The game of life

Recently, there have been many interactive video games made available that make games of the past seem trivial. Games like EverQuest, Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, provide real-time virtual domains where one can interact with friends, collect gold and equipment, solve quests, and earn a reputation.

These games are so addictive that studies have been made, and organizations created, to help people wean themselves from their powerfully addictive nature.

Hmmm… making friends, collecting gold, earning a reputation, becoming attached to your character and its progress… that sounds awfully familiar…

Many gamers, after spending day-long binges at the screen, describe an experience of “soul suck”, or feeling that their vital essence has been drained away by the actions of mouse and keyboard. One friend could not stop until he realized that his gaming was just too similar to those rat experiments, where a wire is connected to the pleasure center of the rat’s brain, and it pushes a button over and over again – neglecting sleep, food and health – to get that “fix”. In his case, it was a mouse button (a perverse irony there), but the similarity of the experience was too clear to be ignored.

However, games aren’t bad. Played in moderation they are much better than television, since they require skills of coordination, planning, and they involve learning and memorization: none of which a sitcom provides. It is the degree of absorption that worries parents and players, not the game itself.

For what happens when the character dies, and everything is over? It doesn’t matter if Xena the Magnificent had one million gold pieces or one, it all goes away in a single instant. Nothing is carried over into “real life” except the lessons learned and the character traits that may now appear in ordinary living. In fact, it is by asking, “What did I gain from all that time and energy and devotion?” that some people decide the game isn’t worth continuing. Compared with the result, the energy invested doesn’t pay off. We could have been talking with real friends, walking outside, making money, doing something constructive.

Or is even that investment so fruitful as we think?

Because yet another day awaits us all, when this game – the game in which you and I are players, and what your character is doing right now is reading e-mail – will be shut off, and then it doesn’t matter if we earned one million dollars or one; all we’ll take with us is the lessons learned and those character traits relevant enough to our soul that they’ll carry on. At that moment we may realize how little our “investment” in this life truly pays off. Perhaps in the next world there are even organizations, hard at work figuring out how to detach us from our addiction to this very compelling game we share in. God sends a Representative every thousand years or so to remind us of the fact.

But games aren’t that bad. They test us, cause us to learn, setup mock battles that perchance we will do better when the real fight comes. No, it isn’t the game that needs changing: but the player.

Some people who play games have fun, they enjoy themselves tremendously, and use the game as a way to get closer to others. Party games supposedly exist only for that purpose. We know that the “money” we’re spending is play money, and that the outcome of the game is irrelevant if anyone isn’t having fun. We play the game for the spirit it engenders, and if it ceases to provide this, it’s not worth continuing.

As we look at life, ponder how quickly it will all end; as fast as pulling the plug on a round of EverQuest. All that seemed important, all that appeared as gain, will vanish without a trace. Sure, the experience of playing stays with you, but that depends on how you played the game.

The money you have with you now, it is play money. The house, the car, the dog, these are but items in one’s inventory – tools the game character uses to continue playing. Elves in EverQuest need food too, they need transport. It’s not that these things aren’t important relative to their purpose. But Elves aren’t real! The horses they ride aren’t real! As for that Honda… we call it real? Are “man” and “woman” real?

If the game leads to joy, if it unites the players, strengthening their character, teaching them new things, great. As long as the player keeps in mind that it is only a game, it’s hard to go wrong. Staying mindful of the context ensures that our idea of “success” is in keeping with the game’s true purpose.

It is only when we identify ourselves with that ruddy dwarf in Ultima Online that mishaps begin to bother us. Yet anyone will tell you, you’re not that dwarf, it’s only a silly game character! Hmm… I am not my ego. That’s not even a new concept.

Keep it light, play the game, enjoy. We’re hear to make friends, and to use the equipment in our roster to keep playing. But there’s a reason for not taking these things seriously: games just aren’t a serious matter.

Say: O people! Let not this life and its deceits deceive you, for the world and all that is therein is held firmly in the grasp of His Will. He bestoweth His favor on whom He willeth, and from whom He willeth He taketh it away. He doth whatsoever He chooseth. Had the world been of any worth in His sight, He surely would never have allowed His enemies to possess it, even to the extent of a grain of mustard seed. He hath, however, caused you to be entangled with its affairs, in return for what your hands have wrought in His Cause. This, indeed, is a chastisement which ye, of your own will, have inflicted upon yourselves, could ye but perceive it. Are ye rejoicing in the things which, according to the estimate of God, are contemptible and worthless, things wherewith He proveth the hearts of the doubtful?1

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of, p. 209