Ever since it’s advent in Doom, PvP (Player vs Player) has been an integral part of almost every major video game. This is annoying to PvE (Player vs Environment) fans like myself, especially when PvE mechanics are altered (read: simplified and degraded) for the purpose of accommodating the PvP game play. Even in games which are ostensibly about the story & world, rather than direct player-on-player competition.
The reason for this comes down to simple math. PvE content is expensive to make. An hour of game play can take many dozens, or nowadays even hundreds, of man-hours of labor to produce. And once you’ve completed a PvE game, you’re done with it. There’s nothing else, you’ve reached “The End”, congrats. You can replay it a few times if you really loved it, like re-reading a book, but the content is the same. MMORGs recycle content by forcing you to grind bosses many times before you can move on to the next one, but that’s as fun as the word “grind” makes it sound. At that point people are there more for the social aspect and the occasional high than the core gameplay itself.
PvP “content”, OTOH, generates itself. Other humans keep learning and getting better and improvising new tactics. Every encounter has the potential to be new and exciting, and they always come with the rush of triumphing over another person (or the crush of losing to the same).
But much more to the point – In PvE potentially everyone can make it into the halls of “Finished The Game;” and if everyone is special, no one is. PvP has a very small elite – there can only be one #1 player, and people are always scrabbling for that position, or defending it. PvP harnesses our status-seeking instinct to get us to provide challenges for each other rather than forcing the game developers to develop new challenges for us. It’s far more cost effective, and a single man-hour of labor can produce hundreds or thousands of hours of game play. StarCraft continued to be played at a massive level for 12 years after its release, until it was replaced with StarCraft II.
So if you want to keep people occupied for a looooong time without running out of game-world, focus on PvP
II. Science as PvE
In the distant past (in internet time) I commented at LessWrong that discovering new aspects of reality was exciting and filled me with awe and wonder and the normal “Science is Awesome” applause lights (and yes, I still feel that way). And I sneered at the status-grubbing of politicians and administrators and basically everyone that we in nerd culture disliked in high school. How temporary and near-sighted! How zero-sum (and often negative-sum!), draining resources we could use for actual positive-sum efforts like exploration and research! A pox on their houses!
Someone replied, asking why anyone should care about the minutia of lifeless, non-agenty forces? How could anyone expend so much of their mental efforts on such trivia when there are these complex, elaborate status games one can play instead? Feints and countermoves and gambits and evasions, with hidden score-keeping and persistent reputation effects… and that’s just the first layer! The subtle ballet of interaction is difficult even to watch, and when you get billions of dancers interacting it can be the most exhilarating experience of all.
This was the first time I’d ever been confronted with status-behavior as anything other than wasteful. Of course I rejected it at first, because no one is allowed to win arguments in real time. But it stuck with me. I now see the game play, and it is intricate. It puts Playing At The Next Level in a whole new perspective. It is the constant refinement and challenge and lack of a final completion-condition that is the heart of PvP. Human status games are the PvP of real life.
Which, by extension of the metaphor, makes Scientific Progress the PvE of real life. Which makes sense. It is us versus the environment in the most literal sense. It is content that was provided to us, rather than what we make ourselves. And it is limited – in theory we could some day learn everything that there is to learn.
III. The Best of All Possible Worlds
I’ve mentioned a few times I have difficulty accepting reality as real. Say you were trying to keep a limitless number of humans happy and occupied for an unbounded amount of time. You provide them PvE content to get them started. But you don’t want the PvE content to be their primary focus, both because they’ll eventually run out of it, and also because once they’ve completely cracked it there’s a good chance they’ll realize they’re in a simulation. You know that PvP is a good substitute for PvE for most people, often a superior one, and that PvP can get recursively more complex and intricate without limit and keep the humans endlessly occupied and happy, as long as their neuro-architecture is right. It’d be really great if they happened to evolve in a way that made status-seeking extremely pleasurable for the majority of the species, even if that did mean that the ones losing badly were constantly miserable regardless of their objective well-being. This would mean far, far more lives could be lived and enjoyed without running out of content than would otherwise be possible.
IV. Implications for CEV
It’s said that the Coherent Extrapolated Volition is “our wish if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished to be, hard grown up farther together.” This implies a resolution to many conflicts. No more endless bickering about whether the Red Tribe is racist or the Blue Tribe is arrogant pricks. A more unified way of looking at the world that breaks down those conceptual conflicts. But if PvP play really is an integral part of the human experience, a true CEV would notice that, and would preserve these differences instead. To ensure that we always had rival factions sniping at each other over irreconcilable, fundamental disagreements in how reality should be approached and how problems should be solved. To forever keep partisan politics as part of the human condition, so we have this dance to enjoy. Stripping it out would be akin to removing humanity’s love of music, because dancing inefficiently consumes great amounts of energy just so we can end up where we started.
Carl von Clausewitz famously said “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” The correlate of “Politics is the continuation of war by other means” has already been proposed. It is not unreasonable to speculate that in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war continued by other means. Which, all things considered, is greatly preferable to actual war. As long as people like Scott are around to try to keep things somewhat civil and preventing an escalation into violence, this may not be terrible.