Virtual Gods: from war reporting to science fiction

November 07, 2014


In 2004, I was an embedded reporter with the US Marines as they fought their way into Fallujah. The town had fallen under control of a violent coalition of tribal insurgents, criminals and Al Qaeda jihadists, and the fighting was the most intense the Marines had faced since Hue in Vietnam, back in 1968.


On my first day there, I visited a field hospital at the Marines base. I came across a group of young Marines who had been wounded when a suicide bomber blew up his car right next to their truck. Several of their comrades had died.


They were intently playing a shoot 'em up game on a console someone had brought in. This was normal enough in Iraq – Vietnam had drugs and hookers and Saigon, Iraq had bootleg DVDs, Internet porn and dusty bases in the desert. It wasn't a glam war made for movies. I was curious to see these men were fighting a virtual battle in a landscape that looked exactly like the world outside Camp Fallujah. At the time, game designers were developing scenarios that resembled the actual environments US troops were fighting in, and many US troops, being avid gamers, straddled both worlds, the real and the virtual. These Marines were on a mission in a bombed-out town that looked just like Fallujah, an ugly city that looks like it solidified out of a dust storm.


It struck me this was a sort of therapy for them: they could recreate the battle that cost the lives of their friends, only this time, if they got blown up, they could press the “start again” button and keep going until they accomplished their mission and the bad guys were all dead.


And this was the point where the games of American troops and they beliefs of the jihadists they were fighting oddly merged. Because for the jihadists, a belief in a virtual world where everything was set right after death was what led so many young men to blow themselves to pieces, to die fighting the infidel invader and be grateful for it. It made for a dangerous enemy.


Just a few weeks earlier, I had attended a huge religious festival in Karbala, where more than a million Shia pilgrims had gathered to celebrate their newfound freedom. They scourged their bare backs with whips and beat their foreheads with swords until they bled, all to commemorate the martyrdom of a Imam Hussein, a Shia hero, slain on the site 1400 years before. Yet in that crowd were a dozen Sunni suicide bombers, who blew themselves up and scythed down scores of pilgrims: as I ran through the panicking crowds, flinching at the booms, I passed lakes of blood, piles of entrails and severed heads lolling in front of destroyed kebab stores. A few hours later, I interviewed a young sheikh who had lost his cousin to the carnage. I offered my condolences.


Don't be sorry,” he said with a smile. “My cousin died in the holy city on the holiest day. He is a martyr. He is dining tonight with Imam Hussein tonight. I am jealous.”


In his fascinating book Infinite Reality, Jeremy Bailenson, one of the world's foremost experts on virtual reality, argues that virtual reality is not actually a new phenomenon: it has always existed in the form of the heavens and hells created by people and elaborated over generations into entire worlds governed by their own laws and infrastructures. These very real imaginary places have had a massive impact on all of use here on Earth, from the wars still being fought over religious differences to the belief systems that shaped our cultures.


Sometimes, they have a very direct impact: when the conquistador Hernan Cortes and his Spaniards were fighting their way into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – now known as Mexico City – in 1521, they could see their captured comrades being dragged straight from the battlefield to nearby pyramids, where their still-beating hearts were cut out by priests with obsidian blades. The Aztecs had even built their own model of hell below the pyramids into which to toss their enemies' bodies – a sort of underworld theme park made up of pits filled with vipers and vultures and spiders, so they could see their foes being feasted upon by 'demons' in the miserable afterworld.


While covering Iraq for almost a decade and becoming more and more obsessed with the history of gods, heaven and hell, I started to ask myself what would happen if the jihadists's vision and the Marines' virtual world did actually blend, if there was a way to create an afterlife in a new, virtual environment?

What if the people sitting right now at computers and consoles around the world, living out adventures through on-screen avatars, were actually like those fish hundreds of millions of years ago as they looked out of the prehistoric oceans at a new and empty land free of predators, and then hauled themselves up on to the rocks. Sure, lots of them died, as pioneers always do: but slowly they adapted and colonized this strange new environment. What if we could do it too?


That was the genesis of my new book Cronix, borne out of the battlegrounds of holy wars, modern science and gaming: it tells the story of an experiment to outwit the terrors of evolution and the dictatorship of our genes, which make us fight and kill, breed and die, in unimaginable numbers. Could we outwit evolution? And what if evolution continued in this afterlife? What gods and monsters might it spawn in the unfettered world of uploaded human unconscious?


Because we have already done this once before, in rather similar circumstances. On the plains of Africa, millions of years ago, apes were driven from the trees and into dangerous new world of the grasslands by global warming. Surrounded by predators, they started to walk upright to see over the grass, freeing up their hands for the use of tools.


Tool-use favored the survival of those hominids with larger brains. Larger brains allowed for more complex social interactions in ever-growing societies, until groups of hominids became far too complex for the traditional grunting and grooming interaction that had led these ape-men out of the trees in the first place.


How do you navigate a large group of advanced-intelligence potential rivals in a highly complex social environment, while living on a savannah that is filled with dangerous animals that want to eat you?


The answer was for the enlarged hominid brain to create a new, virtual environment: the human mind. Think of the ego, the conscious mind, as a sort of avatar that allowed all these newly evolved, sentient hominids to find their way through the complex virtual world of a shared culture: to interact with each other, read facial expressions, create rules and hunt in packs and not kill each other, at least not too often. They had to remember taboos and danger areas and relationships and loyalties and hundreds of other interconnections within the group. Gradually, this new environment of the mind became a solid reality, the auto-pilot became the self, what we identify today as ‘us’.


Put simply, at the dawn of human history, we invented ourselves, just as we are now inventing avatars in online worlds, something that will identify 'me' as 'me,' easily recognizable to others and knowing its place in highly complex surroundings. In modern marketing speak, it's all a question of branding.


We,’ as we understand ourselves, really don’t exist. We are a figment of our own imaginations. Maybe that’s why we love science fiction: the soul trapped in the robot, the zombie spirit living in a dead body, doing the bidding of its master. If you take our genes to be that hidden master, maybe it makes perfect sense.


We already are the science fiction.