Matrix: Reloaded Explained
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Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Warjacks and Dollhouses

23 Feb, 2011 | Brian

I am old enough to remember the 80s, when the Frenetic Housemoms of America(TM) collectively swallowed the urban myth that Dungeons & Dragons was linked to Satanism. I had picked up the Red Box at a Kay-Bee Toys somewhere around 1983 or 84, and had run games with my brother and my dad. Old-schoolers will remember fondly such awfulness as an Elf with 1 hit point at first level. That was my dad's character. As a very young DM, I had my hands full trying to keep him alive as they waded hip-deep through kobold-infested caves. We didn't do anything Satanic that I can recall. Not a single pentagram was drawn; not a single goat was sacrificed (note: we actually owned a goat then, so the victim was handy).

Then some episode of Donahue, or some idiot shit like that, introduced my mother to the Satan connection, and all the books had to be thrown out. By that time I had acquired some of the later books for higher-level characters, and had found a group of friends to play with. I rescued my books and kept them at the house of one of those friends, and since we always played at his house anyway it was kind of no big deal. Of course I had to lie about our gaming but being a wicked 16-year-old I lied to my parents all the time anyway so again, no big deal.

I never stopped being puzzled by the hysteria. I think I might have it figured out now, though.

Before I advance that thesis I want to round out the playing field a bit. There is a set of people who dedicate themselves to the making of exquisite dollhouses. That is their hobby. In addition, there is a set of people who collect and paint miniatures. You know, like Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I have dabbled in the miniatures arena myself, agonizing over the blends and highlights of a Space Marine Librarian. What I want to focus on is that all the while that these miniatures are converted and painted, and all the while a dollhouse is being fashioned and lavishly decorated, we're constructing simulations in our heads. Imagination races with the exploits of the Cygnar Charger under the brush. The tiny napkins in the breakfast nook inspire fantasies of mid-morning coffee with the neighbors. There's a whole make-believe universe for which the dollhouse or the warjack is a prop.

So it's not just role-playing games. More generally, I would label it as simulation-spacing. This is what kids do when they play, although they usually involve themselves much more actively in their simulations than adults do. I am always amazed at how detailed the simulations are that my kids invent. But it doesn't stop at childhood; it's something we do all the time, and it's a very enjoyable activity. We run simulations. Reading a novel is creating a simulation space. Watching a movie is creating a simulation space. (In the craft of fiction it's common to talk about "suspension of disbelief." This is equivalent to saying "Don't break the simulation.")

These days I am not much of a consumer of religious or para-religious texts. From time to time, however, a friend, acquaintance, or relative will give me something to read. I usually read it out of respect, and because the principle behind book-lending is that the person wants to share an idea or an experience they value with me, and I appreciate that. Anyway, while reading one of these books recently I encountered a concept that I had nearly forgotten. Apparently there are people who think imagination is dangerous. Now what they mean by imagination is really creating simulation spaces. I admit I dimly remembered this sort of attitude from my early years, when I would regularly get the family smackdown for wanting to read and write stories. You can guess their horror-slash-derision when I went to college to study literature, which was just about as useless a pursuit as they could imagine. And you know who else reads books? Communists. That's right. Keep reading books and you'll be lured into evil commie godlessness.

Set aside the fact that I did, in fact, turn out to be an evil godless commie. As I read this book, I was struck by remembering that there is a bunch of people who think this way, and they are all fanatically religious as far as I can tell. That is usually the grounds for objecting to simulation-spacing, at any rate. They see creating simulation spaces as a direct threat to one's religious standing. The author took it as a foregone conclusion that this was true. Why would that be?

Well maybe the answer is simple. Maybe it's because religion itself is a simulation-spacing game. The more I thought about this, the more sense this made. It's nothing more than competition for brain cycles. Taken with the Dawkins-like hypothesis that religion is a viral meme, this really has legs. When you run non-religious simulations, you're crowding out the religious ones.

As I pointed out in the previous post, we are evolved primarily to run simulations. That is what we do. That's why we like games. Now in particular, role-playing games are games that have rules specifically for building simulation spaces, like blueprints for how to run a whole bunch of ongoing simulations. From the point of view of someone who invests their simulation with eternal consequences, you can start to see why they would view Dungeons & Dragons as threatening. It's still an awful reaction, but at least I can see how they got there.

What to me is more important is this classification of religion as a game. If our brains evolved to excel at running simulations, this helps explain why religious simulations exist and spread. And, honestly, what is more important than that is to know that gaming is fundamental to our nature. So pass the D20 and roll for initiative.