In Search of the Grail

by rthieme on May 18, 1995

In Search of the Grail

Originally published in Wired

For Moses, it was a burning bush. For Buddha, it happened under the bo tree. For me, it was playing a game of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with my son.

As we threaded our way past babel fish and Vogon poetry readings, I discovered that what happens when we play a game of interactive fiction is not what happens when we read a book. The difference is not of degree but of kind. Information is organized differently — but more importantly, after the game, I am organized differently. I experience myself differently. I frame things differently.

The maze of branching possibilities offered by a computer game creates the illusion of an endless set of options. As I explore, my experience of that maze becomes a metaphor for self-experience. Recursion, the powerful engine of the computer program, becomes a metaphor for my own growth as well. My capacity to include and transcend myself at each stage of growth finds an analog in the game: I no longer think of life as an open book but as a fractal, a spiral rather than a straight line. Linear printed text implies a logical progression. In contrast, interactive computer games create a space seemingly without horizons, finite but unbounded.

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What I experienced in a small way while playing with my son is a shift in our entire culture. Our transition from a print culture to a digital one is as profound a shift in human consciousness as that created by the move from oral culture to written, or written to printed. Our interaction with computers has given birth to new forms of religious community.

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The interactive quest, a symbolic journey in search of a holy grail, is the dominant genre in cyberspace. Archetypal symbols of good and evil frame the quest. Whether in a single-player game like Myst or a MUD, this quest begins when we cross the threshold from this world into the magical realm of our inner growth; we leave behind the world of rational logic and enter the underworld, with its shadows, caverns, and mazes. In this underground world, we speak in riddles and puzzles, the language of dreams and the unconscious. We change shapes, undergo transformations. The quest in all of its forms is a spiritual journey framed by archetypal symbols of both good and evil.

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Marianne Moore wrote that poems are imaginary gardens with real toads in them. The Net is an imaginary web providing real connection with real people, in a remarkably new way. On the Net, the absence of visual cues for race, gender, disability, and age enables us to create personae that simultaneously hide and disclose who we are, making community on the Net remarkably inclusive. By disarming the usual cues that trigger exclusion, the Net becomes a come-as-you-are party, a cultural feast to which everyone is invited.

The Net is one source of the mutuality, feedback and accountability that we need to counteract the rigidity and isolation of modern life. We will need that feedback and mutuality even more as our planet continues to evolve. Our galaxy contains countless civilizations which will one day make the racial diversity on earth look like bland homogeneity. The Net is a step in the right direction; it’s one way to learn how to live in relationship to the unthinkable complexity and diversity that will characterize future communities.

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