by John Stewart
John Stewart is an Australian evolutionary thinker, and a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group of the Free University of Brussels. His main interest is in the development of an evolutionary worldview that reveals to us who we are, and what we should be doing with our lives.
His website is available at www.evolutionarymanifesto.com.
The potential of computer games to advance the collective evolutionary process
The potential of computer games and related technologies to provide motivational paths is almost unlimited. In principle, they can provide a path to almost any goal. This is because any achievement that moves a player towards a goal can be a challenge that is rewarded within the game. An achievement can be the acquisition of a skill (whether physical, cognitive or spiritual), the development of particular knowledge or insight, a behavioral outcome, or the accomplishment of some specific task or state of affairs. It also can be something that the player achieves in ‘real life’, provided there is a process that translates the achievement into a game input. This input could, for example, be collected by automatic monitoring or sensing processes (including biofeedback), or could be produced by the player (e.g. by inputting reports through an interface).
In this way, a virtual gaming framework can be applied as an overlay to activities in real life. The overlay would treat achievement of particular outcomes as progress within the game. The outcomes that are rewarded would be chosen so that they provide a new motivational path to longer-term, ‘real life’ goals. For a simple example, the real life goal might be the loss of a particular amount of weight, and actions that are rewarded within the game may include activities that reduce food intake and burn calories. Rewards may include the satisfaction of doing better than others in a multi-player framework.
The strategy-based simulation games motivate players to find out for themselves how complex situations respond to their actions, interventions and strategies. Complex circumstances that can be simulated by games include any aspect of everyday life (including social interactions, goal setting, and ethical and moral choices), environmental systems, societies, economic arrangements, and political and governmental systems. To succeed in the game, players interact with the simulation to learn the consequences of various choices and actions.
Strategy-based simulation games are particularly suited to exploring the emerging evolutionary worldview. This new worldview locates humanity in a much larger evolutionary process that has a meaningful role for us. It therefore is central in providing science-based answers to the ‘big questions’: What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going to? What should we do with our lives?
Evolution: the greatest game of all
Evolutionary science is developing an understanding of the universe that makes sense of human existence. Far from being a meaningless accident in an indifferent universe, life appears to have a central role in its future.
There is a direction to the evolutionary process that has produced life on Earth and that will determine our future. Importantly, humanity has a role in these larger processes. Whether we fulfill this role effectively will determine whether life on Earth contributes positively to the future evolution of life in the universe. What we do here and now matters in a bigger scheme of things. Humanity has a central role in a great adventure.
To date, evolution on Earth has moved along its trajectory of its own accord. But it will not progress beyond this point unless it is driven forward intentionally. Evolution will continue to advance on this planet only if certain conditions are met: humanity will need to awaken to the fact that we are living in the midst of a meaningful and directional evolutionary process, realize that the continued success of the process depends on us, and commit to intentionally moving the process forward.
If this transition to intentional evolution is to be completed successfully, sufficient numbers of people across the planet will need to develop an understanding of these complex evolutionary processes and their implications for humanity. However it is not easy or straightforward for individuals to build this understanding.
But properly-designed computer games can make a major contribution to overcoming this difficulty. They can graphically simulate evolutionary processes across wide ranges of time and space, motivate the effort required to develop the complex mental models needed to envisage the processes, and facilitate exploration of the consequences of the evolutionary worldview for the individual and for humanity.
Computer games are particularly suited for this task because evolution operates like a game. There are struggles for survival, strategies, competition, and winners and losers. Everything that survives (including all life currently on the planet) is the winner in some evolutionary game, and has been shaped by it.
Looked at from a gaming perspective, evolution can be seen to be ‘The Greatest Game of All’. It is the game in which we, our societies and future humans are all players. Evolution is the game we all play whether we want to or not, or whether we are conscious of it or not. It is the game that sets the context and frame for everything we do in our lives.
Evolutionary games can challenge players to discover and explore strategies that will win evolutionary games in a wide range of circumstances. For example, appropriate simulations could lead players to discover and understand the direction of past evolution on Earth, the direction of human social evolution, why moral and religious systems emerge and why they take the form they do, why we have the types of emotions we experience, how evolution has shaped our motivations, personalities, needs and values, the nature of the next great steps in evolution on Earth, how the critically important step to a unified global society can be organized while maintaining diversity, creativity and freedom, where evolution in the universe might be headed, what humanity might do to contribute positively to this process, and so on.
Of course, the ability of a game to facilitate evolutionary understanding will depend on the relevance and accuracy of its simulations. For example, much that is learnt in playing the game Spore has little to do with actual evolutionary processes or outcomes. And many of the key features of the evolutionary processes that have shaped us and will continue to do so will never be learnt playing Spore.
The evolution of cooperative organization is a very important area for game simulation. The central trend in the evolution of life on Earth has been towards the organization of cooperation over larger and larger scales. Evolution has moved through a sequence of transitions in which smaller-scale entities are organized into larger-scale cooperatives. Self-replicating molecular processes were organized into the first simple cells, communities of simple cells formed the more complex eukaryote cell, organizations of these cells formed multi-cellular organisms, and organisms were organized into cooperative societies. A similar sequence has unfolded in human evolution from family groups, to bands, to tribes, to agricultural communities to city states, to Nations and so on.
Computer games that awaken
Can computer games be designed to produce the same kinds of effects as meditation? Are computer games able to motivate and guide the kinds of practices that awaken human beings? Does the ability of computer games to overlay real life give them the potential to motivate the practices needed to awaken us in the midst of ordinary life?
These are critical issues for humanity at present. We are in great need of the capacities that are claimed to be produced by spiritual development and meditation. These include: access to ‘higher mind’ (including access to wisdom, intuition and other capacities that are essential for understanding and managing complex environmental, economic and social systems); the capacity to free oneself from the dictates of negative emotions and motivations (e.g. the ability to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘resist temptation’ at will); and the ability to experience life from a position of stillness and peace, without stress.
However, it is evident from the dearth of enlightened ones amongst us that the spiritual and contemplative traditions do not often succeed in developing these capacities in their adherents. Only rarely do the practices and approaches they recommend succeed in producing these capacities to a significant degree. The traditions themselves acknowledge the difficulty in achieving spiritual development (for example: many are called, but few are chosen; the gate is small and the way is narrow; the path to salvation is like walking a razor’s edge; reaching enlightenment takes many life times; and seekers must work so hard that the soles of their feet sweat).
Do computer games have the potential to change this? Can they guide and motivate practices that will develop these higher capacities? Could they play a major role in awakening humanity? If the potential of computer games is fulfilled, will a new type of human enter history and evolution?
To address these issues, we first need to understand what ‘awakening’ is, and how meditation and related practices can train it. It is useful to compare the ‘awakening’ of consciousness with awakening from a dream. While in the midst of a dream, we are embedded in it. We are unable to see that our behaviors in the dream are restricted and limited. We cannot ‘stand outside the dream’, think about and reflect upon how we behave in the dream, and see that our actions ignore many factors that we would normally take into account.
In contrast, when we awake from a dream, our consciousness is no longer embedded in it. Consciously we ‘stand outside’ the dream and we can think about and reflect on our actions during the dream. We can see our actions in a wider context and consider alternatives and their consequences. We can see immediately that the way we behaved in the dream was often absurd in this wider context.
Awakening in the midst of ordinary life
In ordinary life, we are embedded almost continually in our desires, perceptions, emotions and thought processes. In particular, we generally do not consciously ‘stand outside’ our desires and emotions. We do not consciously choose our likes and dislikes. Nor can we choose freely to move at right angles to our motivations and emotions. We cannot effortlessly ‘turn the other cheek’.
Nor do we have a well-developed capacity to stand outside our thinking as it proceeds. We tend to be embedded in and attached to our thoughts. We have some capacity to think about our thinking, but when we do, we are embedded in our thinking about our thinking. We have little voluntary control over whether our mind is occupied by thought or not. We cannot still our minds at will and just ‘be’ in the present.
Because we are almost continually embedded in thought and desires, we are not aware that we are embedded in them. As when we are dreaming, we are not aware that there is a state of greater consciousness and awareness that we are missing. Our consciousness is fully occupied by our incessant thinking and feeling, so there is no awareness left over to see our thinking and feeling in a wider, wiser context.
This is perhaps the biggest impediment to the further development of consciousness in humans. It prevents us from seeing the limitations of our existing state.
However, when we are awakened and come into the present, thinking and emotions no longer crowd out our access to intuition and wisdom. Once consciousness is free from absorption in thought and feeling, we experience consciousness as being more spacious and perceptions as being more vivid. We also experience peace and centeredness because our attention is no longer continuously jerked out of the present by desires, emotions and thinking. But this does not mean that we repress our emotions and feelings when in the present. They continue to arise and we experience them fully and vividly. But we are no longer embedded in them – they do not dictate our behavior, we can reflect on them freely, and can respond wisely rather than habitually.
How can we train ourselves to awaken in the midst of ordinary life and to stay awake at will? The spiritual and contemplative traditions have developed a wide range of practices that are claimed to do this. And they have an extraordinary array of explanations and theories about why their particular methods are effective. But most of their practices, including most forms of meditation, include a simple but powerful training process. Most practices train the ability to dis-embed attention from thought and desires. They require the practitioner to repeatedly take attention away from thought processes and from desires and emotions as they arise.
At first this training has little effect: individuals spend nearly all their time embedded in thought and desires, as usual. But gradually the practice trains the ability to spend at least small amounts of time in the present, with attention dis-embedded.
Computer games are not limited to producing states of absorption and immersion. They can also train us to be more aware and conscious.
How computer games can be structured to produce the same effects as meditation and related practices
As we have seen, meditation trains the capacity to dis-embed consciousness from thoughts, desires and emotions. It achieves this through practices in which the meditator repeatedly moves attention away from thoughts and desires. But something more is needed if this practice is to train the capacity to move into the present. As well as disengaging attention, the meditator needs to practice moving attention to something that leaves consciousness dis-embedded.
Most forms of meditation bring the meditator into the present by requiring attention to be moved to ‘inert’ sensations. Common examples are sensations of the breath, other sensations within the body, a sound (e.g. a mantra), ritual movements, an object, or a visualization (in some forms of mindfulness meditation, open and non-judgmental attention is given to thoughts and feelings as they arise). To be effective, the sensations must be ‘inert’ in the sense that they do not themselves evoke a train of thought or any desires. Resting attention on sensations of this kind will tend to bring the individual into the present—attention will remain dis-embedded from any sequences of thought or desires.
This ‘mind-stilling’ effect of ‘inert’ sensations explains why we can be brought into the present momentarily by such activities as viewing a sunset, taking a shower, looking at good art, overseas travel, diving into a cold lake, an ‘ineffable’ moment in sport, looking at a beautiful, symmetrical object, and viewing a movie scene that is visually interesting but demands no interpretation. It is also why ‘if you see through innocent eyes, everything is divine.
In summary, the essential elements of meditation are to dis-embed attention and to move it to ‘inert’ sensations or perceptions. If these essential elements are incorporated into computer games, playing the game will train the capacity to awaken and be in the present. Games need to be structured so that to succeed in the game, the player must practice dis-embedding consciousness and moving into the present.
Some existing computer games use bio-feedback to achieve this, at least in a limited and rudimentary fashion. Journey to Wild Divine uses bio-feedback of heart rhythms and skin conductivity to represent the state of relaxation of the player. The game presents challenges that can be overcome only to the extent that the player achieves and maintains a calm state. In a simple example, the player must regulate their level of relaxation in order to levitate a ball on the screen.
Heartmath uses bio-feedback of heart rhythms to train the ability to reduce stress levels, and NeuroSky has developed a headset that monitors brain wave patterns. NeuroSky has created a simple demonstration game that enables a player wearing its headset to push objects such as cars by concentrating on them, and to levitate objects by relaxing.
Using bio-feedback to train awakening has a number of limitations. First, bio-feedback is able to train access to a particular state only to the extent that the feedback is a good correlate of the state. The problem for common approaches to biofeedback is that calmness and relaxation are not a good indicator of ‘being in the present’ in all circumstances. For example, an individual can be in the present even though their body may be manifesting a stress response. Mindfulness and ‘being in the present’ does not involve suppressing normal bodily responses to fear and other emotions. Although individuals who are in the present are not embedded in their responses and so can act more wisely, they still experience their feelings, sensations and emotions fully.
Second, the value of bio-feedback can be limited where the goal of the training is to develop the ability to come into the present in the midst of ordinary life, unaided by any external process. To achieve this, individuals need to learn to discover and use their own internal feedback process. They need to be able to sense something within themselves that indicates when they are in the present. Individuals need to use this internal sensation to practice coming back into the present whenever they find themselves embedded again in thoughts or desires. Games that use bio-feedback should therefore be designed so that players have to learn as quickly as possible to replace external feedback with their own internal feedback process.
An alternative to the use of bio-feedback in games is to incorporate challenges that can be overcome only if the player is in the present and dis-embedded from thoughts, desires, perceptions and other distractions.
For example, the game may be structured to demand continuous, concentrated attention on a particular focal point (at its simplest, this could be a requirement to monitor a particular location continuously). Or it may demand relaxed but continuous attention over a wide field (at its simplest, this could involve a requirement to monitor two or more widely separated locations simultaneously and continuously). In both these examples, the game would be structured so that success would require dis-embedding quickly from any thoughts, feelings or perceptions that interrupt continual monitoring.
This basic framework could be used to train the capacity to awaken in the full variety of circumstances encountered in ordinary life. This would ensure maximum transferability to ‘real life’. In particular, different aspects of a game could focus on training the ability to dis-embed from particular classes of ‘distractants’. For example, the content of a game could be designed to produce various kinds of emotional reactions in players, and to make success in the game depend on dis-embedding from them. This would train the ability to stand outside emotions and implement wiser responses. Different aspects of a game could also be designed to train dis-embedding during each of the key activities in which individuals engage during ordinary life.
Explicit trainings that provide instructions about how to come into the present could be integrated into the narrative of games. For example, the game could provide guided meditations at appropriate points.
As is necessary for games that use external bio-feedback, it would be important to design these games so that players develop their own internal feedback processes for maintaining presence. A key goal would be to train players to always rest part of their attention on bodily sensations while engaging in an activity. This would ensure that attention does not come to be fully embedded in the activity. The part of the player’s attention that is rested on bodily sensations is always dis-embedded. Dividing attention in this way ‘anchors’ the individual in the present.
Once games dis-embed players, they can also train them to reflect on their thoughts and emotions, realize the limitations of their habitual responses and devise wiser ones. Story-based games that immerse the player in a complex quest are particularly suited to this approach. The game can be structured so that the players’ desires, values, beliefs, thought processes, unconscious motivations or other predispositions limit their ability to succeed in the quest. To proceed further, players must reflect on their predispositions, recognize the limitations of their previous approaches, and attempt to free themselves from them. Dis-embedding combined with reflection can rapidly develop meta-cognitive skills and emotional self-regulation. In this way, computer games can provide the same kind of learning that is experienced by the hero of mythology in his journey of self-discovery.
Computer games that guide and motivate awakening in the midst of ordinary life
Let’s look more closely at the potential of computer games to overcome a major difficulty encountered by the spiritual and contemplative traditions. Their practices and approaches have been able to produce dis-embedding and awakening ‘on the meditation cushion’, during retreats and in monasteries, but have far less success in the midst of ordinary life. Hence the ubiquity of ‘enlightened’ gurus who can apparently ‘resist temptation’ while meditating, but go on to abuse their followers financially, emotionally or sexually. And skills that are learnt on meditation retreats are generally lost soon after a return to ordinary life.
This difficulty is a major impediment to the future development and evolution of humanity: the serious challenges that currently face humanity require awakening in the midst of ordinary life if they are to be met successfully. The higher capacities that can be accessed by awakened consciousness are essential if humanity is to understand and manage complex environmental, economic and social systems.
In large part this difficulty arises because learning and training is generally context specific. A capacity that is trained on the meditation cushion will not transfer readily to the entirely different context and circumstances of ordinary life. In particular, the nature of the thoughts and emotions from which the practitioner dis-embeds in meditation are different to those encountered in normal life, as are the stimuli that evoke them. Withdrawal from ordinary life to practice meditation makes it much easier to achieve dis-embedding by reducing the intensity of experience, but at the cost of transferability.
Few of the traditions have overcome this impediment by specifically developing practices for use in the midst of ordinary life. Nor have many focused on particular methods for training presence that are highly transferable to ordinary life.
Computer games have particular features that give them the potential to overcome this difficulty. First, because they can simulate a wide range of circumstances, they can train the capacity to come into the present in all the kinds of contexts and situations that are encountered in ordinary life. They also have the potential to train dis-embedding in circumstances that players would avoid in ordinary life (this is very important because until individuals can dis-embed in these circumstances, their behaviour will continue to be controlled by them).
Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, games have the capacity to train methods of maintaining presence that are highly transferable to ordinary life. In particular, games can be structured to train players to continually anchor part of their attention on sensations within their body. This ensures that part of the person’s attention is always dis-embedded and free during the events of ordinary life.
But the greatest potential of computer games to overcome this difficulty comes from their ability to operate as an overlay on ‘real life’. This enables a person to play and interact with the game while they are going about their ordinary life. To succeed in the game, players must carry out tasks and meet challenges in the real world.
It is easy to see how such an ‘overlay’ game be structured to motivate and guide players to be present and mindful in the midst of the activities of their daily life. For example, an overlay can:
- treat actions that train awakening as achievements that count towards progress in the game (e.g. actions such as practicing dis-embedding and coming into the present, as well as staying mindful in the face of a wide range of distractions [including remaining mindful while engaging in conversations, social interactions, meetings, playing sport, showering, reading, arguing, watching television, eating, walking in the street, riding in a bus, experiencing strong emotions, and driving a car];
- act as an alarm clock to remind players to come into the present (a major challenge encountered when ‘working on oneself’ in ordinary life is remembering to awaken and practice. The spiritual master Gurdjieff suggested working in groups so that it would be likely that at least one person is awake at any time, and therefore able to wake the others up. Game overlays are a much more effective solution);
- assign tasks and practices to players during the day, and give guidance (the overlay could monitor the state of the player, and allocate practices that are appropriate to the player’s circumstances – e.g. it could require the player to awaken whenever stress levels increase);
- link multiple players in order to use competition, cooperation, social pressure, social approval, etc to motivate progress in the game (including to motivate the performance of developmental practices and exercises);
- use bio-feedback and remote monitoring to assess the progress made by players and to inform players of such things as when they have successfully stilled their minds and when they might need to come into the present or perform particular exercises (e.g. because they are experiencing strong emotions); and
- motivate actions and practices that develop collective consciousness, including the instantiation of a global workspace system at a collective level.
The next step in this evolutionary trajectory is the formation of a cooperative and sustainable global society
Games that simulate this cooperative trajectory will need to capture the fact that although cooperation is an extremely effective evolutionary strategy, it does not evolve easily. Cooperative organization is easily undermined by free-riders that take the benefits of cooperation without contributing anything in return. Evolution only progresses when it finds a way to suppress free-riding and to align the interests of individuals with the interests of the whole.
When this is achieved, cooperation pays because individuals capture the benefits of their cooperation (and the costs of any harm they visit on others). This is how cooperation has been organized at all levels, including at the level of individual cells, organisms (including humans), corporations, and Nations (for more on the evolution of cooperation, see Chapters 4 to 7 of my book Evolution’s Arrow).
Games that capture these dynamics should be able to explore the evolution of cooperation at all levels, including the forms of organization that will be needed to enable the emergence of a cooperative and sustainable global society.
Computer games that explore the evolutionary worldview can make a major contribution to the awakening of humanity to its role in the evolutionary process. When individuals involve themselves in designing or playing these games, they are therefore participating in a major evolutionary event on Earth – the transition to intentional evolution in which humanity wakes up to what the universe is about and commits to actively advancing the evolutionary process.
A further very important trend in the trajectory of evolution is towards increasing adaptability, creativity, intelligence and consciousness. The furtherance of this trend within humanity requires not only the acquisition of greater knowledge but also enhanced skills and capacities. Computer games that advance this trajectory will therefore have to motivate activities, practices, and experiences that develop these capacities.
This article was originally published on www.evolutionarymanifesto.com.