Metric Media recently published an article called “Burning Houses & Gaming the Future”, which explored the utility of game logic in helping people achieve real goals in our increasingly technological society. Now we are going to take that exploration a little further, and dip a toe into the dark waters of mythology, esotericism and religious belief. If you feel that such things hold no relevance or importance in the modern world, I would encourage you to read the previous article and pause for thought. The question is not how true or real you think an idea may be, but rather whether it can be reliably used to motivate people to behaviours with real-world consequences. For example, regardless of whether you care about someone’s beliefs, you probably won’t attack those beliefs as false if you have any reason or desire to avoid confrontation.

In other words, it is the real likelihood of the person’s negative reaction which gives you pause, not that person’s beliefs in and of themselves. That idea is often referred to as the “Thomas theorem”, being a sociological theory formulated in 1928 by W.I. and D.S. Thomas, as follows: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” We can see the clear relevance of the Thomas theorem today, in a world of Fake News (and false accusations of Fake News) proliferating by internet and having increasingly serious global consequences. As noted in the previous article, an interesting implication is that games and mythology can be used as tools to change the world for the better, by encouraging action toward that end. Clearly, the psychological manipulation of belief and behaviour is also an important societal concern in a world of increasingly pervasive smart marketing.

I’ve stepped back from describing specific belief systems in order to make their motivational logic and importance clear, but now let’s take a look at how specific kinds of belief might be used to affect our behaviour. For an extra dash of colour, let’s look at a strain of ancient religious belief which appears to thoroughly permeate modern techno-culture, known as Gnosticism (or more properly in the modern context, “Neo-Gnosticism”). Ancient Gnosticism was a diverse collection of beliefs and practices which flourished in the Near East around the time of early Christianity, with many variants in other times and places. A very short summary of Gnostic belief is that the world is some kind of illusion, trap, or prison, ruled by beings which seek to keep humanity ignorant of a greater nature and destiny. If that sounds familiar, that’s because the basic Gnostic myth has heavily informed the plot of any number of movies over the last twenty years, most notably The Matrix.

The fundamental ethos and virtue of the Gnostic myth is to test boundaries, distrust authority, and value intelligence. While these character traits may not have been considered virtues by the early Catholic Church, they are certainly encouraged in many quarters today, most notably in technology-oriented subcultures. Because Church propagandists never cast Gnosticism in a positive light, to call something “Gnostic” was long considered to imply connotations of heresy, irrationality and irrelevance. For example, in 1998 Erik Davis published his book “TechGnosis”, in which he characterized Extropy (an early and dominant philosophical school of thought within Transhumanism) as being a Neo-Gnostic movement. The fact that the book was published while The Matrix was in production shows that Davis was not the only one to notice such parallels, despite protests from Extropians themselves, who did not like the idea of sharing fundamental features of their worldview with an ancient religion.

So what lessons might we draw from these observations? Joining the dots, can we see anything useful here? Yes, there is a powerful lesson to be learned here, for anyone who would try to achieve anything, change anything, or spread any message in today’s world. That lesson is comprised of four parts:

1. The truth value of a statement or belief may be important, but the consequences of someone holding that belief may be independently important. (This is the essence of the Thomas theorem).

2. The fact that beliefs may come with exotic trappings or be associated with old myths does not necessarily make the beliefs unimportant by either of the measures above.

3. The basic structure of the Gnostic myth is in line with common modern values, is frequently associated with technology use, and can easily be adapted to motivate people because liberation (from an illusory Matrix world or any other situation) is intrinsically a matter of self-interest.

4, Finally, mythological narrative is the very stuff of novels, movies and games, and so it represents a path from ideas to action which is natural and intuitive to members of modern technological society. It’s hard for modern people to not to think in terms of mythological narrative when we’re presented with ideas in familiar media formats. It’s what we do, as a storytelling species, and modern media culture gives us no shortage of practice.

In conclusion, myth is not the enemy or antithesis of technology or realism, just as games are not the opposite of work. These things are simply approaches, frameworks, or tools that we can use to help us solve problems. Truth is often helpful. Technological is often helpful. Myth, narrative, fun and games can be very helpful too, and all of these things can be mixed and matched as necessary. Reality is a team sport, and the rules are more flexible than you might imagine… have fun with it!

originally posted here: