Non-Bit Reality

DavidAfterDentistBadCC

Things that are real:

  • dimensions
  • sex
  • physical sensation
  • religious organizations
  • a hand-written letter
  • a fat stack of cash
  • a DVD with data written on it

Things that someone could argue aren't real:

  • human relationships
  • dreams
  • pride
  • an email
  • heartbreak
  • financial investments
  • digital currency
  • risk
  • account balances
  • fraud
  • debt
  • legal arguments
  • property rights
  • substance abuse
  • regret
  • social connections
  • digital currency

Things that probably aren't real:

  • Unicorns
  • robots who transform into dinosaurs
  • the absolute truth that the old ways were better than new ways
  • the absolute truth that new things are better than old things
  • boyfriends whose bodies are pigeon bodies

These lists are not exhaustive. Feel free to suggest additions to each. I find it's easiest to add to that middle list — things that might be real in some sense, but that might be considered "not real" by other definitions of "real."

In GWJ's recent Hearthstone LP, the notion of paying "real" money for non-"real" things came up. It had come up before on the conference call.

Earlier this month, Sean Sands wrote about EVE Online cost conversions to USD, and he wondered about ways to justify the valuation of ships lost in the recent EVE Online war. (I slipped some things into Sean's article, because he was veering into cane-shaking territory against digital stuff, and I only want him to look like a flippant reactionary when he really means it and I think it'll be funny.)

Thing is, I think it's clear that the noble co-founders of GWJ aren't into paying for digital goods, even if they're both well used to buying games via Steam, GamersGate, GOG, and other services that exclusively deliver content digitally. I did find it interesting that Sean was able to compare digital goods to entertainment experiences, though. You pay to see a movie, and it entertains you for a short time. Same with a new mission pack in a game, or some pretty new horse armor to show off to any NPCs who deign to notice.

At the end of the day, we all have our own loose definitions of what makes something "real." But if someone actually wants to not value anything because it isn't "real," they'll find themselves in a twisty semantic struggle to define what "real" means — especially if they want to divorce their definition of "real" from "what matters to me."

This past holiday season marked the 30-year anniversary of a Christmas classic that has been close to my heart for a very long time: Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Ultimately, it's a film in which abstract notions get converted into physical reality, and we all laugh and try not to make eye contact with our parents when we suddenly remember too late that there are kind of a lot of topless women in this movie.

In broad strokes, the story of the film goes like this: Two rich brothers, the Dukes, run an investment firm, trading commodity futures. They set up a Pygmalion/My Fair Lady scenario, where they make a bet on whether good education and upbringing are really important for their jobs or if anyone off the street could do just as well, given a reasonable chance. They put a bet down and contrive for Dan Aykroyd (here as a young man born into wealth, and every bit the reason I'll never wear boat shoes) to find himself penniless, friendless and homeless. Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy is promoted from scam artist on the streets to managing director of the investment firm in Aykroyd's place.

After many wonderful gags, the two lead actors figure out what was going on and set up the Duke brothers for some payback, courtesy of the combined devilry of theft, a classic wire scam, and some good, old-fashioned market manipulation. Planet Money and 99 Percent Invisible did a good job looking at the way commodities futures work in the story, but the punchline basically comes just after the Dukes are tricked into buying futures contracts — contracts to buy massive amounts of frozen, concentrated orange juice at a fixed price at a future date. The Dukes find that the market price of OJ will be lower than the price they'd paid to lock in. If they don't declare bankruptcy or cash out at a huge loss, they may soon find themselves paying a premium to take actual, physical delivery of a massive amount of frozen juice. They're one more bad decision away from truckloads of "real" OJ.

The thing is, up until that OJ is delivered, you could argue that a lot of what's going on in the show is exchanging "real" money for pretty abstract "not real" stuff. It's numbers in a ledger reflecting imagined future transactions. It's no more than paper and ink, bits on a hard drive, and ultimately nobody on the trading floor ever expects to see delivery of these massive quantities of frozen OJ or any other commodity they're theoretically trading. Current digital markets have computers trading futures and stocks with other computers at amazing speed, and I can tell you that not one computer ever decided to hold a pork belly contract and demand physical delivery of a ton of delicious bacon.

But then there are certainly things that are real, even to a young wordsmythe watching from the warm recesses of naivete and excess that we call "the '80s." A few items from the list of "real" things that I noticed in Trading Places: poverty, panic, drugs, sex, and being a jerk. These were all made startlingly real to me on my first viewing, even if they aren't all physical objects. Even if no physically real frozen, concentrated orange juice ever changes hands, the characters in Trading Places have had some very real things happen to them by the end of the film. They are really, materially changed.

Let me be clear here: Only in metaphor can you club someone over the head with poverty. If poverty is "real," then it's a different kind of real than a rock is, and it's probably important to remember that. Even "virtual" items and events can have real repercussions. "Likes" on a social network can have a very real impact in the way people treat each other offline. There are good reasons to keep in mind that the worlds of games we play aren't physically real. The state of mind we enter into when we play a game might not be a "magic circle" as such, but it's certainly a different sort of thing. We accept objects, rules, and dynamics without bothering with the skepticism we'd apply if someone popped their head up from the cubicle down the hall to shout that mushrooms will make us double in size. But I still feel like I've lost something when my companion in Skyrim gets killed.

Not that I'm advocating becoming fully immersed in games, mind you. Games can be more interesting and fulfilling experiences when we play with some degree of detachment. Our ability to recognize fantasy for what it is allows us to examine our play with a critical and theoretical eye. But when we seek to categorize something as "real" or not, we should be sure to keep in mind that "realness" might be better judged with a sliding scale, or multiple sliding scales.

Now if you'll excuse me, I seem to have a hankering for orange juice.

Comments

Excellent article and very thought provoking. It gets me thinking: The cash in my wallet is "real" because we all decided that it was. If we all decided it was just a piece of green paper, then it would no longer be real money. (As a result, some people even suggest you hoard gold because it is "more real.") As you state, a great many things live in the realm of "sorta real" and what is real to me may not be to you purely based on perception.

Aristophan wrote:

Excellent article and very thought provoking. It gets me thinking: The cash in my wallet is "real" because we all decided that it was. If we all decided it was just a piece of green paper, then it would no longer be real money. (As a result, some people even suggest you hoard gold because it is "more real.")

I thought about bringing that up, but ultimately there isn't really inherent value in gold, either, unless you're using it to make something useful.

This got me thinking about how I pre-order games through GameStop, giving them a chunk of money for a game that doesn't exist yet. What do they do with that money? They could be letting it stew in a bank vault, or they could be using it to pay employees, or they could be using it to purchase games coming out next week as opposed to next month. Or perhaps those transactions already occurred? Perhaps they're using my pre-order as a metric for how many copies they'll need from some warehouse out in Podunk, USA?

All I know is the trade-off is that, when I pick that game up, I get to "pay less". It only feels like less because I paid into it at an earlier date, but it feels more manageable based on my income.

In truth, I am not spending less money, and the difference would be "none" if I simply did not spend, say, that twenty dollars for an entire month. But it feels as if I've somehow managed my money better so that I could more likely afford the game.

Brains are dumb, tricky, intelligent things.

You also pay a prermium to be ahead of the curve

meanyhead wrote:

Things that probably aren't real:
robots who transform into dinosaurs

You shut your filthy mouth!

wordsmythe wrote:
Aristophan wrote:

Excellent article and very thought provoking. It gets me thinking: The cash in my wallet is "real" because we all decided that it was. If we all decided it was just a piece of green paper, then it would no longer be real money. (As a result, some people even suggest you hoard gold because it is "more real.")

I thought about bringing that up, but ultimately there isn't really inherent value in gold, either, unless you're using it to make something useful.

Yes, but gold is something that's created in nature and not by man, which means it's closer to being "real" on its own than a dollar bill. We ascribe high value to gold because of its rarity in nature coupled with its supposed beauty.

garion333 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Aristophan wrote:

Excellent article and very thought provoking. It gets me thinking: The cash in my wallet is "real" because we all decided that it was. If we all decided it was just a piece of green paper, then it would no longer be real money. (As a result, some people even suggest you hoard gold because it is "more real.")

I thought about bringing that up, but ultimately there isn't really inherent value in gold, either, unless you're using it to make something useful.

Yes, but gold is something that's created in nature and not by man, which means it's closer to being "real" on its own than a dollar bill. We ascribe high value to gold because of its rarity in nature coupled with its supposed beauty.

So there's a connection between "real" and "natural"?

Chumpy_McChump wrote:
meanyhead wrote:

Things that probably aren't real:
robots who transform into dinosaurs

You shut your filthy mouth!

And yet you're OK with what I said about pigeons.

wordsmythe wrote:
garion333 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Aristophan wrote:

Excellent article and very thought provoking. It gets me thinking: The cash in my wallet is "real" because we all decided that it was. If we all decided it was just a piece of green paper, then it would no longer be real money. (As a result, some people even suggest you hoard gold because it is "more real.")

I thought about bringing that up, but ultimately there isn't really inherent value in gold, either, unless you're using it to make something useful.

Yes, but gold is something that's created in nature and not by man, which means it's closer to being "real" on its own than a dollar bill. We ascribe high value to gold because of its rarity in nature coupled with its supposed beauty.

So there's a connection between "real" and "natural"?

Something in the natural world is already on its way to being more real than the idea of something, yes. Of course, it's not binary, but exists on a spectrum. Gold is real because you can hold it in your hand. Gold as a source of monetary value is less real because that value is in flux and is wholly constructed by human desire.

Tangent: I'm tempted to argue sex isn't real, but it comes entirely too close to an argument that nothing is real, especially if we consider dreams as being something that isn't real.

garion333 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
garion333 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Aristophan wrote:

Excellent article and very thought provoking. It gets me thinking: The cash in my wallet is "real" because we all decided that it was. If we all decided it was just a piece of green paper, then it would no longer be real money. (As a result, some people even suggest you hoard gold because it is "more real.")

I thought about bringing that up, but ultimately there isn't really inherent value in gold, either, unless you're using it to make something useful.

Yes, but gold is something that's created in nature and not by man, which means it's closer to being "real" on its own than a dollar bill. We ascribe high value to gold because of its rarity in nature coupled with its supposed beauty.

So there's a connection between "real" and "natural"?

Something in the natural world is already on its way to being more real than the idea of something, yes. Of course, it's not binary, but exists on a spectrum. Gold is real because you can hold it in your hand. Gold as a source of monetary value is less real because that value is in flux and is wholly constructed by human desire.

Tangent: I'm tempted to argue sex isn't real, but it comes entirely too close to an argument that nothing is real, especially if we consider dreams as being something that isn't real.

I think I originally had "gender" somewhere in those lists as well, but I didn't want to devote another 700 words to that. Because I wanted to write about Trading Places?

Things that are real can be harder to nail down than you might think. For instance: dimensions are probably imaginary.

Consider: you can't have dimensions on their own. There's no such thing as a point; they don't actually exist. There are no lines, either. Or planes. Everything that actually exists has three dimensions, so aren't the individual dimensions imaginary things? Aren't they something we're projecting on top of reality, rather than something that actually exists?

Perhaps dimensions are just an artifact of how our brains work, and the truth, whatever it might be, would be apparent if we were wired differently.

For that matter, think about numbers.... by themselves, numbers are just abstract. 1, by itself, has little meaning, it needs to be 1 of something. Now, mathematics is incredibly powerful, and you can argue in some ways that it might be more real than physical reality... it certainly allows us to change physical reality in a myriad of ways. But there's also, clearly, an imaginary component involved.

Things are nowhere as concrete as we'd like to think. All of us, young and old, brilliant and clueless, mistake our internal maps for the actual territory... we do it so constantly and pervasively that it strikes me as almost miraculous that we can communicate at all.

Gold is real because you can hold it in your hand. Gold as a source of monetary value is less real because that value is in flux and is wholly constructed by human desire.

True, but it does have value. How do we know? It takes a tremendous amount of effort to dig it up and refine it. It can't just be waved into existence to suit political whims, it has to be worked for, and worked very hard for.

If people don't value it enough to pay for it to mined, then no more of it will be created. There's a floor of value underneath it, because it definitely has industrial uses, and is definitely consumed in some applications. Even if we collectively decide that we don't like or value gold anymore, it will still, over the long haul, hold about the same amount of value as the work it takes to dig more up, because the existing supplies will eventually be gone.

Malor wrote:
Gold is real because you can hold it in your hand. Gold as a source of monetary value is less real because that value is in flux and is wholly constructed by human desire.

True, but it does have value. How do we know? It takes a tremendous amount of effort to dig it up and refine it. It can't just be waved into existence to suit political whims, it has to be worked for, and worked very hard for.

If people don't value it enough to pay for it to mined, then no more of it will be created. There's a floor of value underneath it, because it definitely has industrial uses, and is definitely consumed in some applications. Even if we collectively decide that we don't like or value gold anymore, it will still, over the long haul, hold about the same amount of value as the work it takes to dig more up, because the existing supplies will eventually be gone.

All of which are human constructs. As wordy said, the value is there once you make it useful (ie. utility).

All of which are human constructs.

The work you have to do, in order to dig it out of the ground, puts a long-term floor under the value. The stuff that's already dug up will slowly disappear, consumed in industrial uses or simply lost, and if you want more, you'll have to pay someone to dig it up for you.

The labor required to accomplish a task is not imaginary, and is definitely not a human construct.

Malor wrote:
All of which are human constructs.

The work you have to do, in order to dig it out of the ground, puts a long-term floor under the value. The stuff that's already dug up will slowly disappear, consumed in industrial uses or simply lost, and if you want more, you'll have to pay someone to dig it up for you.

The labor required to accomplish a task is not imaginary, and is definitely not a human construct.

If I dug up some other rock that took just as much effort to bring to the surface, would that other rock have the same value?

Gold is a heavy, soft metal that conducts electricity pretty well.

wordsmythe wrote:

Gold is a heavy, soft metal that conducts electricity pretty well.

One could argue, quite well, that the physical properties of gold (i.e. its utility, a tangible, measurable entity) combined with the costs of production (also measurable entities) dictate its that it is, in fact, real. The issue here is value is in an of itself a non-real (or at least fluid) term. Gold will always be a real, useful item. It having value is purely a human construct, measurable only in relation to other human constructs.

If I dug up some other rock that took just as much effort to bring to the surface, would that other rock have the same value?

Not just because you dug it up, but because someone would probably have to pay you to do it. If it didn't have value, they wouldn't pay you.

If you want more of Rock X, you'll have to invest energy and time into obtaining it. That gives it a floor value. If nobody is willing to pay that much, there will be no supply of it, since nobody will dig any up. (Well, someone might do it speculatively, but not for long.) It's worth, say, $50/ounce minimum, because that's what it costs to dig up, but if nobody wants to pay that much, none will be extracted.

Ergo, Rock X is worth $50/ounce, and nobody wants to buy any. Nobody gets out shovels to go looking. If you decide you want some, after all, it'll cost you $50 or the equivalent work.

Can I derail this meta-debate real quick?

The Article Above wrote:

Ultimately, it's a film in which abstract notions get converted into physical reality, and we all laugh and try not to make eye contact with our parents when we suddenly remember too late that there are kind of a lot of topless women in this movie.

Yeah, this. It wasn't with my parents, but I grew up watching the TV version of this movie. Much different from the DVD version.

I smell a marketing plant. Front Page article referencing Trading Places on Friday morning. Comedy Central playing Trading Places Friday night. Well played, sir. Your skills are both real and valuable.

Pardon the existential moment here, but, given the size of the universe, are we all, and all that we see, not real, or, at least, barely real? From a purely mathematical standpoint, our existence relative to the universe is so small as to be insignificant, therefore not real.

Or something.

Beer.

Shalalm Baskur

Malor wrote:
If I dug up some other rock that took just as much effort to bring to the surface, would that other rock have the same value?

Not just because you dug it up, but because someone would probably have to pay you to do it. If it didn't have value, they wouldn't pay you.

If you want more of Rock X, you'll have to invest energy and time into obtaining it. That gives it a floor value. If nobody is willing to pay that much, there will be no supply of it, since nobody will dig any up. (Well, someone might do it speculatively, but not for long.) It's worth, say, $50/ounce minimum, because that's what it costs to dig up, but if nobody wants to pay that much, none will be extracted.

Ergo, Rock X is worth $50/ounce, and nobody wants to buy any. Nobody gets out shovels to go looking. If you decide you want some, after all, it'll cost you $50 or the equivalent work.

Not to derail too much, but Planet Money did an excellent show about a year back where they interviewed some geologists, biologists and chemical engineers about why gold of all the different elements was so valuable. It's worth a listen for more details about some of the things that Malor and Landshark have already covered above.

In other words, I guess we can play the game that nothing has value beyond what we give it. But gold is probably one of those universal things that nearly all human societies would value in some fashion. (At least any society that has encountered gold.)

I'm having a hard time not believing you didn't include 'time' in one of your categories. Or the Internets. Or Lolcats.

Beyond the gold/value debate above, I think that's certainly missing some point, or at least off point. Liked the article Wordsmythe.

In truth, we construct our own individual worlds from the miasma of the human condition, cobbling our pieces together from the past and projected future. Quite honestly, I can't understand why value makes anything real or not. In my opinion, if something has an affect on our constructed world, then those things are very real. Those specters, dreams, ideas, and the bounds of our own creativity are all wrapped in our own relative, personal universes and we often create physical totems of those mental objects into this world so that others may experience, judge, and integrate or dismiss those things as they are. Putting all of this in context, the unicorn most certainly is real (and robot dinosaurs) because these things were imagined, and someone created from that a child's stuffed unicorn toy or Transformer that then most certainly becomes a shared reality between people.

I can tell you that not one computer ever decided to hold a pork belly contract and demand physical delivery of a ton of delicious bacon.

I can see this forming the basis of a Turing test.

Concave wrote:
I can tell you that not one computer ever decided to hold a pork belly contract and demand physical delivery of a ton of delicious bacon.

I can see this forming the basis of a Turing test.

How long has that been your "location," and is it a reference to "the network is everting"?

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT: I don't think whether something is real or not matters. What matters is how things are valued, and how people convince other people to value things the way they do.

If I project a silent movie on a white wall is it real? What about for the blind guy? Allegory of the Cave discussion anyone? Reality to me seems entirely subjective, and the question of, "is something real or not?" seems like a waste of effort. Is my relationship with my mother a real thing? Are the chemical reactions in my brain when I think of her or see her a real thing? I love her and want to make her happy, that's real enough for me.

The more interesting topic to me, and I think to more relevent to video games, is the discussion about value. Some people got together and agreed that some digital information that represents a card in a game of Hearthstone is worth some amount of dollars, which some other people agreed is worth a certain amount of physicals goods or services. Some people and some podcast hosts disagreed with the value that Blizzard proposed for the cards. The causes of this disagreement, and the way in which people try to convince people of a thing's value are what I think are the most interesting.

Squee9 wrote:

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT: I don't think whether something is real or not matters. What matters is how things are valued, and how people convince other people to value things the way they do.

...

The more interesting topic to me, and I think to more relevent to video games, is the discussion about value.

"...We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
or
"What is real? How do you define 'real'? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
or
"There is no spoon"