common thread within the genre of science-fiction explored for example in films ranging from ‘Metropolis’ (1927) to ‘Elysium’ (2013), the latter of which was performed literally in the contrasting locations of Mexico City and Vancouver. All of these stories try to address in varying degrees some of the issues we now see played out in the stadiums and streets of Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic games.

However, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics this year have been noted for displaying far more of a social conscience. The darker aspects of Brazil’s history, including slavery, were acknowledged. Concerns over deforestation and environmental issues were clearly displayed within the performances. For the first time this year there is even an Olympic team consisting entirely of refugees. In that sense the games are not trying to be a mere distracting spectacle to ‘appease the gods’ but a focusing point on what we should be striving for as human beings.

In his letters in the New Testament Saint Paul also used the imagery of sporting games as a platform to ask the question what we should be striving for, (eg: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 &  2 Timothy 7:4-8). Being a person of faith requires commitment and perseverance just like that required of any athlete. We will falter unless we remain focused on what we are seeking to attain.

But what is the prize?

christos

Yet again the Olympic games have surfaced many questions. For me they are typified in the statue of Christ standing over the city of Rio de Janeiro watching our triumphs and tragedies unfold as much in the city streets as in the stadium. He stands in silence but his arms are outstretched.

I agree with Dan Simmons. I believe that love is hardwired into the structure of the universe as much as gravity and matter. A love that lies at the heart of everything and everyone and ultimately comes from the heart of God. A love that knows no bounds and that once discovered we cannot help but share in our actions and not just in words. Or as Saint Francis of Assisi is attributed to have said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

What does it mean to be human?

Whether we choose to explore this question through sport or science-fiction I believe the answer remains timeless and the same:

Go for gold in attaining that Love.

runners

The Mass Effect of Games

chesskingcross

I blame it all on Star Wars!

Before the arrival of video recorders (whatever they were?), before dvd, blu-ray, or digital downloads; through the rose-tinted spectacles of a childhood summer, I can remember watching Star Wars (now episode IV: A New Hope), four times in our local cinema.

Science-fiction has been a prominent feature of my life since before the days I reached two numerical digits in Earth years – as you can tell! Through the genre of science fiction possible futures are presented before us. No clearer has this been to me than in the ‘Mass Effect’ video game franchise initially launched on the X-Box 360 games console in 2007. On the new or ‘next’ generation of video games consoles the latest instalment of ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ is eagerly awaited.

Mass Effect as a gaming experience was presented as a trilogy, which was music to the ears of one nurtured on the original trilogy of Star Wars (just to confuse you that is episodes IV-VI). Apart from the innovative third-person gameplay the significant and lasting memory of the Mass Effect trilogy was the possibility of playing a ‘good’, ‘bad’, or morally ambiguous character within the role playing features of the game. This presented endless possibilities of replayability but also the freedom to explore the subtle and complex experience of the consequences of moral choices. This trend continues in ‘Witcher 3″ and ‘Fallout 4’ to name just two in this video-game genre. It appears video gaming is becoming more morally complex and more sociable with the growth of online co-operative and multiplayer gaming.

Games form part of the human need to escape, explore, dream, and control. They can be traced back thousands of years to the beginnings of chess, and earlier. Human psychology does not need to help us to comprehend the significance of games in human development, we know, and we know that development and need for play does not end with childhood.

And yet there is an aura of respectability that surrounds any admission in the love of playing chess, for example, that is totally absent in the same admission of playing video-games. This is unfortunate as it is commonly catalogued that the video gaming industry continues to out-perform the Holywood film industry and that gamers vary so much than the commonly considered teenage young male playing alone in his darkened bedroom. Perhaps it is time to look again at how we understand play as a generation comes of age that have only ever known the world of the internet.

tinsoldiers

As the attendance in traditional Christian church worship continues to decline and become more exclusive to the general population’s experience in British post-industrial society so the numbers in video gaming continue to grow and become more inclusive. Although there is no direct correlation and this would be too simplistic, there should be a recognition that the desire to explore and play runs very deeply within the human soul. Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 14-15)

In some ways play has never sat easily with the Protestant Christian work ethic and yet it is God-given. The sabbath is a key concept in the story of biblical creation, and Easter it can be said, of ‘re-creation’. Dr.David Naugle  provides an excellent summary and critique on this subject in his work, ‘A Serious Theology of Play’ and concludes by saying:

“If God is a God of play, and if human play is, indeed, rooted in divine play, then we, as humans, ought to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness. This is both our gift and our responsibility in a often-serious world. Whatever forms of “play” you may pursue—whether it be music, reading, sports, furniture restoration, gardening, photography, or drag racing—do it heartily unto the Lord, as a reflection of a rarely recognised aspect of the divine nature. Your life will be an answer to H. L. Mencken’s stereotypical puritan who worries about people having fun, and your example will testify to the Friedrich Nietzsche’s of the world that, indeed, there is—and that you know—a God who dances.”

We need to look again at play in all its forms. The good news is Christian churches are. One experience I can testify to is the value of ‘Messy Church’ which is growing within Christian churches in the United Kingdom. It holds a very simple yet refreshing message, ‘God creates from mess’ – would that more of our post-industrial, even ‘regimented’ forms of Christianity could hear this message. Play gives permission to explore, experience, learn and comprehend with another area of the brain and yet the very phenomenon of ‘Messy Church’ underlines that many of us do not associate the concept of ‘church’ with the fundamental human need for ‘play’.

We are creatures that cannot help ourselves but play and that can take many forms that can be encouraged. Playing cards can be done in a healthy or an unhealthy way, so can physical sports like football, and even video gaming. None are intrinsically bad but three questions do emerge:

  • As communications technology continues to make all of us increasingly more available for work how can we utilise that same technology to give us permission to play in healthy ways?
  • What should Christian churches be doing or saying to help people engage in play and re-creation, something which can be argued to be God-given?
  • Play is a good medium for providing human contact and interaction. What are healthy forms of play in the digital age with a generation who have only ever known the internet?

Fortunately some are engaging with these questions and those with eyes to see and ears to hear are beginning to reassess and appreciate the mass effect of games.