Life Is Poorly Designed; That’s Why We Turn to Video Games

Ryan Avent has a terrific article here for The Economist‘s 1843 Magazine. I’m already well aware of how alluring video games can be, how they serve to stave off or at least distract from depression, or how they offer the sorts of in-game rewards that might seemingly be impossible to achieve in the real world. (This may explain the rise of competitive eSports.)

Avent goes a step further, though, in explaining this as if life itself were a video game. He doesn’t really dwell on the potentially good design decisions (gamifying chores or schoolwork), but he nails the societal implications of what happens when life itself fails those who are attempting to “play” (i.e., live) it. To wit: “The choices we make in life are shaped by the options available to us. A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life.” Not everybody can get a college degree, at least not immediately, and this begins to curtain opportunities; simultaneously, even those who have gone through the collegiate grinder may find themselves underemployed: unsatisfied,  unchallenged, and turning inevitably to virtual reality for that fix, that more instantaneous achievement or visible reward.

The designers of the game of life, such as they are, may have erred in structuring the game in a way that encourages young people to seek an alternate reality. They have spread the thrills and valuable items too thinly and have tweaked the settings to reward special skills that cannot be mastered easily even by those prepared to spend long hours doing so. Unsurprisingly, some players are giving up, while others are filling the time not taken up in rewarding, well-compensated work with games painstakingly designed to make them feel good.

It is not necessarily that people are turning to games because they are lazy, so much as that they are turning to games because they don’t have enough to do. Moreover, while the older generations may scoff or be confused by the fixation on video games as a reward, is that really any more unhealthy than drinking alone or with friends? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the root causes that drive people to alcohol or digital in the first place, to question why so many people feel a need to “escape” or numb themselves. Let’s take the judgement out of it, too, as if you can’t learn as much from a well-made game as from novel, TV show, or, really, any other form of art. The problem is not that people game, it is that gaming threatens to become more attractive and fulfilling than the real world, and that’s less a personal failing than a weakness of our modern society (or a comment on its porousness, such that there are now many new and unfamiliar ways with which to interact with it). Life is an unwinnable game; like Backgammon, it can at best be hedged against (assuming you know all the rules), but it can never be optimized.

Avent has plenty of light economic analysis in his article, too, speaking about how, if gaming is your luxury, you might not need to work as many late hours, or as hard, to earn yourself the freedom to spend more time with the Mario Brothers. He warns, too, of the unseen costs of the future–the creep of healthcare, rent, food,  inflation–that may ruin one of the many modern gamers who have immersed themselves in the Temporary Now. But the real Black Mirror-like twist of his article is this line: “It is not always clear when gaming is the refuge of the trapped and when it is the trap.” Admiral Ackbar doesn’t help us; we know it’s a trap. The only way change will come, then, is if there is some clear, achievable path to the next “level” in life–which is problematic if you believe, cynically, that those who are in control have no interest in seeing anyone else ascend.

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