Apr 27, 2011

Playing pretend

It often surprises me to learn that, in this age where computers and the Internet are so deeply rooted in our industry and economy, some people still consider anything happening in computers as "virtual" or "trivial".
The idea that friends met on forums, or games played online, are "not real" and thus valueless, is a common argument.
And indeed, it is hard to grasp just how concrete or abstract computer stuff really is. What makes people you meet online "real" friends ? After all, you've never met them in real life. What makes computer games enjoyable, and why do some people find them worth so much of their time ? After all, they're just about silicon bits slightly changing their electric charge, and pixels flicking on and off.
So, why is all of that such a big deal ?

Truth is, this is not restricted to computers. A modern society these days is mostly built on "abstract" stuff. Fictions in films and books are not real, yet they shape entire cultures. Heroes and stories and myths which everybody knows never existed still inspire countless people throughout the world. And all this is because we live in a society based on playing pretend.

Pretending is a key element in human societies since the dawn of civilization.
Why did we start burying our dead, and try to connect with an invisible and hypothetical higher force ? I think we were pretending. We were pretending that there was maybe a meaning to all this somehow, and that it would be okay and Death wasn't something to be afraid of. So just in case, we started believing in an abstract concept, and gave it very real importance in our cultures and rites.

Heroes and stories are obvious examples of pretending. We know that movie we're watching is not real - yet the emotions they elicit in us are. A video game is also objectively unimportant - yet we invest time in them, pretending we are heroic knights in made-up kingdoms; and the fun and satisfaction derived from them are real. Heroes in myths can also inspire us; blatantly exaggerated feats of heroism can still fill us with confidence and courage. Heroes of cautionary tales can also teach us lessons, despite their virtuality. All of this relies on suspension of disbelief - we know it's not real, but it still affects us. I don't think the fictional origin of something makes its impact on us any less valid or real.

Money is also almost entirely based on pretending. Instead of bartering for real goods, we have faith in arbitrary values assigned to specific objects or services, and pretend that bits of paper intrinsically bear those values. And there are many other abstract economic concepts behind that which are even more detached from reality.

Likewise, language is a common agreement to pretend that a sound refers to a thing, action, or concept. Words have no meaning in themselves.

Mathematics are the science of the abstract. Numbers have never existed as real-world entities; they're just tricks of the mind. Yet we can manipulate them and draw very real conclusions from them.

Pretending makes many things possible. We can pretend something has meaning when it does not, to reassure or distract ourselves. We can pretend something is real and behave as if it was; and often, it is enough that many people believe in one thing for that thing to have a real-world incidence.

And all that is what makes it okay for me to waste my days on Minecraft.

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