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A Video Gamer’s Guide to Life

If you know anything about me at all, you know I love video games. I’m not interested in sports, don’t watch much TV, nor am that active on social media. But video games… those are my jam.

But not just any video games. I don’t play a lot of games most people play, including shooters (Fortnite, Call of Duty), sports games (Madden, FIFA), nor fighters (Mortal Kombat). I’m really more interested in puzzle games, platformers, and games with solid storylines. Think games like The Legend of Zelda, Celeste, or even Assassin’s Creed. (That last one used to be really good at philosophy.)

Now, for as much as I love video games, I have never become attached to any that have made me overly frustrated for longer than a few hours. Most gamers understand that a game is just a game, and we can always come back to try again another day. So if I get stuck on a particularly difficult boss, no worries. I can simply set down the controller for a while and come back later when I’m in a better mood.

So the question is, can we apply this same logic to life? In other words, can we sustain a level of detachment to not get too bogged down by the weightiness of life while still remaining engaged enough?

Lots of things to unpack here, and fair warning, this post can be a bit heavy. Let’s break it down over a few sections.

The first thought that might have popped mind is that it’s easy to walk away from video games as opposed to life because video games aren’t real. That’s true in the very conventional sense of understanding, but I suppose the question I have is, what constitutes reality? What makes the world of a video game any more or less different than what you and I experience as “reality”?

The truth is, we really don’t know. Theoretically speaking, I could be an NPC (non-playable character) in your life. For those of you unfamiliar with NPCs, they are the AI characters you interact with in video games, like shopkeepers or townspeople. You have no way of verifying that I’m real. Perhaps even weirder to think about, how do you know that the reality you’re experiencing was created just last Thursday? When you boot up a game for the first time, the game is initialized right into that spot in time without any awareness that the game of the world was actually just initiated a few minutes ago when you put that disc into the console’s slot. It’s not impossible that the “memories” you and I have are pre-programmed fabrications.

Even more interesting is how people experience universal realities on different substances. For example, if you and I got stupid drunk right now, we’d either sing or complain about a boss or exgirlfriend. The experiences are relative to ourselves. What I find extremely interesting is the supposed experiences that people have on chemicals like psilocybin or DMT. People simultaneously taking the drug have noted similar experiences, including “hallucinating” the same sort of elf-like creatures. Spooky, right?

(Btw, I have NO firsthand experience to verify that at all.)

So the question is, if we all experience a universal reality while sober yet a similar universal reality while on these particular drugs… then what’s to say the sober reality is the “best” one? The reality experience on a regular basis is simply an elaborate hallucination caused by the natural chemicals in our sober human body. If we could tweak our bodies to constantly circulate DMT, how would our daily lives be different?

Anyway, I’m not settled on anything myself. My purpose here is to simply encourage different ways of thinking. I feel this expansion will make the other sections more palatable. (Or, at least I hope.)

Okay, so with the nature of reality out of the way, let’s move onto the purpose of life. Now if you think I’m going to be brash enough to say I’ve got it figured out, I’m sorry to disappoint. Rather, I want to talk about two very common life purposes and why they’re ultimately futile.

The first is longevity. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe health and wellness are super important, but if you’re simply extending your life to extend your life… then what’s the point? Nursing homes illustrate this best. I’m not trying to demean anybody here, but nursing homes are sadly full of miserable people. Do we really think we’re doing these people a favor to enable them to live another day in misery? Please don’t mistake this as a case for elderly euthanization. I want the elderly to live a fulfilling life just as I do myself, but to extend their life without helping them increase their purposeful quality life seems cruel.

The second and perhaps more prevalent is this idea that we should always be happy. But happiness is such a fleeting and moving target. Like, I used to freaking love Shock Tarts as a kid, so happiness to me then was stuffing as many of those things into my mouth as possible. Today, I have absolutely zero interest in Shock Tarts. My recollection of them is that they used to hurt the heck out of my mouth.

If the goal is happiness… then how do you really sustain that in a meaningful way? Think about your car or your diploma or your smartphone. You were probably really excited the first time you got any of those. Now, those are second nature and don’t cause that happiness you experienced the first time around. This is why drug addicts end up overdosing, because they’re “chasing a dragon” of elevating the experience of a drug the very first time they took it.

The chase will never end.

So if we understand that reality isn’t as fixed as we think it is and that the purpose in life isn’t happiness or longevity, what do we focus on then?

To understand that, let’s revisit the analogy of the video game. The reason we play games is that they bring some sort of enjoyment in engaging with the game while understanding that we will inevitably walk away from the game, whether that be back to “real life” or onto another video game. Like today, I had fun playing Cadence of Hyrule but then set the game down to play a little of this new game called Gris. And since it’s Father’s Day, I also enjoyed a lovely breakfast with my beautiful girls.

If I got overly attached to a single video game, it would cause nothing but suffering. I would choose not to enjoy any other game nor real life. I would be afraid of losing my save file. I would be concerned with an ever stable WiFi connection.

Is that any way to live life?

The suffering comes from a strong attachment to something we don’t really buy into at a gut level anyway. Think about all the things we do to “keep up with the Joneses.” Does that bigger house really satisfy you? Do the clothes you wear bring intrinsic happiness? Why do you care so much about what other people think?

That said, I believe the goal of life is freedom from attachment. To be able to play with this life just like I play with a video game. Don’t confuse this: freedom from attachment does NOT mean disengagement. Rather, you free yourself from the bonds of being attached to things so that you choose to engage with those things or people that do bring you joy and peace.

This is the space I’ve been exploring for the past year. On one hand, I have found these last few months to be the most fulfilling of my entire life, but I’ll be honest, the flip doesn’t switch overnight. I still find myself constantly attached to things I know are futile and that are making me miserable. Frankly, I think I’ll always have this battle.

Still, I focus on the hope that this mindset brings.

This post is getting long, but if you’re wondering if this mindset is compatible with things like the idea of religion, the very quick answer is yes. Since this is a video games oriented post, I thought I’d end by listing some specific games that have brought a lot of meaning into my own life. I hope you enjoy these, too. In no particular order:

  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • Undertale
  • The Talos Principle
  • Firewatch
  • Minecraft
  • Braid
  • The Witness
  • Journey
  • Celeste

Written by

Machine learning engineer by day, spiritual explorer by night.

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