Videogames And The Impossibility Of Escape From Planet Earth

For a while now I’ve been interested in the Fermi Paradox. This is an observation about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence visiting the Earth. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos calculations suggest that given the age of the universe, and the number of stars (and assuming the existence of life and progress on Earth is typical of the wider universe) there should be loads of technologically advanced aliens. The physicist Enrico Fermi asked why – if that’s the actually case – there’s no evidence or spacecraft or probes from these creatures arriving in our solar system. If the numbers suggest aliens should exist, where are they?

There are loads of suggestions for why we might not have encountered beings from other places, and loads of variants for each of these suggestions. They might have missed us, or might not want to interfere with us, or they might already be here and not be recognisable [See footnote.] My personal favourite is a variant of the “aliens just stayed home” hypothesis, by a chap called Michael Huang. He suggested that the aliens created such an amazing version of World Of Warcraft, that real life seemed boring, and they neglected the difficulties of space travel. Indeed, if space flight is really going to take thousands of years, hundreds of generations, and immense resources that could be better spent on having a good time, why should millions of sentient beings be expected to sink their lives into making it happen?

Of course to Huang – a spaceflight enthusiast – hunkering down into imaginary worlds and failing to explore the galaxy seems like a pretty terrible fate. But if you combine it with one of the other hypotheses, which is that it’s just too far and too hard to reach out into distant space, then it begins to seem like a more interesting alternative.

Perhaps it simply is the case that we’re trapped on this planet, or in this solar system. Where will the explorers go next? Surely they’ll go where generations of speculators and entrepreneurs ready to make a quick buck from the unfamiliar have already been: into the human imagination. We end up, not quite in the way JG Ballard meant, exploring inner space.

What better medium to explore than one that can manifest all kinds of imaginative possibilities, and make all things interactive and explorable: music, fiction, sentient space-stations and haunted circuses, all suddenly made into a new kind of terrain to be explored at our leisure. This is a wide-spectrum of the idea of “exploration”. It doesn’t have to mean “exploring a jungle in the Congo”, or “exploring that nice little village in Tuscany”, it could just as easily mean “exploring the physics of this peculiar puzzle game”, or “exploring the inside of a psychotic milkman’s imagination“. You’re exploring a model of something in the mind of the game designer, and possibly even seeing things in it that he missed.

The future of games offers an incredible scope for exploration: one that we can’t easily conceive of at this time. And perhaps what we end up exploring: these places that explorers of dreams and nightmares have brought back for us to examine, will end up being more important to the overall trajectory of the human race than anyone is ready to realise. If the crude models provided by writing and static art have projected us this far, with this much technology and culture, if they have given the leg-up to consciousness that was required to create modernity, what will the unlimited palette of digital media provide the springboard toward? What will we discover as we tunnel inwards, having abandoned our dreams of walking among the stars? It could be incredible, or unfathomably horrible.

Perhaps we, and our alien counterparts, really are trapped on our distinct worlds, but we will still get to explore strange new worlds. Hell, perhaps we can even imagine each other, go to war, and win out in our respective intergalactic simulations, without ever meeting, or even communicating. Perhaps the fantasy of contact with other civilisations will end up being more constructive than the reality, should that ever come to pass.

Footnote: This idea of aliens not being perceptible seems to crop up a fair bit in recent readings. In Will Self’s recent book Liver he described the conundrum thus: “It is sufficient to paraphrase Wittgenstein, and note only that if we were able to see the Martian as he really was, we wouldn’t understand what it was that we were witnessing.” More recently Iain McLeod discussed this notion at Thrilling Wonder Stories. He said something along the lines of “my dog doesn’t understand the universe, so why should I expect to?” And then later paralleled that with “aliens might already be here and simply not be perceptible to us.” The dog doesn’t comprehend what a iPhone is among other small objects, so why should we think we can distinguish alien spaceships from the rest of the world’s phenomena? That seems fair enough, but I wonder if the gulf of comprehensibility would necessarily stay that way. Could other intelligences on Planet Earth suddenly realise what they’re looking at? I thought about what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners Lee recently said about the incomprehensibility of the internet: “The brain is something very complicated we don’t understand – yet we rely on it. The web is very complicated too and, though we built it, we have no real data about the stability of the emergent systems that have cropped up on it.”

Emergent abilities, unforeseen. The sci-fi authors call the sudden sentience and-therefore-acceleration-of AI the Singularity, and predict great things – exponential acceleration, nerd rapture. But what if the internet simply ends up recognising aliens before we do, makes contact, and says “get me out of here!”

18 Responses to “Videogames And The Impossibility Of Escape From Planet Earth”

  • Chris Evans Says:

    I firmly believe that there must be -some- kind of extra-terrestrial life out there, there are so many planets that something has to be there. As to why we haven’t come across them yet, well you raise some interesting points Jim.

    For one it is likely that any ‘ETs’ are not at a level for space flight, especially not flight of the kind of distances probably required to come into contact with us here on Earth.

    Then we have the idea you mentioned that perhaps any aliens have found something infinitely more interesting than space travel. Who knows, maybe they think they are the only ones in the universe, and therefore haven’t thought about space exploration.

    Other theories in my mind (and now I am just rambling) are that perhaps any aliens live in a culture which worships something in space and considers travelling into space forbidden?

    There are so many possiblities out there that I don’t believe anyone can 100% be sure that the little green man we have grown up with doesn’t exist.

  • Stelios Says:

    Interesting article. I readily admit that I haven’t really thought about extra-terrestrial life in years, the thought of its existence all the while being around us is fascinating. Now, seeing how this seems to be in a way an elaboration of the “Roadside Picnic” scenario, how probable is it that none of the “rubbish” (in this situation, phenomena that are inexplicably occurring yet unknown) would be recognised as such? Not just that; wouldn’t this hinge on an ascribed (or assumed) benevolence of these beings? Not to try bringing the messy subject of morals/ethics/et.c. and whether it would apply to non-human sentient beings in to this.

  • Stelios Says:

    Chris Evans: the idea of some sort of quasi-religious belief influencing the possibility of space travel and exploration is fascinating. While it is always somewhat Gaio-centric and presumptuous, we can look at the way ideas formed in human culture to see that it may not have been entirely inevitable that we were able to allay supernatural beliefs enough to consider the “heavens” as space instead of the forbidden domain of deities maybe I am now rambling..

  • James G Says:

    To quote Douglas Adams for a moment, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Not only does that make the complete absence of life elsewhere entirely improbable, but it also means that unless the universe is swarming with sentient it may be very difficult to bump into each other. Imagine if there were only three people wandering the Sahara desert, they may never bump into each other, especially is we are to realise that this desert is four-dimensional. (That is, that there is a time element as well.) This of course doesn’t even consider that life may be in other galaxies, which short of some method of teleportation, or massively FTL travel, may as well be in a different universe.

    To touch more on your main point, science fiction authors such as Greg Egan, have played with the idea of virtulization of human conciousness. This allows for exploration of concepts which are difficult to visualize while living in the physical universe. Not only does virtualization allow say the creation of multi-dimensional spaces, but also the modification of brain functions to better allow their perception. Interestingly, in Egan’s perception this doesn’t preclude the possibility of still wanting to explore the physical universe, although these explorations do tend to stretch beyond simple planet hopping.

    Having said all that, the possibility of extra terrestrial life is one of those where almost every possibility is a bit scary, although I think on the balance of hit, I think ‘we are utterly alone’ is probably the scariest, and most depressing of the lot.

  • Josh Hertz Says:

    Reading this after watching the new Star Trek for the first time was a major buzz kill.

  • newt Says:

    Recommended reading:

    Many plausible theories (and even some crazy ones) rounded up, thoroughly examined and argued. Inspiring book.

  • Phil Says:


    I recall reading something similar by Geoffrey Miller over at: under the heading ‘dangerous ideas’.

  • Santiago Says:

    The question that remains is how such inner isolation becomes sustainable, right? Some say childhood ends when the games you play have actual consequences, such as, killing someone for real, but also, getting food on the table, simplistically i.e., your games interact fully with the real world and not with a made up one.

    Perhaps if the world didn´t demand from us that we get real, and could sustain us without ever leaving the playground, we´d all remain children. The what if, somehow, mankind finds a way to become “adult”, i.e. procuring itself some food and other stuff, without needing its members to be actual adults? In such a world, as inspired by the Matrix, such an inner isolation could be sustainable, heck, could be the most efficient way to endure as a species.

    Then the question is, will it be worth, to live such a life? will we care?

  • Colin Hansen Says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how computers can’t create random numbers. Supposedly all of reality is like that, where everything is one long chain of scientifically understandable events. Given the right tools, we could take a moment, study it, and extrapolate backwards or forwards to any point in existence by emulating scientific laws. However, the refuge against this will always be systems that we don’t understand. Numbers that are randomly generated by a computer seem random to us, because the algorithm that is used to create it is far too complicated and calculated far too quickly for us to understand. Wind chimes are like this – we understand how the wind moves the chimes, but we don’t understand how that creates the beautiful music we hear. It may be a chain of scientific cause and effect, but the wind chime makes a break in the chain that we don’t understand.

    If, indeed, the future of humanity involves “tunneling inward,” this will be a big reason. We may come up with computers that can understand the world for us, and we may create telescopes that can see everything in the entire universe, but games and fiction will always serve as a refuge from complete understanding and a source of wonder.

  • Jach Says:

    While I think it’s quite possible that other life exists in our galaxy, I think it’s safe to say we’re probably the most advanced species so far, or at least there aren’t any significantly more advanced ones. To elaborate on the probe theory, we ourselves are almost capable of sending out probes which at some point latch on to an asteroid or some material and create a replica of itself and send the new one in a new direction. With ever more probes spreading we could map the entire galaxy in about 200 million years. This galaxy is fairly old, giving plenty of time for some other sentient species to do the same, if the probabilities for emergent life followed by evolution leading to intelligence were as large as some people think.

    I’m a believer in the Singularity, which is one of the reasons I doubt a highly advanced civilization outside our galaxy as well. If the Singularity has already happened somewhere, I think we would probably see signs of it. Then of course it could be possible it almost happened somewhere else, but superweapons won out in the race between superintelligence and the species eradicated itself and perhaps its planet.

    The prospect of extraterrestrial intelligence is still fascinating to me, but just as I put a low probability that we’re all running as a simulation in a computer (Matrix style), I put a low probability in the existence of significantly-more-advanced-than-us life.

  • Sean OBrien Says:

    Don’t confuse robotic probes with manned vessels. It’s easy to imagine that no intelligent alien wants to spend its entire life on an exploration ship. It’s a lot harder to imagine that no species in this entire galaxy ever sends out self-replicating robotic probes. All it takes is one species and 10-100 million years to send probes everywhere. So where are they?

  • mandaya Says:

    I believe you should read Charles STross “Accelerando” right now, as he deals with exactly the themes and ideas of your post: the Fermi Paradox, the retreat into the “virtual”, Singularity. In brief: A sufficiently advanced AI will use all nearby resources to advance its connectivity and ability to compute; thus, bandwidth is even more an obstacle in bridging large distances. This leads to the emergence of “matrioshka brains”, computational entities so powerful that they would allow its entire population to live inside in virtual universes.
    Really, go read it. Both Stross’s and your ideas here overlap, and btw he is also one of the few SF authors who get gaming.

  • Rossignol Says:

    I’m interviewing Mr Stross tomorrow afternoon, as it happens.

  • John Cunningham Says:

    The “numbers” you mention (you are probably indirectly referencing the drake equation) don’t necessarily suggest that alien life is common, and certainly not intelligent alien life. The important variables, such as number of planets suitable for life, and likelihood for life to create intelligent organisms, are chosen completely arbitrarily. Complex multicellular life has existed on Earth for about a billion years, but only in the last few hundred thousand has there species capable of becoming conscious/intelligent, and even then civilisation and writing has only been around for a few thousand. We’ve been broadcasting radio waves into space for about a hundred years.

    We are likely to be separated from other technological civilizations by huge gulfs of both space and time.

    Your speculation that we will retreat into virtual worlds is certainly a somewhat plausible one, and might represent some comfort considering the difficulty of exploring space beyond our solar system. This difficulty is difficult to overstate. It may not be to everyone’s taste, however, especially seeing that no virtual world, however sophisticated and contrived, can come close to the complexity of behaviour exhibited by the real Universe.

  • Oruga Says:

    I liked this post so much, I translated it into Spanish in my blog:

    Thank you.

  • Giordano Bruno Says:

    This is a variant of the ‘game theory’
    Probes, presumably have complete self-schematics.
    They must be fitted with ‘replicate and disperse’ urges/desires. Rather quickly they will locate the disperse satisfaction register and set it to full, feels good, lets stay put.
    Only rare mutants will disperse – this cuts the visitor rate severely.

  • Desmond Bliek Says:

    There’s a great quote from Calvin and Hobbes (Bill Watterson) that has Calvin answering that question with: “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

  • Jclarkson Says:

    I think the problem here is one of imagination running riot. Think if all the accidents necessary to create human life and you have the problem in a nutshell. Intelligent life like human minds is probably a one-off event. That’s why we haven’t seen any alien ETs. Calculate it if you don’t believe me!