Author Rizwan Virk writes about how we’re all probably living in a video game
As gamers, we've all wished we lived inside a video game. But while we know we can't really go to Hyrule, Azeroth, or Raccoon City, there are people — including philosophers, academics, and scientists — who theorize we may already be living in a game-like virtual reality.
In his book The Simulation Hypothesis (paperback, digital), Rizwan Virk — the Executive Director of Play Labs @ MIT, who's worked on such games as Tap Fish and Titans vs. Olympians — explores why he and other people believe we are living inside a Matrix-like computer simulation.
GameCrate: Where did the idea for The Simulation Hypothesis come from?
Rizwan Virk: You might say that my whole life and career has been touching up against issues that are explored in this book. Even when I was a kid, playing games like Pole Position, I would wonder what was beyond the track and whether there was a virtual world beyond what we could see on the screen. When I built my very first Tic Tac Toe game on the Apple II back in the day to play my brother, he eventually got bored, so I created a simple A.I. to play against.
When I built my final software engineering project at MIT, I built a game and we used the minimax algorithm to try out different "futures" and have the game select the best one-which was basically a more sophisticated generalized version of the Tic Tac Toe playing algorithm. Years later, as I was studying quantum physics, I realized that the theories of parallel universes and quantum indeterminacy were a lot like selecting "possible futures" in video games, and the rendering and optimization techniques we used in video games were just like what quantum physics tells us is a fundamental property of the world.
two concrete experiences recently really spurred me to write the book. One was my experience with VR. I was playing a ping pong VR game, and became so engrossed that I leaned against the table of course there was no table so I almost fell over.
Another thing was when I visited Sri Lanka over a year ago, and was exploring these Buddhist temples from the time of Julius Caesar. One of the startups that I've invested in did 3D recordings of esports matches, and I was thinking about how we could create 3D models of these temples. Then it hit me: What western and eastern religions describe in their text as our physical reality is actually a lot more like a video game than any other explanation. Basically, all these texts say that our experiences in this life are being recorded — by angels or, more likely by some A.I. that keeps track of our karma — these recordings are then used to evaluate our performance. This could be for the Day of Judgements in the Western traditions, or karma in the Eastern traditions.
GC: Is this book you trying to figure out if we are living in a game, or is it about why people think that and their reasoning?
RV: The book is about the reasons why many people, including myself, think that this explanation fits the world better than the explanation that we live in a physical reality.
When I was a student at MIT, our professors taught us that science was a model of how the universe worked, it was an approximation. If there were things that our current model couldn't explain, we need a new model. If another model fits the evidence better, it's a better model of the universe, and this book explores, using video game history and future speculation, a better model of how the universe works.
GC: What kinds of things did you do to figure out if we are in a simulation or not?
RV: One area I looked at included some of the mysterious underlying findings of physics: that most of what we think of as solid is not solid at all. In fact, it's mostly empty space and it consists of discrete quantities, which are like pixels in space and possibly in time as well. The only real fundamental seems to be light, which is a lot like pixels illuminating our worlds in video games.
I also found that the biggest mystery of quantum physics — quantum indeterminacy: that we have to observe something to know the result — supports the idea that there isn't a single reality, but only possibilities, if no one is observing it. This was a lot like the game algorithms that have been created to probe possible futures and to only render the one that the current player is seeing. In fact, you might say that all of us are "rendering" the world in the same way that we render an MMORPG on our own PCs or mobile devices.
Also, we are told that science is science and that religion and consciousness are separate. The more I looked into the Eastern mystics description of the universe as being an "illusion" and the Western religious descriptions of Angels and the here and the hereafter, the more our physical reality it started to look like a giant, simulated video game.
At heart, though I'm a computer scientist, and the more computer science has evolved over the past 50 years, the more we have learned that most things we thought of as physical are actually based on information which is processed using certain rules. This is true of physics, which underlies all matter, and biology, which underlies all living things. For example, while genetics is about biology, it's really all about information. Quantum particles are all about information. In games, we've learned to model the whole world using 3D models stored on a shared cloud server, and then we use computation to process this information to render the world. It occurred to me that's what may be going on in the world around us as well.
GC: And what did you conclude?
RV: The book is more about presenting the arguments and evidence and letting the reader decide for themselves. However, the thesis of the book is that we are more likely to be in a simulation than not, and that the recent trajectory of video game development and the findings of quantum physics seem to confirm this. There are experiments which are proposed by physicists and others which can help to validate this likelihood, though we cannot "prove" it for certain with today's technology.
GC: Now, non-fiction books can take a wide variety of approaches, from the academic to the light-hearted. What tone did you strike with The Simulation Hypothesis?
RV: The tone of the book is not too academic; there are many references to science fiction, including The Matrix, the work of Philip K. Dick, Star Trek, Fringe, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and others.
That's not to say that the book doesn't take the idea seriously; in fact, it's the opposite. The computer science is based on my background from MIT and as a game designer in Silicon Valley. One section provides mileposts on the road to the Simulation Point, and what stages we need to get through to get there. These stages are like a history of video games, starting with text adventures to today's 3D MMORPGs.
One college professor said that the book delves equally into computer science/video games, quantum physics, and religious studies at a level that casual readers would enjoy — because of the pop culture references — but that scholars in any of these fields couldn't argue with.
GC: So I have to ask: Why did you decide to write a book exploring the real world consequences of us living in a simulation instead of making a game where you're living in a simulation and are trying to find a way out?
RV: Well, if I built a game today, it would have to be with today's technology, which means it would be outdated in a few years. I wanted to build something that projected into the future for many decades or centuries that wouldn't be outdated this book accomplishes this, while referencing the state of games today. As games advance in fidelity and immersion and personalization, the book won't go out of style; in fact, it'll be the opposite, as games catch up with the book.
The Simulation Hypothesis is available now in paperback and digitally.