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How Video Games Might Better Prepare Us for Death

Some of my fondest memories growing up were tied to video games, so it should come as no surprise that as interests of mine have come and gone over time, video games remain a big part of my life. I’ll never forget the first time an 8 year old me played The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and gawked in wonder at exploring new parts of the mysterious Koholint Island.

Of course, I was just like every other kid at that time and equally fascinated with the Pokémon games. Unlike most other games, Pokémon is notorious for allowing only one save file per game cartridge. If you wanted to start a new save file, you had to overwrite the previous one and lose all that former save data.

But that was too difficult for a young me. You see, just like books or movies can sweep people away into emotions that wouldn’t be present in typical life, so was true for me and video games. Like with the aforementioned Link’s Awakening, I felt that it wasn’t a 16-bit Link exploring this island but more that it was an extension of myself. To delete that save file, then, would feel like a deletion of a part of me. At least with Link’s Awakening, there were three save slots, so I could always re-play the game without having to touch my original save data. (I bet if I could find that original game cartridge, that first game save data would still be present on there.)

Unfortunately, we don’t get that luxury with the Pokémon games, so it probably wouldn’t surprise you that I never deleted those original save files. I’d play the heck out of those games over and over, and Pikachu would ever be my Level 100 pal to rescue me should any other challenging Pokémon threaten to steal my chances at a win. (Yes, I acknowledge the level of nerd-dom is super high here.) The 1’s and 0’s programmed to save the state of my Pokémon friends was as sacred to me as my bonds with people in real life.

So imagine how I felt when this rug was ripped out from under me just a year or so later.

We were in Ecuador visiting my relatives, and one of my younger cousins was also interested watching me play Pokémon on my Game Boy Color. He asked if he could take home my Game Boy to play at his house one evening, so I let him borrow it on this occasion. (I can’t ever imagine why I would have done this, so I have to assume my mom forced me to.) Upon returning my Game Boy on the final day of our stay, I turned on Pokémon to see that a new save file was present. You know where this is going: my cousin had overwritten my beloved save so that he could start his own.

And was I ever furious.

Fury was the strongest emotions, but it only topped the list of a wide spectrum of emotions boiling within me. Amongst others were sadness, loss, and despair. (Yes again, I acknowledge that I was a dramatic child.) I couldn’t even look at my cousin the remainder of the day, and given that we returned to Illinois the following day, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say goodbye to him.

Of course, it’s all water under the bridge now, but it still stands out to me as one of my most vivid memories. Granted, I hadn’t experienced any loss of life through real death at that point, so that experience was probably the closest for me to experiencing death. I did eventually overwrite my cousin’s new save file to begin the game again, but it took a while and was never the same. I couldn’t re-capture what I felt with that original save state.

Let me be clear: I acknowledge that the loss of a Pokémon save state comes nowhere close to the actual loss of human life. It’s pretty absurd to even think about the two in the same proximity. But for a young me, the emotions I felt behind that loss were totally real. It sort of shames me to say that that loss was stronger for me than when my Abuelito — my mother’s dad — passed away a year later. Granted, we were not close only because he lived in Ecuador and saw him maybe once a year at best, but shouldn’t I have still had a stronger sense of loss at the passing of a real human being?

This is why I love video games. The best video games whisk us away from our everyday life to experience very real emotions that we wouldn’t experience going about our day-to-day business. In my opinion, video games do a better job at this than do books or movies because of the inherent interactivity apparent in all video games. I think about story-driven games like Firewatch where I experience the beautiful Wyoming landscape via this character and experience the same loss that he’s going through by attempting to escape his “real life” problems. (I’m not going to spoil what those are but instead encourage you to play the game for yourself.) The choices I make along the way on behalf of this character shape how the story continues to unfold. With very few exceptions (like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), you don’t get to make choices like that in other forms of media.

Again, as “unreal” as these games are, the emotions we experience are undeniably real. There’s no way I could fake that fury and sadness at the loss of my Pokémon save file, nor would I desire for a young child to experience those emotions in any capacity. I suppose the question I have here is the question I pose at pretty much every life event these days: what can we learn here?

I’m not going to go too deep into this next topic here, but if we’re really honest with ourselves, we don’t know what the meaning of this life is. Perhaps Elon Musk is right and we are indeed living in a simulation much like the one in The Matrix film series. We simply don’t have the means of knowing that. In that sense, our lives aren’t too far off from video games. Like characters in a video game, how do we know we’re not one small piece of something cosmologically bigger than anything we could ever imagine? Not that the Pokémon characters have a consciousness like ours, but if they did, how would they ever begin to understand that their actions were ultimately guided by a 9 year old human child playing on a device referred to as a Game Boy? And that their whole existence could be wiped away in an instant when that child’s cousin came along to start a new “save file”? Applying those thoughts to our own existence is quite absurd!

Here’s the nice thing about our scenario: we know what happens to these video game worlds after they are deleted or overwritten. This virtual death isn’t necessarily permanent and can be recreated anew. So no, I’ll never be able to get back that Pikachu as I once knew him, but I can recover some semblance of him. And if I can learn to simultaneously let go of that former Pikachu while still holding him fondly in my heart, I can learn to equally love this new Pikachu in this new save file.

(Side note: this probably has to be the most absurd post I’ve ever written.)

Even though this is a totally bonkers post, the real life implications are very strongly present, especially in Western culture. We don’t talk about death, and we attempt to avoid it at all cost. My dad is an HVAC specialist for many places including nursing homes, and I’ve done a lot of work with him in these places. It pains me to say that many people I saw in those places simply weren’t happy. And it wasn’t because they weren’t receiving adequate care, but I think it was more because they desperately wanted to cling onto this life even if it meant being totally dependent on the care of others to do so.

What video games have taught me is that “death” in one capacity can bring “life” in another. Sure, I lost that Pokémon save file, but it gave me the opportunity to play the game again and experience all those happy, joyous emotions again. These days, I’m much more casual about overwriting former save files when needed because I can lovingly let go of what once was to experience love and jog again in a new capacity. (Ironically, the newest Pokemon games still only allow one save file per game, and I have been much more willing now overwrite the files on these new games.)

I must say though, this process of applying what I have learned from video games is not easy and frankly gets more difficult with time. When I think about my daughters in particular, the thought of ever letting go of them in my own death is too much to handle. I acknowledge that it will inevitably happen some day, but my fondest prayer everyday is that I can remain in good health another day to see them grow into strong, beautiful young women. And as they grow every day, I grow to love them more and more. The fear and anticipatory pain of losing them only grows more with the passing of time.

So it’s something I definitely haven’t figured out yet. I imagine this idea of growing more content with my own death will be a constant process until that day when I finally take my last breath. But at least I’m grateful for this metaphor I’ve found through video games in finding new life after death.

This might have seemed like a pretty morbid post, but my hope is that you see it as a hopeful one. Death is not a final loss. As Ram Dass used to say, “Death is like taking off a tight, well worn shoe.” I have faith that there is life beyond this one, and that is where I place my hope. I hope then, friends, that you take comfort in this idea. And I hope this also helps you develop a new appreciation for video games as they have for my own life.

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