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What World War Two Online Can Teach Us About God, the Universe, and Ourselves

There comes a point in the evening when I’m totally tapped out. I hit about 10 p.m., and all I really want to do is go to bed. Unfortunately, I’ve always had trouble falling asleep. There are few things I hate more than laying on my mattress, staring at the ceiling for 2-3 hours, wishing for sleep. Others, I suppose watch TV, but I’m not much of a TV person. Reading a book or writing used to be my ‘go-to’ solutions but for at least a half decade now, my eyes glaze over and I get nowhere. Thankfully, there is a game out there that fills in this time period nicely, World War Two Online.

In brief, it is a military simulation game that re-enacts a phase of World War Two and allows genuine combined arms combat. You can play as infantry with a variety of weapons to choose from, grab a tank, fly a plane, drive a supply truck, takes to the seas as a destroyer, or the rivers in a patrol boat. The arena of conflict is Europe, at half-scale. Nearly every combatant one encounters is a real human player; only in a few cases are there ‘AI’ emplacements. It’s just cool to be advancing on a town with a dozen other soldiers with allied tanks creaking along next to you, watching a flight of fighter pilots screech overhead–knowing that all of these are real players, not programmed ‘entities.’ That many of the players are history buffs and have a deep appreciation of the sacrifice that soldiers made during the war, and make today, is a big plus. I find in many of the players kindred spirits.

The game started in 2001. I played it for a few years, took a long break, and then picked it up again about 2 years ago. I have always been drawn to the theological aspects of the game.

“Theological aspects of the game? Did you really just say, theological?”

Yea, that’s right. In fact, about ten years ago I penned an essay reflecting on the challenges that the owners of the game (Cornered Rats Software) have in creating the World War Two Online. On the one hand, they want an accurate and realistic simulation, and on the other hand, they need people to subscribe to the game, and if there are elements of ‘reality’ that people don’t like, there is no way for CRS to compel them to continue paying or playing. As a case in point, except under narrow circumstances, death by ‘friendly fire’ is not permitted in the physics of the game. One can only suppose that there were early problems with people on the Axis side spawning in on the Allied and gunning down their compatriots, causing grief and, worse, unsubscriptions. (the Allies would never do such a thing! 😉 ) Out went friendly fire. But how realistic is that?

Not very, and it has definite in-game consequences. For example, when there is a huge battle going on and there is a high number of players on either side in a small area, it is common to have a bomber or ten come flying in and drop their bombs on everyone below. Since there is no friendly fire, only the enemy players die. You can imagine the tactical implications for the pilots if friendly fire was indeed enabled. Interestingly, this is one of the few ‘hacks’ of ‘reality’ that players don’t complain about.

The present campaign has taken a turn for the worse for the allies. For some reason, Allied players tend to be Americans and the Axis tend to be Europeans. (This is a very broad generalization.) When the Americans go to bed, the Europeans come out during what is referred to as “Time Zone 3” or TZ3, and are able to quickly and efficiently capture town after town after town, finding little to no resistance. What was a brutally hard fought victory involving hundreds of players the night before is erased by maybe a dozen Axis players overnight.

And boy are the Allies howling, threatening to ‘unsub’ and demanding tweaks to ‘reality.’

They remind me very much like your garden variety atheist.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I can understand the Allied player’s frustrations, just as I can understand your typical skeptic’s complaints about our own reality. After all, no one likes losing, and right now, the Axis have a deep beachhead in England and are on the verge of winning the whole campaign–all of this because of one night’s romp through northern France. Similarly, no one likes poverty, suffering, pain, evil, slavery, persecution, hunger, and so on. God is omnipotent and omniscient, no? He should know how to be able to end all of those things–by definition–and he should have the power to carry out that plan in a blink of an eye–by definition–so why doesn’t he?

I think that games like World War Two Online give us good clues to the answer, which is, in short: we don’t really understand what we’re asking, and, if we’re being honest, we’d still find a way to complain, even if we were given exactly what we asked for.

In the case of the game, any number of ‘proposals’ have been offered to mitigate the harm that players in TZ3 can inflict, but of course the assumption is that the only one this would apply to are the Axis players during a time period when all the Americans (the bulk of the paying customers, I suppose) are in bed. They forget, however, that the Europeans also must go to bed, and they have their own version of TZ3, where they risk getting rolled back into Germany. Any rules created to deal with the TZ3 situation would have to be applied to both sides, or else there would really be an uproar. I can just see what the Allies would say about 1 p.m. in the afternoon when they try to get something going, only to be hemmed in by arbitrary ‘patches’ to the game reality, ‘patches’ that they demanded to be implemented.

As in the movie “The Life of Bryan”, there is just no pleasing some people.

Similarly, if you were to take just one thing that we’d like God to snap his fingers and fix, say, pain, the ‘fix’ seems easy but I think we’d instantly complain about that, too. If we’re being honest, anyway. Pain is felt because of some kind of violation of the human envelope, from a thorn piercing the skin, a bullet through a bone, a cancer growing from within. So why couldn’t God just make someone’s skin bulletproof ? Easy enough. An omniscient, omnipotent God would be able to pull that off quickly enough. After all, we mortals know how to make things bulletproof–sandbags, very thick glass, Kevlar, and so on.

“Say, are those sandbags under your eyes, or are you just tired?” Yes, I can just see how happy we would be if humans were now encased, permanently, in materials inches to feet thick, impervious to the painful touch of the death-dealing bullet–and also to the pleasures that come from being able to interact with reality, and with each other.

So then you say, “How about just having it so that our skin is just how it is now, but when someone tries to shoot another person, at that very instant, their skin becomes bulletproof, just in that spot, and then reverts back to normal?”

To which I might reply, “And if that person is in the midst of a terrible crime, say, raping another person, should that person’s skin also become bulletproof?”

And now our skeptic has to weasel out of the implications of his request. “But God will know when that rule should apply, and would only make someone bulletproof if they are the innocent person.”

“Are you saying that we humans have always agreed on when someone is innocent or not? If someone is shot and killed but you were certain they were innocent, wouldn’t you complain? Would you not also complain that He has one set of rules for some people and another for others, or even for everyone, depending on the situation?”

The skeptic retorts, “But God could easily insulate everyone from every evil, painful act that anyone ever does, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. I know what you’re going to say–this would eliminate our ‘free will,’ but it wouldn’t because we could still do the things, we could still shoot someone, for example, just nothing would happen when it was done with evil intent.”

To which I would say, “So, in other words, but if God intervened in this way, consistently, there would be no such thing as anyone being able to do anything with evil intent in the first place, because whenever someone acted evilly, God would intervene. What you’re asking for is that God build into the rules of reality your absolute and total obedience to what He wants. In this scenario, how does one distinguish between Him and You at all since everything you do is exactly what He would have you do? You’re not just undermining free will, you are obliterating any possibility of there being a real you distinct from Him.”

To which I have heard in reply, “If it is really the case that in order for me to really be me, and not just a God ordained and programmed automaton, there must be pain–”

I interject at this point, always, to clarify, “the possibility of pain…”

“–there must be the possibility of pain, then seeing the way the world is, I can only conclude that it would be better to not exist at all. Why even bother creating us if he knew (and he must have known) what kind of horror humans were going to inflict upon each other?”

In my experience, this is about where everyone ends up if they begin insisting that God bends reality in particular cases to address particular abuses that different individuals perceive are in play–ignoring, as they always do, that different individuals invariably demand mutually exclusive ‘fixes’ that cannot all be implemented, at the same time, such that this person or that person will invariably conclude that, if this is really the case, it is better to not exist at all.

Don’t laugh–that’s exactly what the ‘ethicist’ Peter Singer said when faced with the prospect of unending human suffering. See this link.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the fact that there is a brand of theism that does not posit unending human suffering, but insists that it is a temporary thing that God is not indifferent to and has take definite action to deal with–but according to the previously established ‘rules’ of the ‘game’ He had created–I find that the problem, chiefly, is not the Game Maker, but the game players, and their ornery nature.  (This brand of theism is called ‘Christianity.’)

To quickly illustrate–I know an atheist who asked God for a sign that He existed and that there was an after-life, who then received said sign, called me up frantically on the telephone to discuss the matter in detail, only to decide, as time went on, that his experience was more likely to be a hallucination or an elaborate prank.  At the time, he thought neither could possibly be the case.  Here is a man who got exactly what he wanted, and still was not satisfied.

To me, that is the story of mankind.

The right question, in my view, is not, “isn’t it better to not exist at all?” ie, seeing the matter from our perspective, but rather, from the Maker’s perspective, “isn’t it better to not create free agents at all?”

The answer to this, I think, is not the sort of thing easily ‘reasoned’ out. Those of you reading this who are artists and creators know exactly what I mean. The people who run and operated World War Two Online know what I mean, too. They aren’t in it just for the money, of this, I am absolutely sure. There is a joy and a sublime pleasure in creating universes that others can come and participate in, and I assure you, that pleasure is a pale thing indeed if the ‘others’ are merely pre-programmed entities that do precisely as the programmers dictate. There is a certain kind of joy, different categorically than other joys that we often experience, in watching other free agents make use of our creations in their own, creative fashion.

As an author who enjoys writing fiction, I must write. There is a joy in the writing–in the creation of whole universes, spun out of my mind. I suppose if there was never going to be any one to read any of my works, I would still have to write, because that is my nature. Even so, there is a much different kind of joy, one that I would say is in fact a greater joy, that comes from hearing that someone entered into my universe and brought to bear their own imagination in it. This joy, in turn, is only a hint of the kind of joy that people who create universes where people can actually enter into those universes in a tangible fashion, such as game worlds like World War Two Online, experience. If money were no object, I’m convinced they’d continue on with the project to the end of their days.

Now, if this is the case for authors, who spin out one, limited kind of universe, and programmers of simulations who spin out much more robust kinds of universes, why shouldn’t this be the case for the maker of our universe, who has spun out a universe where His creations themselves are spinning out sub-universes?

I assure you, the gamers of World War Two Online give the programmers no end of grief! But there are sublime pleasures, in there too, that make it all worth it–and the gamers agree, I think, when they settle down and begin thinking reasonably. When they cease making their threats to ‘unsub’ and participate in the joyous aspects, it doesn’t make losing any less annoying, but it does help put it into perspective. The suffering and pain we experience is not any less diminished just because we put it into perspective, setting against it the tremendous joy and pleasure of actually existing, and enjoying the existence of others.

There are a couple of important differences.

The gamers of World War Two Online can ‘unsub.’ The programmers can ‘tweak’ the physics of the game to try to address the myriad of mostly contradictory demands that their paying game base demand; but there is always a cost to these changes. There is a diminishing of the ‘joy’ of participating in the universe as more ad hoc changes are programmed in. The programmers have to make accommodations, or else they risk going hungry, or worse! their universe ceasing to exist altogether. That is the price of intransigent threats of withdrawing from the game. But God cannot be held hostage in this way.

In short, He is not going to jump through hoops to try to meet the usually arbitrary and capricious demands of billions of people. And you can’t ‘unsub,’ even if you tried.

Rather than choosing the void of non-existence (an option that is not even available to you) you are better off taking the way of wisdom: coming to terms with an existence fraught with problems and difficulties but bloated with inexpressible joys everywhere you look, too, and then searching for the explanation that best accounts for the whole package. That account, in my view, is Christianity; God’s answer to suffering: Jesus–God himself, the ‘programmer’ entering the world He created to suffer “for the joy set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2)

And by the by, if you do happen to join the game, feel free to look me up. The clever ones are able to find me. 🙂 But usually only between 10 p.m. Eastern time and midnight. 🙂

 

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