"A crackling thriller brimming with both paranoia and philosophical conundrums."
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Full version of the blog: Let There Be Ants (originally published March 20, 2006)
Imagine that you have in your possession a fantastic new invention, a programmable, mechanical ant farm. This farm consists of some dirt and water and plants, as well as a few mechanical ants that have tiny programmable brains in them. These ants are also able, by a fun mechanical diversion, to reproduce.
When you first take the ant farm out of the box and assemble it, the ants can't do anything. You alone are responsible for their behavior by using a set of rules that their programmable brains will follow. You don't necessarily control every decision or motion they make (where would the fun be in that?) but rather you set up the rules and turn them on and watch to see what happens. Will their little civilization rise to greatness, forcing you to buy expansion modules to give them room to grow? Or will it wither and die before it ever really gets started? Oh, and one other fun attribute possessed by these ants: they know they're in the game. The brains are just smart enough to realize that their behavior is controlled by you, the owner of the game. But they're okay with it because otherwise they would enjoy no other existence.
I think a game like that would be fun. It would bear a resemblance to certain city and world building computer simulations, except that it would operate in the physical realm, and you would have complete access to all the rules for every single ant. You, in fact, would have built those rules. Even the new ants that are born from this fantastically fun reproductive diversion come under your control. Because you set the rules for them, too.
Now let's be honest: as fun as it sounds, how long could you play this game before it started to bore you? If you were good at building rules, your ant farm would grow, the ants would multiply and multiply because the most fun thing they would have to do is play the reproductive game. After a while you'd probably get sick of buying expansion modules, because all this growth and productivity would be flat out boring.
After a while you might decide to fuck with the ants.
Like, for instance, you might change a setting in the game that sets a limit on the lifetime of individual ants. You could make six months the maximum lifetime. You could also set a randomizer so that, for some ants, their mechanical bodies would break down more quickly than others. You could tell the ants that certain behaviors would increase their potential lifetime, while other behaviors would decrease it. So now you wonder: Will the ants' behavior change if they know this? Except the randomizer would ultimately carry more importance than ant behavior, which means the ants could never really know for sure how to maximize their lifetimes.
But why stop there? Maybe we could tell the ants that, after their mechanical bodies finally break down, the memory in their little brains might be transferred into the Ecstasy Computer, where for the rest of eternity they could frolic among each other in an endless supply of high speed RAM and CPU cycles. All the ants have to do to ensure their place in the Ecstasy Computer is to follow a set of confusing rules. These rules would be determined by you, the owner of the game.
And here's where you can really fuck with the ants' little brains. Why not present these rules in a cryptic statement, in a computer language not well-known by the ants? And what about making the statement really, really long, and confuse the ants by building conflicting rules? You could give them a set of ten rules that were absolutely, positively unbreakable, but then in your statement you could give examples of historical ants that broke the rules and still made it to the Ecstasy Computer.
Or check this out: Maybe you could take the one activity most enjoyed by the ants--the reproductive diversion--and vilify it. Make them feel guilty about doing it. You could make the urge to engage in this diversion unbalanced between the male and female versions of ants, so that their instructions about the diversion no longer match. You could build rules instructing ants to find a certain partner to play the reproductive game with, and instill a penalty for playing with any other ant: no access to the Ecstasy Computer. But still, the reproductive game is the most fun to play. And yet some ants don't enjoy the reproductive diversion very much because the owner of the game makes them feel so guilty and weird about it. And the female ants are made to feel especially guilty if they enjoy the diversion.
Now we're having fun, eh?
I think the most intriguing part of the game would be access to the Ecstasy Computer. The ants know inherently that life in the EC is way better than in the ant farm, but the only way to get to the EC is first live in the farm for several months, a farm where they must follow confusing and conflicting rules that you set up. They never really know if they're going to make it into the EC until after their time in the farm is up. And the best part of all is that every ant is under your control! You alone decide the fate of each ant, because you build the rules! Through your creative propaganda you make the ants believe their actions determine their fate, but in reality they know this isn't true because you build the rules. After a while a lot of the ants would probably have differing beliefs about the EC, about the rules, and most of them would end up breaking the rules to satisfy their urges while at the same time always feeling guilty about it.
Oh, and don't forget the rule where all the ants must acknowledge your supreme power over their lives. Every day they are required to get down on their little mechanical knees and thank their lucky stars that you don't unplug the whole game (which you did one time in a fit of rage, and then later felt badly about that and restarted the game).
Would someone please invent this game? Because I want to play it.