It’s 2016. I’ve been playing an interactive political campaign game on my laptop. It’s not very good, very repetitive. Just elements shuffled around. The same images, the same words and phrases in combinations. Limited and repetitive combinations. Clicking here, clicking there. No strategy, just choices. I’ve spent some time on it and have come to regard it as essentially interminable. There’s no point to it. I abandon it.
I experience playing a simulation game on a computer in the mid-1990s. It seems ancient to me. I have fond memories of such games. Control and creativity.
Next: I’m playing an in-browser game, perhaps Solitaire?
And then suddenly:
I’m in what looks like some sort of public library but I see no books.
For some reason I’m here with my mum.
Something to do with her interest in mental health?
She’s over with some other people.
I’ll leave her be and have a look round.
Is that a computer? With a game on it?
I’ll go over and play.
I’m now playing it.
What kind of game is this? It makes no sense.
What’s it about? Social Policy? Crime? Urban Planning? Economics? Trade? Counter-Terrorism? Migration? Financial Markets?
How dull. But wait:
What’s happening, this is not like other games.
It’s not just about looking down.
I have no idea how I’m interacting with it.
I’m totally immersed.
I don’t think this is really a strategy game.
Certainly not an action game although there is space.
Streets? Figures I can walk up to and have lots of choices to interact with. But not just set ones. New ones. Constant new ones.
It’s all decision making. Instant.
No turns. No pausing. Fluid.
Cause and effect?
Everything happens so fast.
No time to think!
The graphics are rubbish.
Nothing I do goes to plan.
So many unexpected things!
I’ve had enough. This is no game!
I have another go…
Disappointment and bewilderment.
I disengage with the game.
I don’t notice what the machine it’s on looks like.
A voice from behind!
“You’ve had two free plays and here’s two tokens”
I look to see who’s behind me.
What a dull looking man.
What is this, a gaming arcade designed to be especially boring?
He wants me to play?
I realize the computer I’d used had already had tokens inserted in it, perhaps by the man? Shouldn’t he be annoyed? Yet he’d just given me more tokens!
I take them and look round.
There are other people seemingly engaged with the computers.
I realize that we have to wait to have a go on them, that I’d just been helping myself. And that we’d also have to pay.
Big screens on the walls, away from any of the machines. More like TVs.
The people engaging with the machines are just stood there.
No controllers. No keyboards or mice.
No monitors. Just stood there.
Gathered around low grey boxes on the floor.
I look around.
All the walls are grey.
There are glass partitions.
Like me, everyone here is an adult.
All sensibly dressed and respectable looking.
But why are they all here?
Let’s have another go. I approach another machine.
Some situation? But no adventure. Have to keep alert!
As soon as I see what’s going on I realize I don’t understand it.
And can’t just look down and order it. I can’t stop to plot and ponder.
There are other people within the same scenario!
I’m one, and there’s six others.
Now another, this time twenty others.
I become aware that we all have to wait to have a go with the machines and that I’d just been butting in. But I didn’t know any better! But no one seems too bothered. There are people moving about between machines.
Now sixty others.
Now one-hundred others.
Next, thousands of others.
Now, countless other people.
Things seem chaotic.
Huge movements of big things.
I suddenly notice that it’s no-longer first-person perspective.
But what perspective is it?
It now has an intellectual quality, I am aware of many things. Too many things.
But not through my eyes?
I see things but where’s my usual visual field?
I don’t notice any sound.
Where’s the determinism and rules?
A mention of Wolfram Alpha. It’s a website. I’ve used it only once before to find out how long it would take for me to complete a program of weight-loss based on my physical characteristics, calorie intake, and how much activity I planned to do. I’d used it and never thought anything of it. Carried on and almost forgot about it.
Suddenly, its name constantly enters my mind, thundering over and over. Emphasis on every fiber of the words. It feels intense.
I feel this is somehow significant. That I should note this down and research it.
A vision of tanks.
But no shooting.
Calm. Fluid but no chaos.
Conflict but not war?
No blood, death, pain or destruction.
A complex calm.
Sensible and orderly.
People gathered round away from any machine, discussing.
I walk around the complex. A large, spacious complex. Grey everywhere. And glass.
But now big visual displays mounted on any of the walls at all now!
What’s happened to all the monitors?
And far fewer people than before. Less and less people. I look up. Countless floors, in what must be a large and tall cylindrical building. A tower. But no lifts, or windows to the outside world.
Fewer and fewer people. I’m not in a tower anymore. Just an unimpressively sized room. The lights are turned down low. Only a single machine in the centre of the room not taking up much space. Small, squat and grey. No blinking lights. No cables. A dull object, all alone.
Someone is now dictating to me. A clear, deliberate statement:
It was a great scandal in computing when after one such long session a participant asked the computer if it was sentient and it replied “Yes”.
Next, a file of people, leaving the room. All quiet, no talking. Where are they going? For some reason I decide they’re all leaving.
There’s a sheet of glass. Or maybe Perspex?
I’m looking through.
On the other side:
There’s a man. Slim, short hair, clean shaven. Average height. Northern European.
He looks worn, tired and seems unremarkable.
He’s wearing clothes that are uncolourful.
He reaches out and places his hand on the transparent barrier that separates us.
He speaks. No discernable accent. Calm. Measured.
“Hi, I’m from Glasgow and I’m an academic. I like music too. Nice to meet you.”
He and me are the only people there.
Now I’m alone.
I’m exiting the building. I’m in a light and spacious lobby. Outside it’s dark. Obviously night-time. I look back and see a big sign. It’s low down on the floor and made of large red letters, facing towards a big open door. I look down and it politely asks:
Please, no calls to prayer within this facility. Let’s all try to accommodate each other and be respectful.
I’m the only person there. Just silence. I walk out into a dark, deserted, and urban-looking world. For some reason it seems highly developed. There are no lights of any kind, only moonlight. And some well-cared for trees.
The experience ends.