If life were a game, it would be a poorly designed one

If life were a game, many people would say it wasn’t terribly well designed. And that may be one explanation for why many people retreat from life and into games that are actually well-designed to capture and hold attention and provide quick fulfillment.

There have been a number of articles wandering through the ill-lit halls of the Internet recently discussing the idea that young people are retreating from the real world into games. For angry everyman from down the road it’s a sign of the wastrel tendencies of today’s youth. For the more reasoned, and the economists amongst us, the question is whether it is a lack of employment opportunities, or fulfillment in employment, which leads to people looking for alternatives to fill their time; or whether the gaming alternatives are so compelling they are, drug-like, sucking people in to a wasteful dead-end.

It’s a vexed question and it’s probably impossible to untangle the threads for each individual. If you are a young person with few employment opportunities and a day to fill, then spending it working your way through a mythical world as an increasingly powerful figure may be just what you need to get through the day. It certainly beats drink or drugs as an escape, and is probably more useful that watching daytime television. Someone in years past might have spent the same time reading, and it’s hard to rate one form of harmless escapism over another.

Of course modern games are designed with great care to provide fulfillment, to goad the player into staying and attempting the next level, to become immersed and captivated. And in that sense perhaps they pull people away from the real world, they are less an escape and more something you deliberately gravitate towards and engage with. (By the way, a well-written book does much the same things, just in a less overtly immersive fashion.) It is certainly arguable that modern games offer a more active approach to capturing attention and time (and money) than the more passive escapism of times past.

These are two sides to the same coin – is an individual retreating or advancing (perhaps backwards) – and in that sense the result doesn’t really matter. But if, over the coming decades, you want people to engage more in reality and not spend their lives in some Matrix virtuality then you have to accept that the issue is not going to be resolved by making games less compelling, that’s not going to happen; instead you need to make real life more compelling.

This, of course, is very much a First-World issue. One where either society’s safety net or the family safety-net can allow a person to choose between a job and income and spending the day playing games. In the short-term that choice may seem like a minor waste, but longer-term it presents real issues as neither parents or society can endlessly provide a free ride, especially when the next generation has been too busy gaming to build up the capital to support the generation after that.

Which brings us back to life being a poorly designed game. Grinding through the lower levels only to find there is only more grinding later; never getting the cool powers you see others playing with; finding yourself over-matched in each interaction. None of that is good game design: But’s it’s a brutal summary of what faces too many people.

But none of this is new. Like many instances what we see today is just a more sophisticated version of what has gone before.  In 1859 Scientific American railed against a game…

A pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages…chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while it affords no benefit whatever to the body.

So let’s not blame the games for providing a panacea. We should instead be focused on ensuring the World is one where games are something you just play for fun and lose yourself in for hours, not as a long-term alternative to reality. Maybe we need a game designer and a marketing plan for life.

One thought on “If life were a game, it would be a poorly designed one

  • April 12, 2017 at 8:59 am

    Interestingly, there was a study done where rats were given access to powerful drugs, and when the rats were given a park to play in, they didn’t take them and actively avoided them when forced to. The rats in cages, however, stayed drugged for as long as they could each day. Interesting links with games and the real word.


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