Virtualization 2.0: Whining my way towards the Fermi Paradox

I’m so lazy that if I weren’t to some extent coerced into writing all of this, I probably wouldn’t have. You wouldn’t be reading this because there’d be nothing written to read.

Although not always, at times I don’t particularly enjoy writing. It’s a real grind putting ideas to paper in a way that is engaging, accessible, and says something of value – and I’m not claiming to have achieved that, just to have expended a great deal of effort trying to. It’s not just the writing either, but all that reading as well. There’s seemingly endless amounts of articles and papers and other supremely relevant content I could consume and integrate into this.


My sustainability bookmarks folder grows by the hour, ever-swelling with knowledge like some awful Lovecraftian beast. Its insatiable hunger for articles I’ll never have time to return to later must always be fed.

It’s hard work, reading all that, digesting it, reframing it, assimilating it.  And you know what? Hard work kind of sucks.

I’m not dropping any revelations here, I know, but it’s worth stating the obvious out loud from time to time.

Being honest, I’d much rather be playing video games. I’ve sworn off all that during studies, but earlier this year during a break I was playing this fantastic game called Surviving Mars where you manage humanity’s first ever Mars colony – water, oxygen, food, and keeping colonists happy and fulfilled. It’s basically Interplanetary Sustainability: The Video Game. Indeed, the main goal seems to be just that – make the colony self-sustainable. Interestingly, in the conversations people have about these games, the word sustainability is regularly used.

Surviving Mars

It’s far from the only game with that kind of goal, either. I’ve also enjoyed playing another game, Oxygen Not Included which has a similar focus except this time you’re colonizing an asteroid.

Oxygen Not Included

There is definitely a part of me what would rather return to those games right now than write all this. The gamified versions of sustainability I encounter in these worlds is far simpler; there is almost always a way to “win” (they are games, after all), and that certainly has a draw.

Distilling this down further – there’s a part of me that would rather get lost in a fantasy, instead of deal with messy reality. What I wonder is this: if enough other people felt similarly, could this desire shape the development trajectory of our species?

There is a theory called the Fermi Paradox that essentially asks why we haven’t found any other advanced civilizations in the cosmos yet. There are many suggested answers as to why. One related idea suggests there are certain barriers (called Great Filters) to survival that few, if any, civilizations pass. One of the core issues with the paradox, however, is that it assumes there is a motivation to explore and colonize space (thus creating a cosmological footprint we humans might be able to observe).

But what if there isn’t? What if the solution to the Fermi paradox is that the overwhelming number of advanced civilizations simply aren’t motivated to do all that hard work? This needn’t be some depression or ennui, either, they could simply have better, more fun things to do.

So, yes, I’m going to talk about video games, and virtual worlds more broadly, but I’m going do it with the utmost seriousness.  Virtual worlds may have something extremely useful to say about civilizational advancement on cosmological scales and the long-term sustainability challenges ahead of us. By looking more seriously at video games, we might be seeing the first signs already of these ideas having genuine merit.

Virtualization 1.0. Press Start

That which does not kill us, makes us stranger.

 –  Trevor Goodchild, Aeon Flux

 Despite dealing with non-traditional topics, most of the content here still stays at least within the orbit of mainstream discourse.

This series on virtualization is a little different.

It is still ultimately grounded in some realities, very much so, but it incorporates other more far-flung ideas. They are nonetheless based on some well-reasoned observations and examinations, of technology especially, but also of human psychology, of economics, and of culture. This kind of approach represents the mixing of disciplines, and the difficulty of discussing just one idea in isolation from other related schools of thought, or within just one scale of time or space.

This section on virtualization embraces thinking outside the mainstream. As I hope to show, however, the ideas that follow are too important for the mainstream to ignore much longer and indeed, the technology that invites this mode of thinking is proceeding at pace regardless.

With that disclaimer out of the way this series is about some key ideas. Firstly, I am looking at sustainability on far longer timescales than usual, extending to cosmological-level timescales (millions, billions, potentially even trillions of years). Interplanetary colonization may be a sustainability issue, after all, but it wouldn’t strike many as a pressing one.

Within that perspective, I explore something called the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we appear to be alone in the cosmos. I provide a potential answer to this question by pointing to the allure (and potential utility) of virtual worlds, and in doing so, hope to make a deeper point about potential civilizational development outcomes that have profound consequences for our perspectives on sustainability.

To put it crudely, I explore the idea that every advanced civilization inevitably ends up playing video games.