Humans have been artificially modifying organisms for centuries, whether it is bacteria, plants or animals. Initially this was just in the form of selective breeding, a process which takes years to reveal its results with most of the control in nature’s hands (Bushak, 2015) (Rangel, 2015). Over time, it has become a more invasive process not only selecting ‘desirable’ traits in an organism and breeding/pollinating them over years, but delving into the genetic make-up of the organism and modifying it accordingly – allowing the human race to take a more controlled stance with almost instant gratification. A genetically modified organism is any type of organism, plant, or animal, whose genetic material has been manipulated through genetic engineering. As exciting as this was, it opened a can of worms – what could the potential risks be? (Rangel, 2015) The debate that accompanies genetically modified organisms is about to get more controversial.
Eugenics is essentially the ancient form of encouraging a change in the HUMAN species through selective breeding – a concept the Nazi’s took to the extreme. Just like we got greedy and impatient with selective breeding of bacteria, plants and animals – so did we with humans. We are now in the beginning stages of modifying the genes of humans to improve the ‘desirable’ traits and eliminate the ‘undesirable’ traits. CRISPR offers the prospect of biological improvement not for the sake of the gene pool, but for whatever advantages it offers to consumers – making the possibilities endless. At the moment, the most powerful force demanding this technology is the consumer demand for health through eliminating genetic disease (such as cystic fibrosis), but how long will this stay contained? Biotechnology companies have rapidly embraced CRISPR and are soon on their way to making it viable to not only eliminate genetic diseases but use the technology for ‘enhancing’ the human race. Once this is proven safe, its availability and use by consumers will explode (Kevles, 2016).
The concepts above suggest a few things about the human race; we crave having power and control and we play life like a game. Anthropologist Johan Huizinga rejects the idea of the human species being Homo-sapiens (meaning wise) and suggests we are more Homo-ludens (to be human is to play). He proposed this between the World Wars as he observed humans not demonstrating much ‘sapience’ as they seemed to have given up on rationality. He further suggested it is our ‘ludic’ (spontaneity and playfulness) ability that defines us. His idea stems from Plato’s Laws who defines play as making sacrifices, defending himself against enemies, ultimately winning the contest. He says play provides an active, potentially destabilizing, disorienting and transgressive force. More specifically however, we are players of games. A game provides rules and establishes order through the creation of boundaries within which play occurs (Plate, 2011). The relationship between players and games can be simple such as Olympic sports and video games, to complex such as wars or even – genetically modifying organisms.
Modifying the human genome is an example of humans ‘playing’ with the structure of our DNA, ultimately and initially to defeat the enemy (genetic diseases) to win the game of life through health. With this rapidly advancing technology however, has a game been set out? Are the rules and regulations in place? Or are we still playing with no boundaries? If so, how far could we take this technology to not only gain health, but intellectual, physical or cosmetic desirables?
Let us use the very successful EA game developed by highly acclaimed Will Write (A multimillionaire video game designer), The Sims, to demonstrate human nature. The Sims has been described as a human behavior or psychological simulator (Pearce, 2004). The franchise has sold nearly 200 million copies worldwide, and it is one of the best-selling video games series of all time that attracts all ages (Rhinewald & McElrath-Hart, 2016). It has been classified under the genres of ‘life simulation’ and even a ‘god game’ (Plate, 2011) (Bainbridge W. S. , 2007). The Sims series are largely sandbox games – a game wherein the player has been freed from the traditional structure and direction typically found in video games and is instead given the ability to choose what, when, and how they want to approach the available choices in content. The term is in reference to a child’s sandbox in which no rules are present and play is derived from open-ended choice (Pearce, 2004). The player creates virtual people called “Sims” and places them in houses and helps direct their moods and satisfy their desires. Many people play this as an autobiographical dollhouse (Plate, 2011) – with some upgraded tweaks and enhancements to themselves and their lives of course. To start the game you create and control Sims with distinct appearances, personalities and emotions. You customize how they look, walk, and decide their aspiration in life. This is in the section ‘Create a Sim’ in which you have carte blanche to be as creative as you wish – hair colour, tattoos, textures of clothing, nose shape, eye colour, intelligence, athletic abilities, personality traits, gender (or no gender) etc.
The rest of the game involves dictating a narrative of the lives of these Sims – or the lives of the players as the line is blurred between the sim and the player (Pearce, 2004). The players can live in a dream world with a self-built house, the dream job, a family of their own with a romantic tale of happiness – or add drama; crime, cheating, breaking relationships, fighting, bankruptcy and even murdering your own sim. Players seem to hop between experiencing their Sim characters as extensions of themselves and as separate agents (Isbister, 2006). Julian Cook, a researcher and geneticist from Corby, was alleged to be behaving like an impulsive god in front of his computer for several hours every week. He responds ‘Meddling with human DNA is against health and safety regulations, but there’s nothing that says I can’t mod the code to make my simulations eight feet tall with three parents. I like to make my creations worship me at a little altar, and if any of them displease me I set fire to their wives. But surely anyone in my position would do the same?” (The daily mash, 2016). You can torture and kill your Sims in a variety of ways, also doing harm to others without any form of reward from the game itself unlike, for example, Grand theft auto (Cobbett, 2009).
Why is this game so successful? Could it be because humans have the natural desire to play with no boundaries, to control and dominate, to manipulate (either for good or bad), to create perfection, to create chaos or ultimately to play God? The Sims distorts the line between self and other and allows the player to explore identities and fantasies in a flexible and low-risk way (Isbister, 2006). The human nature that has been displayed (by the 200 million games that have been sold) is the same human nature that could predict and control genetic engineering, however with a much higher risk and potentially, very real, catastrophic outcomes.
The development of biotechnology and genetic engineering could be a groundbreaking way of modifying faulty genes causing suffering and low quality of life in humans OR It could give us the delusion of deity and create a chaotic sandbox in which the unpredictable playfulness of the human nature will be demonstrated, blurring the lines between simulation and real-life.
Bainbridge W. S. . (2007). Electronic game research methodologies: Studying religious implications. Review of Religious Research, 35-53.
Bushak, L. (2015, July 22). A Brief History Of Genetically Modified Organisms: From Prehistoric Breeding To Modern Biotechnology. Retrieved from Medical Daily.
Cobbett, R. (2009, March 14). Populous to The Sims: a history of playing god. Retrieved from Techradar.
Isbister, K. (2006). Better game characters by design: A psychological approach. San Fancisco: Elsevier.
Kevles, J. D. (2016). The History of Eugenics. Issues in Science and Technology, 32(3).
Pearce, C. (2004). Towards a game theory of game. First person: New media as story, performance, and game, 143-153.
Plate, S. B. (2011). Religion is Playing Games:. Religious Studies and Theology.
Rangel, G. (2015, August 9). From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology. Retrieved from Science in the News.
Rhinewald, S., & McElrath-Hart, N. (2016, May 5). 2016 World Video Game Hall of Fame Inductees Announced:Grand Theft Auto III, The Legend of Zelda, The Oregon Trail, The Sims, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Space Invaders. The Strong: National Museum of Play.
The daily mash. (2016, February 2). Scientist with The Sims 4 accused of playing God. The daily mash.