Could Life Be A Video Game?

super mario bros

I’ve returned to a hobby I picked up during my college years: designing computer games. As I’ve learned more about how to make a great game, I’ve also learned a thing or two about human nature.

Even in this era of HD graphics and complex story lines, the rooted premise of any great game remains fairly simple — “get from point A to point B,” or “kill these badguys,” or “defend your castle.” Gain levels, earn experience, grow stronger. Win, win, win.

A game is most addicting when the player is formidably challenged and yet rolling on a momentum of victory after victory. That’s the moment when the player loses himself in the game and forgets to feed the dog, along with his daily troubles and life’s anxieties, destroying enemies and achieving victory. Thus your mission as the game master is to generate this rush as long and often as possible.

Friedrich Nietzsche new about the philosophy of video games before they were even invented. “Happiness is the feeling that power increases — that resistance is being overcome.”

Possibly the worst way for a game designer to sabotage his project is to create a puzzle that is impossible to solve, an enemy who is impossible to beat, or a maze with no way out. The player expects to be helped and guided in his journey, so every second he spends wandering in the level, lost and confused, is one in which he will quickly hurl the controller/keyboard across the room and quit.

Video game players love to be challenged — that’s why games exist. But nobody enjoys being frustrated. The player’s time will have been wasted.

Were only life like a video game.

When people are frustrated — yes, even me — we instinctively look for a way out. A button to shut off the world or reset our mistakes. Something deep in our brains tells us that whatever is going on is a flaw. It’s not supposed to be happening, not to us. Is that a dysfunctional impulse reinforced by playing video games?

There is neither design nor intent to the form of our lives. Video games — playing them and designing them — give us the power to create this comforting illusion. It’s why we love them. However, it isn’t video games that cause this behavior. It’s the other way around.

Video games are appealing because people subconsciously yearn to be set in the grooves of a narrow path with a defined task. This path, unfortunately, is almost always defined by authorities. Level one is the tutorial round when we learn that mother and father are infallible and our score is their approval. At level two, we are sent to public schools, where each minute of our day we are assigned “missions” and scored by grades (be they far more mundane than what you’d find in a video game) with the mission to graduate. Level three, we go off to college racking points and solving financial aid puzzles in hopes of attaining a job. Level four, the job is a new maze and our score is the money we earn and the prestige we gain.

In humanity’s infinite capacity for narcissism, we fashion ourselves as the lone hero on a dangerous quest, the fate of the world upon our shoulders, even though our lives are basically inconsequential. We keep our own score based on what we value — money, friends, power, accomplishments — but in this game, no matter how many points one scores, it always ends the same. After a good time (or bad), the player shuts off the console, packs up the controllers and goes on his way.

There is another genre of video game, called “open world” games, which totally turns this particular gaming methodology on its head. These games are incredibly popular, because instead of following a strict, regimented path, the player is free to explore the game’s world, choosing which missions he will complete, which path he will follow and the type of character he will turn out to be. These games will even expose the player to the consequences of their actions, for good or ill.

So if life is a video game, then what you need to know is this — it’s an open world. You are free to do whatever you please, though you will of course face the consequences. It’s a game where you only have one life to lose, the only game you cannot quit. For some, that may mean packing up their belongings in a bindle and hitch hiking across the world. For others, it might look like quitting their day job and joining the Peace Corps. For the rest of us, if nothing else, it means simply being aware of our freedom can make life the greatest game anyone can imagine.


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