In the 1980s Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment that had the potential to completely transform our perception of free will.
But more importantly, one week ago, I played The Walking Dead.
I played The Walking Dead and at the end of the first episode I let Doug die. Doug’s hi-tech smarts helped me find the key that opened the door that saved another man’s life and allowed me to progress, but that didn’t matter. I let him get eaten by the zombie horde in favour of rescuing another character, Carley, and I felt nothing.
Carley had helped me in a different way: fighting alongside me in a shootout where the rewards were less tangible. We rescued our friend, that was the initial objective, but our exploits resulted in the suicide of another tangential character. It was an unsettling experience where decisions I made resulted in the death of another (virtual) human being.
In hindsight I think I could explain all the subtle reasons why I allowed Doug to die in favour of Carley. It may have been a gender thing. Doug was a man and Carley was a woman. Maybe it was an outdated, old-fashioned patriarchal obligation. Maybe it was because Doug was annoying. Maybe it was because Carley seemed as dumb as a bag of hammers and couldn’t even put batteries in a cheap radio the right way round. Maybe I thought Carley needed all the help she could get.
But I don’t honestly think any of those thoughts consciously went through my head as I made my decision. I just did what I did and I lived with the consequences. I did my ‘reasoning’ afterwards.
Okay, back to Benjamin Libet.
Benjamin Libet was a neuro-scientist whose experiments raised serious questions about the ability of human beings to actively, consciously control the choices they make. You might argue that he disproved the very notion of free will. In the 80s Libet was able to find and record brain activity relating to an unconscious decision to physically move before the subject was consciously aware of making that decision. Then, they moved.
So, in Walking Dead terms: my sub-conscious had already decided that I would let Doug die and save Carley before I consciously decided to. The argument goes thusly: despite the that The Walking Dead’s calling card is its focus on difficult split second choices, there was never really a choice at all. I thought I made a choice, but I didn’t.
In his book ‘Free Will’ Sam Harris uses the example of Benjamin Libet’s experiment to argue that free will is an illusion. Our conscious ‘choices’ are the end result of multiple different neurons firing in multiple different directions and nothing more. The idea that we have chosen anything is an adaptive, convenient magic trick. A pretty scary thought considering everything we know about ethics, law, government, religion and life is built upon that illusion.
But anyway, back to more important matters. Video games.
Video games like The Walking Dead are interesting because while philosophers can argue all day long about determinism or hard determinism we can legitimately go back and ‘make’ different choices. We can say to ourselves, ‘I’m going to go back and do the exact opposite thing every single time’. We can do that. Again, the choice to remake that choice is most likely enmeshed in a fatalistic matrice in our rubbish, flaccid brains, but on the surface level it is possible to relive certain experiences and do something different. We can’t do that in real life.
In real life we are zombies -- I suppose that’s argument I’m trying to make here – shuffling, barely sentient beings shuffling towards the end of this linear mortal coil in blind search of whatever it is that sustains us, but in video games? In video games we are the active arbiters of a constantly changing, reversible fate. I guess I’m trying to explain that there’s an irony in that.
If that’s even what ‘irony’ means these days. Who knows?
Sometimes video games feel like a life lived without choice. Stumbling through corridors, groaning like zombies, towards a goal we don’t really comprehend but can’t help chasing. This goes double for scripted experiences like Uncharted or Call of Duty. Even video games like The Walking Dead feel shallow and contrived in the choices we are offered and how they ultimately affect our individual experience. It is, essentially, the illusion of free will implemented in a world where free will – arguably – doesn’t exist and that’s an interesting idea.
But at least we get to go back and re-experience different paths. That’s rewarding; almost comforting. Almost as if we are making choices; like the whole thing isn’t all a carefully structured complex illusion.
That’s one good reason to play a game like The Walking Dead I suppose: to verify the existence of your capacity to make choices. Even if that capacity doesn’t necessarily exist.
At the end of ‘Free Will’ Sam Harris does an exercise. He attempts to write in a stream of conscious style, but then proceeds to explain how even those sentences, written in the spur of the moment, were still not produced of his own ‘free will’.
Maybe I’ll follow in those footsteps. Typos and all.
I really liked The Walking Dead so I thought I’d write a couple of sentences about it without planning, and it all got a little bit out of control really and I got out of my depth quickly because, Christ, what do I know? I’m not a philosopher I just write about games.
But here’s the crazy thing: after all of that, after all the rumination of choice, free will and all that mind bending crap, when I went to start Episode 2 of The Walking Dead, the game bloody well forgot all of my choices because of a bug. I had to play through the game with Doug still alive, reclining on a Lazy Boy and Carley was dead for some reason. What the hell?
I guess free will is an illusion after all.