Existential thoughts from video games

by David Hartsough (2020-05-25)

Preface

It might just be me, but it's fascinating to realize how many existential thoughts can stem from survival / resource-gathering / sandbox video games.

After playing No Man's Sky and Raft, I found it pretty amazing that these games sparked significant crises and thoughts on life. Since I had so many thoughts, I decided to write them down and share 'em. I'll start with a not-so-existentialist idea and then just cut deep into the fabric of our existence in the following sections. (If you're looking for the juicy crises, skip to "Objectives".) Enjoy!

The Reality of S P A C E

I've been getting in deep with No Man's Sky lately to recall what all the hype was about. And it has me thinking about space, space travel, and how lucky we are to have Earth. The game rides a very interesting line between trying to please people who love realism and then people who just wanna have fun playing a game. On one hand, they wanted to base their procedural generation off of scientific patterns. On the other hand, the wanted to create an entertaining game with a bit of science fiction.

Curiously, they chose to make the planets and galaxies realistic, but the technology and aliens fictitious.

I realized after playing for awhile that I just wanted to stop dealing with awful planets with terrible weather and nothing interesting. I looked online and other players feel the same. They'll say things like, "Couldn't they have made planets more lush and more filled with plants and animals of all kinds, everywhere?"

It's common for players to eventually get annoyed with desolate, uninhabitable, or basically barren planets. But oddly enough, that's just more likely, realistically. Players find themselves seeking out planets like Earth, because those are the most fun.

But of the trillions of planets that exist in the game, only a small fraction of them are actually "lush" with life. In fact, I'd bet the game's ratio of lush planets to virtually uninhabitable planets is not scientifically accurate, because if it was, no one would play the game.

But it makes me think:

Maybe space travel and space exploration in the future won't be as glamorous or as amazing as we like to imagine. Our sci-fi fandom fantasizes about space. But in reality, it might be a pretty awful place to be.

Objectives

Another big thing this game has made me think about is life and our goals in it.

The game hands you the universe and almost all that you can do in it. Yet most players quickly reach a point of asking: "Wait. What's the point of all of this? What do I do in this game? What am I supposed to do in this game? What's the objective?" To which the game replies, "We've got a large outline and guide for exactly that. You decide how you play. We give you all the options, like missions and quests, exploration, achievement, improvement, customization, creative endeavor, learning languages, scientific advancement, making money, making war, building fleets, building bases and colonies, or defending people from space pirates -- to name a few. So what would you like to do?" And then the player says, "Wait but like what do I do? Why do I do anything?"

And given enough time, the player will actually find themselves embodying their character and having an existential breakdown that might look something like this: "I kind of like digging through these ancient alien ruins, buried technologies, and old wreckage or drop pods. But wait. Why do I care about that? Well, they give me stuff to sell. But why do I care about money in this game? Well, I can buy great upgrades for my mining tool, space suit, and spaceship. But why does that matter? Well, then those upgrades make it so I can more easily explore and mine valuable resources. But why do I care about resources? Well, I guess they allow me to build cool things or sell them. So? Well, I can build bases. What do I do with a base? Well, it can store supplies, protect me from crappy weather, and help me gather and retain resources. Why do I need to store supplies and retain resources? Umm, I can build more cool stuff. What will you build then? Well, maybe a farm, maybe some vehicles. What's the point of farming? Well, you get plants. So? They're resources. Resources for what? Building or powering or selling. But what about the vehicles? They help you get around and mine resources faster. So we're still focused on getting resources and money. But in the end, are all of the resources and money just going back into better ways of acquiring more resources and money? What actually has value in this game? What is actually worthwhile? What does all the resources and money add up to and get you? Will you only just play through the main storyline then pander around the universe chasing after more side missions and more money? What is the point of any of it? What is the objective? What is the end goal?"

You decide...

There are few games that let you decide their purpose and your purpose and the purpose of your character and your character's life inside the game. There's this one, and then there's RL or the big game of Life. (Not Life the board game; that's all about retiring with big bucks.)

You can actually apply this same questioning and logic to our cyclical tendencies in real life:

"I need to go to school. Why? I need to be qualified for a career. Why? I need a job. Why? I need money. Why? I need to buy necessities. Why? I need to live. Why? I need to... Well, I guess I don't need to live. Technically my life is not necessary for anything or anyone or any higher purpose. But I want to live. Why? I'm scared of dying. Why? I might miss out on life, and I don't want to suffer. Why? Life has tons of cool experiences that I enjoy, and the people I care about might keep living after I die. So I don't want to miss out on their lives. Also I think suffering is awful. Why? Suffering causes me to literally feel bad and have bad experiences. So it is bad. Not suffering is good. In fact, the opposite -- flourishing -- is good. And the reason I enjoy parts of life is because sometimes I have spent time with great people, doing great activities, which has caused me to give those people and those activities meaning to me, which means that I decided that they are "good" just precisely because I spent enough time with them and decided that. I want to keep spending my lifetime focused on these good things I've given meaning. If I die, I no longer have time to spend that way. If I die but others kept living, I might miss out on more time I could've spent that way.

What did you decide?

If you were curious, I decided that I'll play the game awhile longer just so I can find a cool planet to call my own, build a base there, and explore all of its cool creatures. So I've given myself an end goal. Once I've done that, I'll probably stop playing.

In real life, I find I'm giving myself end goals to accomplish, but once I complete a goal, I create a new goal. I keep going in real life. I don't stop playing. And I probably won't until my controllers start to die and I can barely complete my goals. Ideally, that's when I'd stop.

"Oh no, not again."

There are also many resource-gathering games that trigger this series of questions that examine the cyclical nature of it all. Honestly a recent game was Raft. My friends and I were playing it for a few weeks and I realized I had strange thoughts coming from this game. For quick context, the game starts you and whoever you're with on a tiny raft in the middle of an endless ocean with the ability to basically fish for resources which are scattered throughout the seas and occasional islands. Oddly enough, this game doesn't truly have an objective or end goal either, but it's primary game mode is called "Survival" in which the goal is to just not die. And that's harder than it sounds, because there are sharks and you have to keep eating food and drinking fresh water. So there's no end, but every moment you stay alive is another achievement of your primary goal.

I found myself fascinated by the ways this game got me to start thinking about life in unexpected ways. While I was playing the game I would get tired of my character continually needing food and water. I felt myself being annoyed by the frequent eating and drinking. But then this slowly started to trickle into my real life mentality where I'd catch myself feeling a little frustrated at myself for getting hungry and needing to cook and eat another meal, again and again.

Thus repeats life.

…

In conclusion

  1. Don't let video games get you frustrated with how often you have to eat, sleep, and fulfill your basic needs.
  2. Forge your own meaning in life.
  3. And don't get too disappointed when space travel turns out to actually be depressing.

Cheers!

Oh, and (4) play games with me (but be warned that I'll get existential… eventually).