Video game worlds are, we generally think, not real. This is an opinion often used dismissively (for an example, see the attitudes of the architectural establishment reported by Claris Cyarron in this recent piece). But on closer inspection, it turns out to be quite difficult to clarify what the claim means – what is real?
You can tell I've devoted the last ten years of my life to philosophy, huh?
On the face of it, a thing is 'real' if there are facts, or true statements, about it. My desk is real, because it has a mass, a shape, an extension. It supports my computer, and sometimes my face if I doze off while working.
By contrast, Sherlock Holmes' house at 221B Baker Street is not real. No such address exists, so no claim that Conan Doyle makes about its size, architecture or decor can be true. Of course, there are some conventions about this house which we can all agree on. If I ask you 'What is Sherlock Holmes' address?', there is a correct answer: '221B Baker Street'.
And this answer is correct because it is in at least some sense true – it is an accurate report of Conan Doyle's fictive claim that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street. So, there is a kind of truth to some statements of fiction, and thus a kind of reality to their claims.
This will convince no-one that video game worlds are real by itself, though, and nor should it. It is hardly a novel claim that I can give you a correct report of something I have read. The truth of 'Sherlock Holmes lived at 221B Baker Street' is not the same kind of truth as the truth of 'My desk is six feet wide'. Or is it?
Let's look a bit closer at this second statement, or rather at the object to which it purports to refer. The desk, we know, is a composite. It is made up of atoms, which are themselves composed mostly of empty space and a few tiny subatomic particles; these particles fuzz away into inconsistent, ill-defined energy fields on even closer inspection. Where does my desk end? Look close enough and it becomes difficult to recognise the desk at all.
Other properties of the desk – its mass, its solidity – become even more ephemeral. Does this mean that we should regard the claim that my desk is six feet long, or that it is solid, as false? If so, the only true statements are presumably the scientific ones (certainly this is the way the philosophical establishment tends to think of it).
But the scientific facts, about minute particles and fields, are much less useful to us in the everyday. Yes, technically the Standard Model of quantum physics describes all possible fundamental interactions, but good luck using it to derive the GDP of Chile, or whether so-and-so fancies you, or even if your bus will show up on time. (For reference, all these calculations are impossible – the universe cannot provide sufficient computing power).
In philosophy, we identify two different classes of fact at work here; experiential facts, which concern how things appear to us, and fundamental facts, which concern how things are in themselves, independently of us.
While variations on this distinction have been a major theme in much of modern philosophy, it's probably Kant who did most with it, in distinguishing between the phenomenal (experiential) and noumenal (fundamental) worlds. His grandest claim was that the truly noumenal is unknowable – because after all, we can only know about scientific fundamenta through experiments that bring them into the experiential realm. Privileging only noumenal facts as true, or truly real, then, is self-defeating; we cannot know anything about that reality.
So we should expect to have to take experiential facts seriously – and indeed we do. Experiential facts are what we use to navigate our way to the shops; to choose what to eat; to cook without burning ourselves. Can you tell I'm hungry as I write this?
The application to video game worlds should be clear by now – they are experiential worlds, on their own terms. It is true that the second '?' block at the start of Super Mario Bros contains a mushroom. That, fundamentally, this truth is sustained by the electrical properties of a handful of tiny pieces of silicon in a cartridge is not relevant to whether you get past the first Goomba (or get mocked for failing to do so).
There is a lot more that could be said on this – my 70,000-word doctoral thesis, for example, is entirely concerned with the nature of experiential worlds and how we should understand the relationship between the world we experience and the world posited by contemporary physics. Many philosophers would prefer to throw out Kant's distinction altogether – many more would defend it (philosophers are like this about everything, by the way). But this serves as a reasonable introduction.
So next time someone tells you video game worlds 'aren't real', ask them what they mean.