Games Are Better Than Life

I’ve been sorting through my inbox lately in pursuit of the elusive zero. As I’ve done so I’ve come across some disheartening things: business opportunities I missed or let languish, messages from people who played my games whom I never responded to, and personal communications that (with hindsight) I would have handled differently or continued longer.

At the same time, I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed II (which I put off for a long time due to the awful DRM, now improved). Its sidequests have grown tedious, so I’ve been soldiering through the game just to complete the plot, despite the fact that the story would be a disappointment even if I got it in a 25-cent used-book-store paperback.

So much of my real-life time is taken up with things that don’t leave me with anything lasting, while things that are actually important have languished. What does it mean when I can focus on the important part of a game, but I let life’s sidequests distract me from the central plot?

It means that games are better than life.

Unintelligent Design

I’m not talking about Skinner Box conditioning here. Games are simply more effective at communicating progress toward their goals.

Games, at their core, are simulations of life. With their rules and abstractions, they make a statement about how the world works. In order to communicate this effectively, they must expose these rules to the player through play and provide guidance through the simulation. Without exposing the rules, the game’s argument can never be understood. Without guidance in the form of goals, the player might miss important statements or encounter complex areas of the simulation before the player has been adequately prepared.

Life, of course, does not have such a burden. We still do not understand many of the rules governing our minds, bodies, and environments, and we receive little guidance from the system concerning what goals we should be pursuing. If existence was designed in order to convey an argument, it was not designed very well.

The Game of Life

Imagine a game in which the “main quest” might not reveal itself until at least a fifth of the way through the game. Side quests reward you with flashy graphics while the apparent main thrust of the game gives you zero signs of progress for quite some time and, even once you start seeing signs of progress, those signs are subtle.

This would be a game that combined the worst of Bethesda and inscrutable art games. Sprawling, too-detailed, hard to understand, and often impossible to bring to a satisfying conclusion.

This is why things like Inbox Zero exist. It’s why much of philosophy and spirituality exist: to give context, to shape the experience of life, to solidify an argument of the text. We create rules and structure for our lives in order to make them works of achievement and meaning.


I didn’t reach Inbox Zero, but I am down below 200. Life, at the moment, is good if unusual in many ways.

And Assassin’s Creed II? Uninstalled. I’ve got better things to do.

2 thoughts on “Games Are Better Than Life

  1. I started playing Sleeping Dogs a while back. I’ve been having similar thoughts about it. Why do I keep doing these stupid side quests? Because I want my character to be able to wear a cooler suit?

    Sometimes NPCs say stuff to you like, “Oh man, what’d I’d give to live your life,” which is kind of funny. In the game, you’re always working, technically: it’s your paid, full-time job to be an undercover cop/gang member. And your house is a barely used place, and as you progress through the game, you acquire bigger and more sterile houses, and you lose track of where they all are, and your world gets bigger, and your work becomes more widespread, but the goals and the mechanics always stay the same and keep you grounded in these bite-sized, level-sized, self centric instances where, really, the only options are success or failure.

    I know the game is at least a bit self-aware. There’s jokes about the typical open world rampages it expects that you will go on, but I wonder how self-aware it really is.

    The reason Inbox Zero exists has something to do with narrative and denouement, I think. I don’t know how helpful that is, since zero overnight becomes eight or eight hundred again. It’s maybe a recipe for obsessive compulsion or even more general forms of anxiety (for me, at least).

    I’m so glad that I don’t view my life as some kind of journey, building toward something, or some kind of completion. I wish more games were more like that. But it’s hard, even in games that fall more transparently into the simulation category, to stop viewing things in terms of “How successful can I be?” Maybe I’d feel better about it if these games would make me re-evaluate what kind of success is useful or meaningful… or something.

  2. Assassin’s Creed II is gameplay-centric and it shows. Assassin’s Creed III does a fairly good job with the presentation of its story, handling dramatic tension and the like pretty well and doing some clever things with interactive storytelling. But although it’s absolutely beyond comparison to AC2, in the end it’s still morally dissatisfying at important times. Unfortunately, when I had played it, the third game’s DRM was as bad as the previous one’s.

    In regards to the central idea of your post, I think it’s worth mentioning that many principles of game design are there to achieve the goal of pleasing the player (or at least not frustrating them pointlessly). Life is not nearly so considerate.

    Even making rules for the sake of guidance isn’t the same as having everything carefully tailored for the sake of your experience.

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