Metaphor: Life as an MMO

Have you ever played an MMO? It stands for “massively multiplayer online” and usually refers to online role-playing games where many people simultaneously access and interact with the game world and with each other. Many of these aren’t very conducive to spiritual thinking because most are based on the standard setup of a role-playing game as one where the user fights opponents to increase in power. Some are more peaceful, being puzzle-based or story-based, and some don’t have any fighting at all. But the concept of a simulated multi-user world can actually be used to explore some spiritual concepts.

The inspiration for this topic began with Matthew 10:30, which says, “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” Most commonly this verse is understood as God knowing how many hairs you have on your head in total at any given time, and that is certainly very likely. But what if it also implies that each hair is given a number? The difference is between having a single number as an aggregate count, versus having a listing of each hair individually. Are we splitting hairs yet?Any kind of computer software that deals with data has to organize that data into structures. One basic kind of structure is a table, which is a two-dimensional representation of information into related rows and columns. Each row represents an individual object or instance, and each column holds a particular bit of information about that instance. Databases deal fundamentally with tables, providing ways to view, input, and change the stored information (forms) and ways to divide, search, and combine the information (queries). Each table in a database requires a way to uniquely identify each row, which often takes the form of an incrementing number.

Psalm 147:4 says something similar to Matthew: “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by [their] names.” This verse indicates clearly that not only does God know how many stars there are, he knows them individually, because he knows their names. Each star has additional information beyond just the fact of its existence. So the information that God knows about stars could be organized into a table where each row represents a star. One column would contain the star’s identifying number, another column would contain the star’s name, and other columns could contain other information about the star, such as its location, size, etc.

What if God knows every hair on your head as well as he knows the stars? You might ask what would be the point. To answer that, let’s go back to the MMO concept. The software that runs the MMO has to simulate the game world so that users can interact with it in meaningful ways. A player might want to pick up a visible object, or give something to another player, or ride an animal, or light something on fire. Whatever the player can reasonably be expected to do as part of the game, the world has to simulate. That means that the software has to know about all the relevant objects in the world, their important properties, and how they interact.

Our real physical world was made by God and is sustained and run by God, in a somewhat similar manner to how we have made virtual worlds online. Our virtual worlds are far inferior to the physical world, of course. There is a limit to what we know about the real world, and there is a limit to the detail that our devices can simulate while remaining responsive to what we’re trying to do. Our worlds might simulate hair as just a series of visible polygons on a character model with no individual hairs visible, while in the physical world, a hair doesn’t disappear just because it falls off our heads. (Much to the dismay of anyone who vacuums a house very often.) As we are more real and more complex than any world we can design, to God, our physical world is a simulation in the sense that God is more real than our world and can choose what degree of interaction to take when manifesting in it.

What does “more real” mean from our perspective then? Let’s look at two examples. First, in Exodus 3, there was the burning bush that manifested to Moses, where there was flame but the bush was not actually burned. God could certainly choose to manifest in any way he chose, so he could have chosen to make the bush impervious to ordinary flame. But why would he choose ordinary flame? Why bend physical laws for a flashy effect? More likely (this can only be somewhat speculative since we certainly cannot verify directly) this was a representation of visible flame that was more real than the bush, and so it was not interacting with the bush physically and didn’t affect it the way normal flame would have.

Let’s also look at the incident where the Messiah was nearly stoned by an angry mob in John 8:59: “Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.” It says he went right through the midst of them and was able to escape them when they wanted to stone him. How could he do that? It’s generally understood that some kind of miracle or extra-physical effect happened here, but what kind? Some people say he became like a ghost, but because ghosts are traditionally dead, this implies less real than being physical, which doesn’t fit the Messiah.

He must have been in some kind of state where they couldn’t see him any longer, but does that just mean he was invisible? If someone invisible tried to go through a mob, they’d probably get run into and maybe even caught just by having to push through physically. What if the Messiah became “more real” in the same sense as the burning bush? In this state, he would have to be able to control what interactions he had with the physical world, whether to be visible or not, whether to touch the things and people around him, etc. The phrase “hid himself” has the definition of concealing or doing something in secret. There’s nothing there about being invisible, but it fits perfectly with the idea of a secret and powerful way to interact with the world.

MMOs and other computer games often have these too. Sometimes they’re called “cheat codes”, which puts rather a negative spin on them, but that’s only what they are if the end player is using them to cheat at playing the game. However, developers often have debug or test commands that they can use to test the software to make sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, or travel through the software quickly to a particular point that wouldn’t be reachable by normal means without a lot of time. For example, a game split up into chapters or sections might have debug commands to jump to a particular chapter with a default setup so that the developer can test the game starting from that point rather than having to play through the whole thing up to that point first.

So if our physical reality is a simulation, then God is the developer and computer simultaneously. God knows every star by name. God knows every hair on our heads. God knows the parts of every person and every creature and every atom in as much detail as is required to control all of reality. Fortunately, matter behaves according to consistent laws, but many of those laws are very subtle, and our minds can only capture a fraction of what we experience at any given time. That makes it relatively easy for God to control the world and manifest miracles when needed even without actually breaking any physical laws. But more importantly, God has the wisdom to understand what he creates more deeply than we can imagine. As Jude wrote in verse 25, “To the only wise God our Saviour, [be] glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”

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