The main conflict of Westworld is already pretty apparent after two episodes, the rising threat of self-conscious AI, growing sick and tired of being tormented by sadistic humans, who use the “fake” creations to unleash their darkest fantasies.
We have seen many “what does it mean to be human?” debates in science-fiction previously, as robots and AIs become self-aware and effectively blossom into a new form of life. That’s certainly what seems to be happening in Westworld, but the show is also fundamentally about an issue that’s much more relevant to present day life, human morality in virtual worlds.
I think we are still a ways off from creating Cylon-like lifeforms that are in danger of rebelling against their human overlords, but we are not too far away from situations where average people can warp into a fantasy and act out their darkest desires. In many ways, we’re already there, through video games.
This is not going to be some big anti-video game violence rant. I’m not saying that murdering virtual people in games makes you more aggressive or violent or prone to do so in real life. But what Westworld does make me think about is how different we really are from these “guests” who are content to abuse these “hosts” just because they and the world they live in isn’t real. As the show itself admits, the point of the experience is not to learn something about the creations around you, but to discover things about yourself.
The march toward “reality” in games is what draws a pretty thick line between playing something on Xbox and going to a theme park full of robots, but now that VR has arrived, it’s easy to see where this is heading. When video games become more realistic in the worlds they build, and more immersive in the experiences they provide, when exactly does “virtual morality” start to reflect anything about you, as a person?
I have already felt tinges of this in modern day games. Back in the PS2 era when I was playing Grand Theft Auto III, I had no qualms about whipping out machine guns and rocket launchers and killing anything and everything around me, seeing how long it would take the game to kill me as punishment.
But years later, when Grand Theft Auto V rolled around, things started to feel…different. Sure, I killed plenty of people in that game, civilians too, but I was far less prone to simply go on rampages, murdering scores of innocents. With how realistic Los Santos felt compared to real life LA, and how characters like Michael and Franklin were developed to feel like halfway decent people, it just didn’t feel…right? This feeling was further amplified when GTA 5 got first person mode, and suddenly you could just walk up to a random civilian and slide a knife in their gut, and then gun down police officers when they (rightly) came to arrest you.
I’m not saying that doing any of this stuff is actually, morally wrong given that it’s a virtual world, but the point I’m making is that it is starting to feel more and more wrong to me, because of how realistic these worlds and these characters are all becoming.
We are obviously a long, long way away from say, fully haptic VR bodysuits that put us into games with photorealistic, human-like AI characters, but it’s the same principle. If you’re put in a world like that, and abuse your essentially unlimited power to rape or murder, what exactly does that say about you as a person? Westworld very clearly wants us to hate the kind of guests that do truly perverse things in the park, and the creators of the park that allow this stuff to happen, but in a way, we are already moving toward this in our games. But it’s just because we are far away from “believable reality” that most people don’t seem to realize it or care about it.
I don’t really know what this means in present day, but this is something I’ve felt bubbling under the surface for a while now. As games get more and more “realistic” with more fleshed out characters, I’ve found it harder to be “evil,” when given the choice. These aren’t real people, this isn’t a real world, and yet I just can’t get past the feeling that I am doing something wrong when I slaughter a village or gun down unarmed civilians in a shopping mall, and not just because I might see some in-game consequences that harm my character as a result.
Westworld is essentially the endgame for video games. As a physical space on the show, it’s obviously not a virtual experience, but it might as well be, as it deals with all the same issues. I’m not worried about video game characters becoming self-aware and trying to murder me, but I am a little concerned about the ability for nearly anyone to act out wildly violent fantasies in increasingly realistic scenarios that may someday contain characters that feels as close to real as you can get.
Again, we are only in the very early stages of this, hence why many will view a conversation like this as stupid, feeling that murdering a GTA prostitute or a Skyrim villager doesn’t reflect on your character or values at all, but I think that’s where all this is heading, maybe not in the next decade, but perhaps the next three or four. We are on a voyage to Westworld, and all its moral quandaries, whether we realize it or not.