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New Scientist Presents: The Gamers’ Club

Reality is overrated. It’s time to escape to the future.

Introducing the next in our series of The Tomorrow Club talks with the New Scientist as part of Into the Unknown, campaigning critic Pat Kane argues that play must transform politics.

Plonk a set of smart glasses or a virtual-reality helmet before the philosopher Plato, and after his fastidious recoil there would be a moment of self-righteousness: ‘I told you so.’

Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ has its inhabitants chained up and gazing at a stony wall. Over it flicker shadows which they take for reality. As we plug in, turn on and zone out with our current repertoire of virtuality-generating devices, we will find it worth musing over Plato’s challenge. Do wisdom-lovers break those chains, as Plato suggests, and leave the cave to seek reality? Or do they stay put, finally face down the old misery-guts super-rationalist, and assert that this new layer of simulated experience is as natural to humans as play or art?

Simulation already draws on mythology. The much-heralded Magic Leap platform – where reality is ‘augmented’ as you look upon it, rather than entirely simulated like a video-game – sends household robot-gods scurrying around under tables and schools of whales undulating across the ceiling. Other human beings are mappable (or ask to be mapped) in your augmented eyesight, and can be rendered as pop-culture icons, creatures, objects, aliens. An entirely new popular-culture storm is gathering here; last year’s Pokemon Go phenomenon was the merest flurry.

Still, it’s good to keep Plato’s admonitions about delusion and illusion in mind. We have come through a decade in which general enthusiasm for a ‘gameful world’ (as theorist Jane McGonigal put it) held out the hope of new forms of education and work. A generation of managers asked: look at all the free labour they do in World of Warcraft, Minecraft and No Man’s Sky! Can’t we ‘gamify’ our endeavour or enterprise, to elicit that kind of commitment to a virtual game-world? Not just for profit, but for social good, for mental health?

This agenda has progressed somewhat into the mainstream. In the current series of House of Cards, Frank Underwood’s presidential challenger – the damaged military hero Will Conway – uses a war-gaming VR headset as therapy for his PTSD.

Yet the ‘serious games’ movement (its coming conference, Serious Play, is in July at George Mason University) can rarely overcome the oldest truth about any humans’ engagement with game, play or mimicry, which is that being able to freely chose to play the game, beyond utility or coercion, is the very point of it.

This freedom to play is not just a rabbit-hole into which one’s attention disappears. The link between freedom and play could perhaps be preserved in a ‘serious’ game, if the political stakes were high enough. Some regard virtual world-creation as a tool, as yet barely wielded, for reordering society. In his recent book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason wonders why we have ‘no models that capture economic complexity, in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics or traffic flows’.

Mason’s simulations would be ‘agent-based’ and unpredictable: you create a million digital people with digital resources and needs, set them loose in a synthetic world, and be informed and illuminated by what emerges.

The assumption is that economics needs to be much better at anticipating major surprises and crises, which arises from messily motivated – rather than rationally-maximising – human beings. Synthetic worlds, with their increasingly daunting simulation power, can set those hares running.

So virtuality could indeed rehearse you for the complexity of the real world, not just be an escape from it. The optimism of the current wave of AI pioneers, like Google’s DeepMind, is that their learning machines can be the great assistants of – rather than grim replacements for – human ambition, vision and will.

Our modern Plato should put on his techno-specs and walk out of the cave. He would still see a real world worth grasping and shaping, but one informed by the simulations and augmentations dancing before his eyes. Will we need new philosophies and philosophers to cope with our permanently virtual condition? Well, one might argue that’s all they’ve ever done.

Pat Kane is the author of The Play Ethic (Macmillan).

New Scientist Presents The Gamers’ Club on Thursday 13 July with New Scientist Analysis Editor Sally Adee; gamer and playwright Lucy Prebble, author of Enron and The Effect, Pat Kane, curator of FutureFest and author of The Play Ethic, and Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO of VR developer and publisher, nDreams

See all the events in the New Scientist Presents: The Tomorrow Club series.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June –1 September.