The DeanBeat: Riz Virk interview — Do we live in The Simulated Multiverse?
Information about The DeanBeat: Riz Virk interview — Do we live in The Simulated Multiverse?
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Rizwan “Riz” Virk is a successful entrepreneur, investor, bestselling author, video game industry pioneer, and indie film producer. We’re also not quite sure if he exists, as one of his favorite subjects is discussing whether or not we are all living in a simulation.
You know, like the computer-generated reality that sci-fi author Philip K. Dick posited in the speech that he delivered in Metz, France, in 1977. Or the vision from the film The Matrix. Or the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. That’s why we’ve signed him up as a roundtable moderator at our GamesBeat Summit Next event on November 9-10 and as a speaker at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse 2 event coming on January 26-27.
Virk is about to knock us for a loop with his new book, The Simulated Multiverse, a sequel to The Simulation Hypothesis. In the book, he talks about how the multiverse might work.
“When The Matrix came out in 1999, it was in the realm of science fiction,” said Virk. “With today’s advancements in virtual reality, augmented reality and the metaverse, a simulated universe is not far away.”
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While his existence is debatable, we do know that Virk is a prolific author in the universe where he lives. He loves science fiction but is grounded in science and games. He is the founder of Play Labs @ MIT, a startup accelerator held on campus at the MIT Game Lab. He also runs Bayview Labs and is a venture partner with two VC funds, Ridge Ventures, and Griffin Gaming Partners.
He has invested in companies such as Tapjoy, Telltale Games, Discord, Funzio (sold to Gree), Pocket Gems, Moon Express, Theta Labs, Bitmovio, and many others. His video games have included Tap Fish, Penny Dreadful: Demimonde, and Grimm: Cards of Fate.
Virk has produced many indie films, including Thrive, Sirius, Knights of Badassdom, starring Peter Dinklage and Summer Glau, The CW’s The Outpost, as well as adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Riz’s books include Startup Myths & Models, The Simulation Hypothesis, Zen Entrepreneurship, and Treasure Hunt: Follow Your Inner Clues to Find True Success.
I talked to him about The Simulated Multiverse, which comes out on October 15. It’s basically the intellectual explorations of an MIT computer scientist as he looks into parallel universes, the Simulation Hypothesis, quantum computing, and The Mandela Effect.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What was the first thing that got you thinking about the simulated multiverse, or the metaverse? Which inspired you more? The Matrix, Snow Crash, Ready Player One, or other works of fiction?
Riz Virk: Well originally, it was while playing virtual reality games that I forgot that I was in a VR headset. This got me thinking about the Matrix and how far or close we are to being able to create something that is a fully immersive simulation. This in turn led me to lay out the various stages of technology that we would need to get to the Simulation Point, which got me thinking a lot about Snow Crash and and Ready Player One and an immersive metaverse, which I saw as intermediate stages on the road to full immersion to a matrix-like technology (The Simulation Point, which is a kind of singularity in and of itself).
Finally, it was the work of Philip K. Dick and The Man in the High Castle which really got me thinking about alternate timelines, which then led me to realize that the easiest way to have alternate timelines was in a simulated multiverse.
GamesBeat: Do you have a favorite term, like the metaverse or multiverse?
Virk: On terms, I prefer digital or simulated multiverse, because it gets into this idea of being able to run different simulations, not just one. In the new Matrix trailer, for example, Neo and Trinity don’t remember each other. This means it was probably a new run of the simulation — they rewound it back to point before the first Matrix movie and ran it again to see “what would happen”.
GamesBeat: You took the opportunity to dive into the rabbit hole as much as you could.
Virk: I really did, a couple of times. The simulation hypothesis, I thought I was done with it, but I ended up diving into it again with Simulated Multiverse.
GamesBeat: I saw you had a conversation with Rodney Ascher on A Glitch in the Matrix.
Virk: I did, yeah. My podcast was focused on simulation theory for the first season. I’ll probably do some metaverse stuff now in the second season. But yeah, we had a good conversation. We had slightly different interpretations of Philip K. Dick’s speech. If you saw his documentary, he used that speech a lot as well. In this book I ended up going back and revisiting what Philip K. Dick was saying. There’s the famous quote, that we live in a simulated reality, a computer program reality, back in the ‘70s, but there was a second part of that quote that gets ignored a lot of times. He said that if we changed variables, we would have the impression that we were living the same events again and again, as if we were saying the same things.
I went back and interviewed his wife, Tessa, and found that he was really saying that we live in a universe that is not just a computer program, but that somebody is messing with these variables all the time. It’s resulting in different timelines. His book The Man in the High Castle, which was a recent Amazon series, he claimed that it was a timeline that he remembered actually happening, as opposed to a thing that he just made up. He believed that whoever was running the simulation rewound and then reran it again with different variables to see what it would be like.
That was part of the impetus for writing this new book, looking at this from a science fiction point of view to say, “Could this really be happening? What does science say about it? Is there other evidence of people remembering other timelines and things happening differently?” And from the video game perspective, how would we actually build something like that? Taking a look into that. That’s what the new book is all about.
GamesBeat: One thing that was interesting about Rodney’s film was the whole Matrix defense. I wondered how much you looked at that part of the problem. A lot of this is great fun to theorize about, but there are people who take it too seriously.
Virk: That’s true. I can’t say I looked into it as much as he has. He spent time talking to the guy who shot his parents. As I understand it, the Matrix defense wasn’t necessarily successful in a legal sense. But it was used. I look at the flip side of that, which is that people have been theorizing something like this for a long time. It’s not just a recent phenomenon, this idea that the world around us isn’t the real world. Most major religions have said basically the same thing. Both the western traditions, Christianity and Judaism, as well as eastern religions like Hinduism. They’ve been telling us that the world is Maya, that it’s an illusion, and that somebody is watching and recording it. In the Islamic traditions you have very specific angels whose job it is to record every little thing you do and put it in the scroll of deeds.
You can use the argument, and religions do, that this tells you to behave differently, because most of the morality of the world’s religions comes from this idea that we are being watched and everything we do is important to how things will turn out after this particular run of the game ends. In the eastern traditions you go back, of course. You have another life. But that’s an aspect that I explored pretty thoroughly in the previous book and a bit in this one as well. You can take it in different directions. It doesn’t by itself necessarily mean you’re just going to get crazy people going off. In another way you can say it means you need to take your actions more seriously, because those actions will have repercussions.
GamesBeat: It feels like simulation theory has also broken into the mainstream with things like Marvel’s movies, like Avengers Endgame.
Virk: Yeah, the idea that it’s not just a simulated universe, but that there are multiple timelines. I like to use the point that, as popular culture catches up with science, you start to see a proliferation. Things pass what I call the 10-year-old test. If you go back to the 20th century, the idea that there were other planets, other solar systems, wasn’t that normal. But then everybody became comfortable with it when you had superheroes like Superman. You’d explain that they’re from another planet. Kids found that to be not a problem, even though parents might have thought it was kind of weird at the time.
Now my 10-year-old nephews are talking about a multiverse with superheroes. The superheroes come not just from another planet, but another version of the universe. It’s become very common with things like the Arrowverse and the Flash, and now with Loki, where they actually have diagrams where they’re watching it. That’s similar to what I talk about in this book, the idea that you have these branching timelines going in different directions. The public is becoming more comfortable with this idea of the quantum multiverse, which is where the science comes from, all from quantum mechanics. You have the idea that every time we make a decision, it spawns off another parallel timeline or parallel universe.
When I looked into it even more, it turns out that it’s not just about possible parallel futures. There’s something called a delayed choice experiment. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one. The best way to explain it, consider a distant quasar that’s, say, a billion light-years away. Suppose light is coming to us from there and there’s a black hole or galaxy, some gravitationally large object, in between. Let’s say that’s only a million light-years away from us. The light has to go to the left or to the right. It has to make a choice. We can measure whether particular photons went this way or that.
What the delayed choice experiment tells us is that even though the choice had to be made a million years ago when that light went to the left or right of that galaxy or black hole, it’s not until we measure it now that the choice is actually made. Now we’re saying there are actually multiple possible paths in addition to possible futures. Even Schrodinger, who didn’t like the idea of the collapse of probability waves, he called them multiple simultaneous histories. That was back in the ‘40s, even before Hugh Everett came up with the many worlds theory, which was in the ‘60s.
This idea was very intriguing to me. It said that physics–the simulation hypothesis is telling us that space isn’t what we think it is. It’s actually pixels. Then quantum mechanics is telling us that time isn’t what we think it is. The past and the future are very different. If you put this all together, how do you bring this together? It turns out that computer games and this idea that we have a game state that has all the bits in the world encapsulated into it, that’s a good way to think about the present moment in time. It’s just a series of bits that are being rendered. What we call these possible futures are different changes to those bits.
Moving forward and then moving past, when we say there are multiple pasts, they’re all like different nodes in the graph. I call that the multiverse graph, which is a new model based on a bunch of stuff that’s out there that I introduced in this book. That way you can think of nodes of game states as all the possible places that you could end up in your game. Kind of like the old adventure games, like a Zork, where you have a little map of the rooms. This is every place I can go. I can go north or south and get there. If you think of that on a big scale–let’s say there’s 10 to the 80th power particles in the universe or whatever the number is. You have that many bits. Each game state is a variation of those bits. You have a whole bunch of nodes, and what we call time is how we go through those nodes.
From the point of view of video games, it’s just like running, saving a game state, and rerunning that game again to see what would happen. You’re running simulations to see what might happen within that. That’s one of the models that we came up with here.
GamesBeat: What are some of the terms that you use here, like the Mandela Effect?
Virk: The Mandela Effect is this weird effect where some people, a subset of people, remember Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the ‘80s or early ‘90s. Of course that didn’t happen in our timeline. He got out of prison, went and became president of South Africa, and then he died in 2013. So many people remembered things like this. It turns out that wasn’t the only one. A number of people remember the tank guy in Tiananmen Square being killed. They remember talking about it with people. But in our reality that didn’t happen. The tank didn’t actually run him over.
It turns out there’s a whole bunch of these events. Some of them are small, like the spelling of Jiffy peanut butter. There’s no such thing. There’s only Jif. Logos get a lot of attention, or the Berenstain Bears versus the Bernstein Bears. There’s a lot of that online, and scientists tend to dismiss it, as I did originally when I first heard about it. It’s just faulty memory, right? But when you get into bigger things, events that people remember having conversations about, like Jewish families asking why these bears are Jewish because it’s spelled “-stein,” but it turns out it’s not spelled that, so why didn’t an adult correct them to say it’s not spelled in a Jewish way? Or a woman who remembers going to see Nelson Mandela in prison, but finding she couldn’t because he was ill, and then she came back and he’d died a few weeks later. It’s what I call proximity.
Anyway, the Mandela Effect by itself, many scientists don’t believe in it, but I said in this book, “Well, what if they’re actually remembering, like Philip K. Dick said, these alternate timelines?” What if they’re remembering a slightly different path through this multiverse? Then I found out that quantum physics doesn’t disallow that. It allows this idea of remembering different pasts, and then you get entangled within groups and you create new timelines. That’s why the Mandela Effect was included, because it’s a fun, colorful way to talk about this idea of multiple pasts in addition to multiple futures.
The other one is quantum computing. There was a scientist at Oxford named David Deutsch. Before they had physical quantum computers, he had this idea that quantum computers could break modern cryptography, RSA cryptography or SHA-256. The question is, how could that happen? You would need to do more calculations than there are atoms in the universe. But there’s an algorithm called Shor’s Algorithm that can do it pretty quickly. He theorized that what was happening was you were actually using the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. You take your qubits, you give them all the possible values, zero and one, and each of those is a different universe. They all compute simultaneously and you figure out the one you want.
That’s one way to think about quantum computing, which is the multiverse way. It’s one that’s a legitimate interpretation. But what happens to those other universes when you’re computing? It turns out that if you’re doing a computation, you run your code and you discard those. They end up in a garbage collection. What if that is what’s happening with time itself? What if we’re trying out different possible paths, and then we figure out the ones that are the most optimal? Kind of like a game would, or an AI would. We’re using this mechanism and then when we come back, what if there’s little glitches? You come back to the glitch in the Matrix. Some people are remembering some of those possible paths while other people are remembering other possible paths.
You can define quantum computing almost as a kind of search. I came up with the second term for this book, which I call the core loop. It’s operating on the multiverse graph. You can tell I’m a computer scientist from that. I think in terms of depth-first searches or breadth-first searches of a series of nodes. What if, just like an AI does in a game, we’re saying, what are the possible paths we can take from here? Then we try those out and play the game to that point. We save the results and come back and move forward. That’s how I came up with that idea and why I included quantum computing, because it’s fundamental.
There was a famous scientist in the 20th century named John Wheeler. You’ve probably heard of him. He was one of the last to work with Einstein and Bohr and all these giants of physics. He said that in his lifetime, physics went through three stages. First they thought everything was a particle, a solid object. Then they thought everything was a field, like an electromagnetic field. But by the ‘70s or ‘80s, he said he came to realize that everything is actually information. The more you look for this thing called matter, the more you can’t find it. He said that what we think of as particles are just one/zero choices at a fundamental level. “It from bit” was his famous phrase. Everything that’s an “it,” you can’t find it if you keep going smaller. You’re just going to keep finding zeroes and ones of information at the bottom level.
This other scientist from Oxford that I mentioned, David Deutsch, changed it to “it from qubit.” Everything we know of is a qubit. It’s a bit that can take on either value. It’s in a state of what they call superposition. That all tied into how quantum computation ties into the simulation hypothesis and this idea of the multiverse. It’s kind of like the Matrix and the Marvel multiverse combined using a quantum computing system. That’s the rabbit hole that I got into with this book.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like American politics is starting to become this example of the Mandela Effect, where people just remember different things happening? January 6 and all that.
Virk: Yeah! I’m starting to feel that. There’s a whole group of people who think that 2016, when Trump won, was an alternate timeline somehow created by CERN, and we were supposed to go down one timeline, but for whatever reason we didn’t. Now that’s led to this kind of thing. Those are what I’d consider softer Mandela effects, where people remember things in a different way, or interpret them in a different way might be the thing. They try to use that history.
We talk about historiography, which is how history is recorded and written. You see different interpretations. People are kind of different worlds when they talk about it, which is interesting to me. That hits on this idea of the soft simulation or the soft Mandela effect, which is not so much about something hard, like Mandela dying or not. But what actually happened? It gets to the fact that maybe our history isn’t quite what we think it is. Suppose they had the same debates about interpreting major events in the past. There were people who interpreted it completely differently. That’s interesting.
GamesBeat: In this research, have you found that this is more like great science fiction, or that computer science has a lot of interesting things to say about it?
Virk: It’s actually both. I like to define the work that I do as at the boundary of science fiction and science in two strands — quantum physics, but also my area of expertise, computer science. Computer science has a lot to say about the universe. The famous quote from Andreessen where he said software is eating the world. I like to say computer science is eating the other sciences. If you look at biology now, genetics really is almost a computational problem. There’s a whole field now called computational biology. If you look at physics, there’s a big emerging way of doing physics called digital physics. Instead of talking about the conservation of energy, you talk about the conservation of information. That was the whole black hole paradox with Stephen Hawking.
I feel like computer science is finding a different way to look at this. There are people like Stephen Wolfram, who created the Mathematica software and believes we can derive everything from general relativity to quantum mechanics from this idea of cellular automata and nodes in a graph. Which is similar to what I talk about. I mention him as well. Computer science and information science in general have a lot to say about the world and how it’s constructed.
GamesBeat: It does get into interesting things like biology, too. How your brain shows you what you’re seeing and how that is an interpretation of reality, as opposed to showing you exact reality.
Virk: That’s right. If you remember the scene in the Matrix where Neo takes the red pill, he and Morpheus, who’s named after the Greek god of dreams, are in that little room with the chair saying, “What is real? Everything is an electrical signal that’s going into your brain.” Neuroscience is finding that as well, that what we perceive may not be accurate reality. There’s a gentleman named Donald Hoffman at UC Irvine who wrote a book called “The Case Against Reality.” He likes to use the idea of a file folder on your computer desktop. There’s no such thing as a file folder on your desktop. Those are just bits. But they’re being rendered in that way to make it more convenient as an interface. If we were just to see bits on our screen, that wouldn’t help.
This goes back to Descartes, the idea where I said, “If I’m dreaming, or there’s an evil demon trying to deceive me, I can’t be sure that what I’m sensing is real. The only thing I know is that I think, therefore I am.” The origin of that famous phrase is related to this idea that reality isn’t what we think it is, but it’s a series of signals. If you think about it, if you and I are talking to each other, we’re not really talking to each other right now. You’re being rendered on my screen. I’m rendered on yours. Somewhere there’s an exchange of bits.
That’s a better model to think about, that each of us has a “computer” in which we’re getting the data of reality, and other people are getting that data, and there’s a consensus there. In a video game I can draw a little fork behind you on my screen and you wouldn’t see it. It’s being rendered separately. There’s different ways to render different aspects of reality. But the underlying system is responsible for coordinating between those so that if I’m attacking you in a fighting game. It tries to get the order correct and ensure consistency, even though that’s hard to do across what many players are doing.
GamesBeat: I’m curious how you see a lot of this intersecting with things like technology products. I remembered one of the Facebook events where Mike Abrash, the scientist at Oculus, was talking about how we perceive things and how we see things and how the brain interprets vision and all that. That was all part of his talk that was ostensibly about VR products. It was at a tech product event where he was talking about our version of reality.
Virk: There’s a lot of overlap. I got down this rabbit hole because back in 2016, I was playing a virtual ping-pong game. I think it was on the HTC Vive. It was at a startup in Marin County. It was after I had sold my last game company. I started to play ping-pong and I forgot that I was inside a VR game. It was so realistic that at the end of the game, I tried to put the paddle down on the table. Of course there was no table, so the controller fell on the floor. I instinctively tried to lean against the table and I almost fell over.
That’s when it hit me. It was the response. It wasn’t the graphics. This was 2016. The graphics weren’t that great. But it was the responsiveness, the way in which it felt like the paddle was hitting a real ball. The physics engine was so good. That’s when I started to speculate, what are the stages of technology we would need to develop to get to what I call the simulation point, which would be the point at which our games and our technology in VR and AR are indistinguishable from physical reality.
I defined 10 stages, and we’re at about stage four. We have basic VR and AR. Then you get to more photorealistic VR and AR. You get to this idea of BCIs, or brain-computer interfaces, which send signals directly into the brain. We haven’t gotten very far on that, but we’ve gotten pretty good at reading signals from the brain now, at least in the lab. Some of those products are starting to come out, but there aren’t too many. As you go down this path, we get to that point, and so the more we interface between the virtual and the real world, the more we learn about how the brain perceives things, the closer we get to this theoretical point. It’s a kind of singularity in and of itself.
If you think of Ready Player One, which had the VR glasses, the Oasis, and everyone did everything in the Oasis, which is one of the references for the metaverse right now, education and so on–he came out with that book in 2010. Oculus–when did Facebook buy Oculus? It was a few years later. 2013 or 2014. But within a couple of years there were VR headsets that were almost as good. Not quite as good as what they had in that. He realized that the technology was catching up to the science fiction. So in his second book, Ready Player Two, which came out last year, he jumps ahead to give you this brain-computer interface where you just put the thing on your head and everything happens that way. We’re thinking that’s not going to happen for a while, right? Ready Player One was set in 2045 and we’re already there in terms of VR technology. It just hasn’t caught on as much.
But he jumped ahead with these brain-computer interfaces, and he raises an interesting point. If we’re able to experience things and they feel real inside this virtual reality, to the point that you can trigger emotions or replay the thrill of skydiving or eating curry in Bombay, would you bother to do those things anymore, or would you stay home and just put on these brain-computer interfaces to have all the experiences you want? Especially if they felt real. This goes back to Philip K. Dick and Total Recall, which was all about false memories. You don’t need to go on vacation because you can just remember one. The original title of that short story was “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”
There’s an intersection of all this, and there’s a lot of talk about the singularity, but this idea of reaching that simulation point may actually be something that’s a little more realistic in the next few decades. This brings us back to why simulation theory has gotten so popular. Nick Bostrom from Oxford made the argument that if any civilization anywhere ever gets to this point, they’ll make lots of simulations. This is what Elon Musk was referring to when he talked about the chance that we live in base reality is one in billions. Foster made the argument that there are a lot more simulated worlds than physical, as long as one civilization can get there.
My starting point with both of these projects was, how long will it take us to get there? I don’t think it’s going to take us that long to get there, personally. I think a few more decades. Maybe even if it’s 100 years. His point was that if anybody ever gets there in the history of the universe, then we’re more likely to be in a simulation than not in a simulation, because they’ve made lots of simulations. There are lots more simulated beings than biological ones. You and I are beings. What’s the ratio that we’re more likely to be simulated versus biological?
Bostrom was talking about NPCs. I like to make the argument that there’s the NPC version of the simulation, and then there’s the RPG version, where we’re playing characters. That’s more like what the eastern religions tell us. You play a character coming into this life. You die. You go back and review what happened. You choose another character and you go back in. They’re not mutually exclusive. You can have NPCs and player characters in a game. That happens all the time with multiplayer games. But that’s a good way of thinking about different perspectives on the simulation hypothesis.
GamesBeat: As far as where you see this conversation happening right now, is there something that you can then predict where it’s going to have actual influence in our future?
Virk: Obviously in the technology sphere these conversations are happening more. In the philosophy sphere they’re happening more. Within the tech world as we get more and more realism, as people spend more time online, as these ideas of the metaverse come into play where we start to blend the digital and real worlds to a point where we can’t always tell the difference, and we ascribe as much value to digital items as we do to physical items–that’s happening with NFTs and avatars and fashion. As the technology reaches the next few stages of the road to the simulation point, so does the economy become more and more virtual. That’s one big area of influence.
In the science world there’s still primarily a materialistic view of where things are, but there are people starting to chip away at that. This could be a bridge between science and religion. If you think about it, since the time of Galileo there’s been this big split. Science is where you’re going to learn the truth and religion is not. It’s just about belief systems. Now, what I’m saying is that this conversation gives us a way to bridge that gap that seems to get wider and wider. Perhaps what they’re saying isn’t so crazy. It could potentially be proven in the sense that we live inside some type of a video game-like reality. We just didn’t have the right metaphors in the past. That’s another area where this could have some kind of an impact.
GamesBeat: I wonder if the metaverse is related here in that–you talk about how some other being might be controlling us in this simulation, resetting it and things like that. The metaverse seems to be something that we control. We’re going to set the rules for it. It’s going to be a place where we know what’s our own creation, and then we let people loose in it.
Virk: That hits at the heart of these two different versions of simulation theory that I’m talking about. There’s the NPC version, where we’re all like the Sims and you just have a bunch of people that you’re watching, versus playing characters within the game. The metaverse is us creating these spaces where we’re able to go in and play, but we create things that will exist in that metaverse outside us, independent of whether we’re playing at that moment in time or not. Other people will be able to go in and it’s already there, like all these different environments in Roblox. There’s an element of that.
When I say there are these beings controlling the simulation, I’m not necessarily saying those beings aren’t us. We may have voluntarily chosen to be here and to play this particular game. Some of us may have been involved in creating it as well, crafting our characters in the way that we do with Dungeons and Dragons or another role-playing game. This is my character. Dean Takahashi is going to be a writer. He’s going to be interested in video games. Somebody else is going to be a newscaster who’s interested in art.
Whatever the case may be, I feel like we all have these tendencies and proclivities that are part of our personalities, and who’s to say they aren’t our characters? I tend not to be a particularly athletic guy. Even if I decide I want to play basketball, I’m probably not going to make it to the NBA. If you remember in Westworld, for the AI he could turn up the intelligence and change the different characteristics of each AI. If maybe we hadn’t chosen some of those things–maybe that helps define our interests as far as what we might want to pursue and where we spend the 10,000 hours to become an expert or whatever the case.
There’s an element of that in the metaverse, that we’re creating this simulated shared reality, which can be explored by multiple people. At some point there will be NPCs let loose within this. There already are if you think of guild taverns and the bartender there, places like that. But they’re not very sophisticated yet, those NPCs. That’s an area that could be interesting in the future, the idea of virtual humans. You’ve probably heard of kuki_AI and some of these other ones where they’re bringing–we know we can generate realistic-looking humans now, or pretty much, but the AI hasn’t been married to that yet to make them autonomous in that way. I think that will get there as well. There will be these different autonomous agents.
Then there’s Nvidia’s term for the metaverse for engineers, the Omniverse. They’re trying to use it to simulate what realistic physics might look like if people were collaborating and able to build and try things out. Why do we run simulations? People always ask me why we would be in a simulation in the first place. Well, think about it. There’s two or three reasons. One is enjoyment. Video games. I try to have experiences that I can’t have outside the game. The second is, we want to figure out the most likely or optimal scenarios and test things out.
GamesBeat: Practice, yeah.
Virk: That’s exactly what they’re doing with the Omniverse. I’m saying we might be doing that with this reality, because that’s where the multiple timelines come in. We’ll run a simulation to figure out what the weather will be like. I mentioned Stephan Wolfram earlier. He defined this concept of computational irreducibility. What that means is you can’t just figure out through a shortcut what’s going to happen at step number 2,000,001. You have to run the first 2 million steps in the computation, and then you’ll figure out what happens at the next one and the one after that.
That’s the whole point of running simulations. There are certain processes where you can change variables, and then all of chaos theory is based on that. It’s sensitivity to initial conditions. You change the conditions, run the equations again and again in a whole bunch of steps, and see what happens in the end. That may be what we’re talking about here. We want to see what will happen. Then maybe the reality where the Japanese and the Germans won World War II is not such a great reality, so for whatever reason we put that timeline on hold and went back to run this one. That, I find, is a fun science fiction way to talk about it. But the underlying point is to be able to run simulations and give people, in some cases, some choices among the randomness and see what results we might get from that.
GamesBeat: While it’s fascinating, I wonder if we’re presenting people with another new dystopia. I don’t know if you read the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, but there’s a lot of this in it. At the close of one scene a character says, “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.” And then he allows himself to fall to his death. He doesn’t care as much about this particular life in this particular world. We can lose sight of the fact that–maybe we don’t care so much about the real world because they can live so many other ways. It doesn’t sound so much like a good thing. It sounds a bit more dystopian.
Virk: Well, you can view it as dystopian. That’s one interpretation of it. But at the same time, like I said, in a sense many religions have been telling us this as well, and they use it as a force in the other direction.
GamesBeat: It could be viewed as escapism. You can escape from this world if this world is really too difficult for you.
Virk: Right. You could say that. But then you could also say that you’re going to have to run it again, because that challenge, that quest, you’re going to have to go back and do it again, so you might as well try to do it as best you can, because you’re not going to get around it. That’s the other analogy I use. There are achievements and quests that maybe we’ve chosen for ourselves. We can say that this is something we don’t want to do right now, but we’re going to have to deal with it anyway. Perhaps the way we’re being measured is not about how easy or difficult it is.
Honestly, this is another way to look at it, which I think is less dystopian. Sometimes things happen to us in this life that are not great. Health problems. You’re like, “This sucks.” But what if I chose to go through that, that quest, and the way I’m being measured is how I get through it? If I’m able to deal with the difficulty. Perhaps the scorekeeping here is not driving the best car or whatever way you want to look at it. The scorekeeping is how you deal with it.
You’re right. This can be a form of escapism. But it can also be a way to say that there’s no point in ending it, because you’re going to have to do it again. You might as well try to fulfill the quests or missions that you have chosen and that you were sent here to do. It’s a different way to look at it. But I agree, there is an element like that, and some people can interpret it that way. I choose to interpret it the other way, that maybe the difficulties we face are challenges that we signed up for. It’s another way to look at it.
GamesBeat: If you distill some of the things you’ve learned by diving so deep, what do you come out with as what you think the best metaverse product would be, or the best approach when it comes to things like the ethics of the metaverse? How should we behave in creating these products?
Virk: As we create the metaverse, we might need to think about the values that we’re putting into this and how those measurements are done. There are implicit values that are put into every game. The metaverse is not a single game. It’s meant to be much more than that. But environments within the metaverse will have specific purposes. That’s kind of important. Is the metaverse a place that we go to have experiences that we can’t have in real life? Or is it a way to enhance what we’re doing in the real world? Is it more linked to digital objects that are not in one 3D environment?
I tend to think one reason the metaverse is getting so much attention now is not just–well, one reason is because so many kids are used to spending all their time online. With the next generation, spending time in a 3D environment is not a big deal. That’s kind of what you do. But two, I also think we’re pulling away from this idea that it has to be like Second Life. It has to be one kind of 3D environment. Instead, you’re getting cross-game avatars. You’re creating a digital identity that you might use in different places. We’re pulling it out of the fact that it has to be just one 3D world.
That’s where I think NFTs and digital assets are actually quite interesting, because they let you port and use that digital asset in different places, and you can still claim ownership of it. Coming out of the game world, where free-to-play was my thing — mobile free-to-play was where I spent a lot of my time — it was interesting to see whether people would pay for virtual goods. You remember this. We weren’t sure people were going to pay for little virtual things inside games. It turns out that’s taken over the industry. But then a lot of those same people in the game industry, two years or 18 months ago, were still saying, “People don’t need ownership. They don’t need to resell things. It’s more efficient to just put it on the server for our game.” And now that’s not the case. If you look at what’s happened with these digital assets, people do want to be able to own them and retain them and be able to sell them to other people or use them as collectible items.
We’re getting this idea of a digital metaverse that may not be about 3D environments at all, even though that’s kind of what people are used to thinking about. It’s about these digital assets being used on the web and in physical places, transacting with real currency. That’s interesting to me as well. It’s all digital in the end. What I’ve come to is that it’s all digital in the end. So is money if you think about it. My money or your money in a bank account, there’s no physical money there. It’s just bits anyway.
GamesBeat: We’re getting to that understanding with things like crypto.
Virk: Yeah, we’re getting to that. What is it based on? It’s based on mutual trust or a trustless way. Either you have somebody enforcing the value of the currency, but really it’s about people accepting that as a medium of exchange and using it. That’s why I think crypto is finally starting to move beyond just tech circles. That’s really where it’s been for the last decade, in the tech world. But in gaming, gaming mechanics are helping drive that. And even in 3D worlds. Five years from now most virtual environments with digital assets will let you port those assets in some way, shape, or form. It may just be a picture, an asset you can render on the web somewhere. That’s one thing.
But that’s eventually what will lead to the metaverse, this idea that these assets are based on standards, as are avatars. You’ve probably talked to Wolf3D, the company that’s trying to create these avatars. They just announced with Warner Bros. that they’re doing them for the new Dune movie. You create these Dune avatars. Between goods and avatars and clothes, eventually you get to this idea of virtual land. Right now virtual land is still stuck very much between each game, but that’ll become interesting. We’ll start to think of the whole world as a digital playground, really, the physical world and the digital world.
GamesBeat: And when does the book come out?
Virk: Next month. October 15.
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