Modeling Society

Computability of the real world

There are two video games that I have ever played of my own free will: Sims and Minecraft. Almost every weekend at the age of 14, I would stay up hours on end personalizing characters, building houses and simulating communities. After awhile the game would get repetitive and predictable, but then I would start over with a new persona, new job, new house, and new “rules to live by.”

Why was I so enticed into the game? The pleasure certainly ran deeper than the aesthetic pleasure of creating houses. Perhaps it was the autonomy and control. In his paper “Dumb People, Smart Objects: The Sims and the Distributed Self”, Jeremy Tirrell explains the intricate architecture of Sims and how it “identifies a particular model of a distributed self-functioning in Sims games that dissolves distinctions between human and object, real and virtual.” Some aspects of today’s reality reflected in the Sims virtuality, such as being interpersonal, restricted in resource and time, and commodity-driven, are obvious and visceral to most players. What is not as manifest, however, is the extent to which a self (both the player’s and character’s) is defined by objects around it. Tirrell’s claim that the distinction between real and virtual, human and object dissolve because Sims adopts and reinforces the philosophy that humans and objects are both equally important and entangled nodes in a network.

I think Sims is both simplistic and deeply futuristic in representing the real world. The game, although very intricate and meticulous, is still programmed to a set of if-else statements, lacking randomness and irrationality that are very present in real life. At the same time, the “city blocks and transportation systems [that] function as autonomous agents according to rules-based upon their physical relationship to other agents” encapsulates the bottom-up powers of emergence that the recent rise of decentralization and blockchain come to represent. It is fascinating that although human players “control” the game flow, they have no means of dictating or governing the Sims reality; no player has direct control to enforce arbitrary rules or to regulate the interpersonal interactions. This design itself puts humans as a node, rather than a controller, of the decentralized web.

Can such co-dependent autonomy in which central institutions are just other nodes and not commanding bodies exist in the real world? If inanimate objects without character or irrational decision making dictated humans’ behaviors, can we exist without unrest? According to the “Modeling civil violence: an agent-based computation approach” paper, two ethnic groups can peacefully co-exist with high legitimacy. If every node perceived each other’s right to exist as equal, then cops or the legal systems are not required to keep the peace. If this computational model was realistic enough thus accurate, how can we experiment with a society in which every node is equally legitimate?

While Tirrell’s observation of reality as a decentralized network between humans and objects is fascinating, I do not see self as something determined by objects. While materialistic ownership is still very dominant, don’t we as humans recognize experiences more than physical objects to have shaped our views? Also similar “local nodes” share many objects from the same computers to public buses, but these alone cannot account for the varying degrees of personality amongst us.

If I were to play Sims again, would I be as obsessed as I was seven years ago? Probably not. It might be due to the greater autonomy and legitimacy I believe I have in my life. Or could it possibly be the greater freedom I feel from the need to own and abide by the material objects around me?