Or: The Philosophy Of Gaming

Sometimes you read a book that changes your life - if only in a subtle way. Sometimes you read a book that illuminates a niche school of thought you’d always been interested in exploring; both for your own passion and for the edification of others. Sometimes that niche, somewhat ironically, happens to be connected to the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

‘Reality is Broken’, by think-tanker, game designer and psychologist Jane McGonigal is one such book. If you have even the remotest interest in gaming, or its attendant psychology, you need to read it. As I was doing so, the first couple of chapters inspired in me an idea that made me think ‘Ah-ha! Jane! Bet (or hope) you haven’t written about this particular connection before’.

The excerpt is as follows:

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we're good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression. When we're playing a good game - when we're tackling unnecessary obstacles - we are actively moving ourselves toward the positive end of the emotional spectrum. We are intensely engaged, and this puts us in precisely the right frame of mind and physical condition to generate all kinds of positive emotions and experience."

"If only hard work in the real world had the same effect. In our real lives, hard work is too often something we do because we HAVE to do it - to make a living, to get ahead, to meet someone else’s expectations, or simply because someone else gave us a job to do. We resent that kind of work. It stresses us out. ...or worse, real-world work isn’t hard enough. We’re bored out of minds. We feel completely underutilized. We feel unappreciated. We are wasting our lives."

To clarify: McGonigal argues that computer games = enjoyable hard work = why playing them can actually make your life better, and that got me wondering what games Voltaire (and other great thinkers) would have enjoyed. The results, I impulsively concluded before writing this article, could lead to an anachronistic cultural epiphany on an earth shattering scale.

If you’ve never read ‘Candide’ by Voltaire, don’t fret; whilst it’s undoubtedly a great literary classic, the narrative can also very easily be summated: a series of unfortunate events and tragic coincidences befall our ever-optimistic, slightly naive protagonist Candide, as his fate propels him around the world (via El Dorado.) The novella concludes with Candide and a small retinue of friends, including his mentor Pangloss, occupying a small farm on the ‘Ottoman coast’, tending to their small farm and trying not to concern themselves with rationalizing all the injustice and evil to which they’ve hitherto been exposed. The moral of the story? Hard, practical work is pretty much the answer to everything, including happiness.

This denouement evokes a significant tenet of Zen, or Taoism, that of the path to inner calm being usually reached through working hard and not over-reaching. Hell, maybe Confucius would have loved the ceremony of Shogun: Total War or the possibilities for reflection offered by the morality systems of modern games like Bioshock or the Mass Effect series. And while we're at it, would Wittgenstein and Sartre have identified with Wario's inevitable existential dilemma?

And so Voltaire and Confucius would probably have agreed with McGonical on many of her points, not least of which being that the simple, soul-nurturing thrill of hard work is fundamentally important to being happy, or at the very least, inuring yourself against sadness.

In much the same way as ‘The Continuum Concept’ by Jean Liedloff introduces readers to an Amazonian tribe who make no distinction, in language or otherwise, between ‘work’ and ‘play’, McGonigal suggests that in setting ourselves and overcoming unnecessary obstacles do we actually enjoy ourselves the most. It’s not that alien a concept to some people; think of work-a-holics, or professional athletes whose training regimes and diets could hardly be considered fun, natural, or necessary - and of course, gaming hobbyists.

Candide (and by extension, Voltaire himself) discovers that working towards a simple, earthy goal in a small community is his true calling. McGonigal argues that the precepts underpinning good game design can be applied to all walks of life. So imagine if Voltaire had be able to play Tetris; the game you can never win, but which represents for so many the perfect game. Would he have decried games such as Tetris, as detractors such as Roger Ebert do, as a mindless time-killer, obstructing people from making the best use of their time? Or would he have amalgamated its gameplay structure into his philosophy that the greatest joy in life isn’t untold riches (Candide gets booted out of El Dorado) or youthful beauty (his lover Cunégonde becomes ravished and disfigured) but the simple application of oneself to a task?

I think the latter, although I do worry he’d never have written ‘Candide’ for trying to beat his high score one last time.