[#37] Play as Being: From What You Have to What You Are

By Piet Hut

Last week I wrote about my astrophysics activities in the virtual world of Second Life.  This week I'm looking back on another initiative that I started there, called Play as Being -- an exploration of what you are, by learning to turn your gaze away from what you have.

After a highly successful four centuries of empirical studies of objects, as the object pole of our experience, science is now moving into the interaction part of experience, forced to do so through quantum mechanics, and I expect that a study of the subject pole of experience is just around the corner, as the logical next step.  Last month, I wrote about "Playing Galileo", as I called it, and I gave a few examples of possible initial explorations of the nature of the subject, to complement Galileo's initial explorations of the nature of objects.  What I set out to do in Play as Being was similar, and equally simple.

A 1% time tax

My suggestion was to take a short break, every quarter of an hour, for nine seconds.  That amounts to a very small 1% time tax, only 9 out of every 900 seconds, surely a dream for the tea party.  And during that break, the idea was to drop what you have, to see what you are.  I normally talk about "I am male, I am an astrophysicist, I am 65", etc.  But when I say that, I really talk about what I have: the gender, profession and age that I have, for example.  (see the Play as Being website for slightly more detailed instructions)

This tendency to identify with what we have is clearly baked into our language.  One antidote is to practice some form of meditation, as a gentle way to create more distance between us and the stories we tell about ourselves.  However, there is a considerable barrier to starting any form of contemplation, when we are not already familiar with the notion of watching our own mind.  What I offered was literally "learning to meditate, 9 seconds at a time", which sounds like a spoof, but surprisingly it worked.

9 seconds at a time

Having made the suggestion to some of my friends, in March 2008, several of them reported to their own surprise how doing so made them pay considerably more attention to themselves as well as their environment, already after one or two days, even when doing the experiment for only a few hours a day.  I in turn was amazed to see people catching a clear whiff of meditation so quickly.  So I felt encouraged to start an experiment in Second Life (SL for short), at the same time that I was setting up MICA as a parallel astrophysics experiment in community building.

I wondered, though, how to get started, since most of my friends were not eager to learn how to use Second Life.  And I had no idea who in Second Life might be interested to partake in such a novel kind of exploration.  Starting new initiatives, aimed at building communities around interesting new topics, often with one or two colleagues, I knew how to do.  I would always start by inviting a bunch of people to get together, and to discuss with them how to set up the necessary new structures.  Examples from the decade before Play and Being were Kira, B612, MODEST, ACS, WoK, MICA.

So what to do?  I had decided to start on April Fool's Day, 2008, since it seemed like an appropriate time to embark on a light-hearted series of 9-second explorations.  But just a few days beforehand, I still hadn't decided where to hang out. Buying a piece of land and building a congenial environment would take too long, and going to sit down in a public space, with many other avatars talking about different topics would be rather distracting.

April 1, 2008, morning session

April 1, 2008, morning session

Wondering what to do, I asked a friend whom I had met in SL whether she had any suggestion for a suitable place.  Hearing about my plans, she kindly told me that I could use a Japanese teahouse that she had built a while ago, and wasn't using much. It turned out to be the perfect place to meet with a small group of people: up to a dozen avatars would fit comfortably on the tatami mats, around a kettle hanging over a wood fire to boil water for the tea ceremony.

So I was all set to get started.  I send a few messages to avatars I had met in SL mostly by chance, and I told them that for a while at least I would be present in the tea house three times a day, at 7am, 1pm, and 7pm SL time (which is Pacific Time because of the location in San Francisco of Linden Lab, the company that created SL).  In that way, people living in different time zones on different continents could easily find a time of day to drop by.

April 1, 2008, afternoon session

April 1, 2008, afternoon session

On April 1, 2008, I sat down in the teahouse at my 10am in New York, wondering whether anyone would show up.  As it happened, four other avatars showed up to keep me company.  Another three came at my 4pm, and again four at 10pm.  I welcomed all of them, served them some tea, and explained my approach to dropping identification, or at least learning to wear identification more lightly.  Our leisurely conversations touched upon the 9-second idea, but also roamed over many other topics, some related to science and philosophy, but most of them about all kinds of other concerns.  There was a real feeling of hanging out in a neighborhood cafe, with me behind the tap (or more specifically, behind the wood fire).

What set us aside from most other social groups in SL was the friendly and unruffled way in which we naturally interacted with each other.  New visitors dropping by often commented about our attitude as the most noticeable aspect of Play as Being.  And when some avatars tried to get into verbal arguments in abusive ways, they had little grip on us.  Instead of shouting back, we tended to ask them "can you say more?"  Nobody knew where that habit came from; it seemed to have sprouted naturally from the underlying Play as Being atmosphere.  And the result was that each troublemaker would either soon get bored and leave, or would calm down and join us.

April 1, 2008, evening session

April 1, 2008, evening session

To make a long story short: through word of mouth more and more avatars started showing up, and in addition quite a few passers by dropped in as well, wondering what we were talking about.  After a month we added a fourth shift, gathering every six hours around the clock.  While I showed up three times a day for the first few months, over time a group of 28 volunteers was formed, each a "guardian" of a particular weekly time slot, to make sure that no newcomer would arrive at an empty place.  As a result, by the end of the year the task of meeting and greeting both oldtimers and newcomers was distributed over the core group of guardians, by then me being just one of them.

The activities did not stay limited to meetings in SL; after a year we started organizing a number of retreats in real life (RL in the jargon of SL) as well.  In fact, we will have another RL meeting next week in Amsterdam, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Play as Being, and the fact that its avatars by now have held well over 10,000 sessions, the transcripts of which have all been uploaded on its website.  In a future blog post I hope to share more about the culture that sprung up in a very much grassroots way, during the first couple years, a culture that is continuing to evolve to this day.

April 2, 2008, morning session, where we decided to venture outside.

April 2, 2008, morning session, where we decided to venture outside.

Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.