Grand Theft Auto V foreshadows our future in the Matrix

I didn’t get much writing done Monday. I was on vacation in San Andreas. That’s not a real place, of course, it’s the fictionalized world of Grand Theft Auto V, which is sure to become the biggest game of the year after its release today.

I’m not exaggerating about the vacation, though. The world of San Andreas and its central city Los Santos, both patterned after California and Los Angeles respectively, is an incredible technical masterpiece. As I said in my review, there has never been such a massive and meticulously crafted virtual environment. Other critics have said the same, with The Guardian finding that “every millimetre of the landscape has been thoughtfully handcrafted with the curious gamer in mind” and Polygon declaring that “the fictional sun-bleached state of San Andreas is a technical achievement, a farewell kiss to this generation of consoles and the millions who own them.”

There have been other amazing accomplishments in the field of virtual worlds in recent years – Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed 3 comes to mind – but none have been as fun, or as funny, as GTA V. The developers at Rockstar North have figured out that it’s not just enough to design a remarkably real world, it also has to be populated with enjoyable things to do.

In GTA V, there is indeed a surfeit of fun things to do. You can drive cars, boats, planes, helicopters, submarines, play tennis, compete in a triathlon, get a tattoo, ride roller coasters and Ferris wheels, learn yoga, test guns at a firing range, buy and manage businesses, collect clothes, get a haircut, surf the web, snap and share photos, go for a walk with your dog and so on. Some of these activities are naturally more enjoyable than others, and a few of them feel like grinds. That’s inevitable, since developers have limited time and expertise.

Driving around Los Santos and taking part in all these possibilities got me thinking about the future of such games and virtual reality in general. How will developers improve on the less enjoyable activities?

It ultimately struck me that Grand Theft Auto, or really any other open virtual world, could and probably will become truly open – to other developers. In doing so, it will effectively become an operating system akin to Windows or Android.

Take GTA V’s native tennis game, for example. It’s a simple game-within-a-game that you can play with one of the main characters, and it’s actually pretty good if otherwise rudimentary. Another developer, however, could spend the time needed to make it something great, then offer it to players, who could decide for themselves if they wanted to stick with Rockstar’s basic tennis game, or pay extra for something better. This could be done for virtually everything in the game – Rockstar could outsource GTA V’s yoga side game, clothing stores, dog training and so on. These third-party extras would effectively be apps.

In a way, this is sort of what Second Life tried to do years ago, but the technology and developer skills weren’t there yet (amazingly, it’s still around, but then again so is MySpace). Ultimately, it may not be Rockstar that pulls it off, but the overall direction does seem probable given the recurring technological trend we’ve seen for decades, where operating systems serve as platforms for applications.

The other side of the coin lies in the burgeoning field of neuroscience, with serious efforts now underway to understand the human brain, consciousness and what really makes people tick. Transhumanists and Singulatarians believe it’s only a matter of time – likely only a few decades – before the entire human personality can be mapped, digitized and replicated.

I suspect they’re right in general, if not in their timelines, and that we will some day be able to transfer our consciousness into the virtual worlds currently being crafted and perfected by the likes of Rockstar. The promise such a system holds is one of a better subjective experience because we’ll be able to choose our life “apps” – if it’s tennis and yoga we want to do all day, we’ll be able to pick those. If it’s a particular job that we find fulfilling, we’ll be able to choose that as well.

Yes, this is The Matrix in a nut shell, but the difference is that we might have a choice in what we get to do with our lives. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where you only have to do what you want to do? Now that would truly be a vacation.