Slayers, journalists, fiction and contextualism

Peter Ludlow recently posted From Sherlock and Buffy to Klingon and Norrathian Platinum Pieces: Pretense, Contextalism, and the Myth of Fiction, a paper that manages to marry a classic problem in philosophy of language with his long time interest in virtual worlds. I immediately snapped the paper up, since I happen to share that particular conjunction of occupational and recreational interests.

Ludlow claims that fictions are not a unique ontological class, and that there is no special class of fictional statements, with special rules for truth, reference, etc. Instead he says, saying that a statement is a “fictional” truth is just to say that the statement holds in a limited class of enviroments. To say that something is really true is just to say that the statement holds in a wide class of enviroments. Fictional truths are a product of the contextual sensitivity of predicates — in the right context, Sarah Michelle Geller is a vampire slayer.

As a contextualist, I’m inclined to be sympathetic to this view. The “but” is below the fold, since you’ll need to read the paper to make sense of it.

A lot of Ludlow’s argument rests on the observation there is a two-way flow between fiction and the real world. Most of his examples of this phenomena come from Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). The currencies used in MMOGs are bought and sold with real world dollars on exchanges that can be used to set relatively stable exchange rate, and items from these worlds also exchange hands in return for real world cash.

Somehow, Ludlow notes, Norrathian Platinum pieces became real. Nor is it just currencies. Initially in-game organizations like guilds now commonly move from game to game. The blog started by Ludlow himself to represent the newspaper his in game character edited became in effect a real newspaper, with real world newspapers citing it as a source for news about the game. Ludlow became a real journalist, albeit under an alias (Urizenus).

I agree with that these are the facts. And I agree with Ludlow’s analysis on which the reason this movement is possible is because Norrathian Platinum pieces etc were always real.

But I think that Ludlow’s explanation of how that comes about could go further, in a way in which might explain why ‘The Alphaville Herald is a newspaper’ and even ‘Peter Ludlow is a journalist’ were more acceptable than ‘Sarah Michelle Geller is a vampire slayer’, even before the transformations that led to The Alphaville Herald becoming a newspaper even in default contexts.

It is not unappealing to think that games are generally constituted by rules. (Was Searle the first person to suggest this view? In any case, I first encountered it in his Speech Acts.) These rules define what the games are, and they thus make possible certain actions that were not possible before the game was brought into existence. One could not, for example, achieve check in chess until the rules for chess included a constitutive rule that defined what check was. No one is tempted to say, you didn’t really put him in check, you just moved your white horse shaped piece into such and such a spot etc — according to the rules, moving your white horse shaped piece into such and such a spot etc in the right context just is putting him in check. (Of course its not the only way to do it.)

Similarly with online games. The rules are far more complex — so complex that perhaps no one programmer knows them all. But the rules still constitute a game. When a group of Everquest players successfully kill a dragon, they do so because the rules are such that a certain very complicated combination of actions in the right context constitutes killing a dragon. It’s as offside to say, ‘you didn’t really kill a dragon, you just manipulated some 1s and 0s’ as it is to say, ‘you didn’t really put him in checkmate, you just moved some plastic objects around on a board’. The only difference is that the phrase ‘killing a dragon’ has meaning outside of the game of Everquest, so that it is often necessary to say ‘we killed a dragon in EQ’. ‘Checkmate’, on the other hand, has no literal applications outside of chess (to my knowledge — in any case they aren’t usually salient, whereas in most contexts the other meanings of ‘killed a dragon’ are more salient).

Let me get to the punchline, since this isn’t a paper but a blog post:

I suspect am prepared to believe that Peter Ludlow became a journalist when Urizenus came into being because I think that the loose rules of roleplay in The Sims Online combined with the less flexible programmed rules of the game were such that what he did constituted being a journalist in that context — and so that his becoming a ‘real’ journalist was a matter of context expansion.

I suspect that in as far as I am prepared to accept that Sarah Michelle Geller is a vampire slayer, its because there are some rules surrounding acting such that SMG doing certain things constitutes her being a vampire slayer in that context. I also suspect that the reason I am not very willing to accept ‘Sarah Michelle Geller is a vampire slayer’ in any context is that the rules surrounding the practice of acting license ‘SMG is Buffy’ and ‘Buffy is a vampire slayer’ in many contexts without without licensing substitution.

Maybe there is a real argument to be made out of this, but at the moment its just a suspicion.