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Video Games That Make You Realize how Meaningless Life Really is

Recently I’ve found myself wanting video games back in my life. It occurred to me that I didn’t have to get a complicated video game, I could just play one of the many video games available free online. I hadn’t tried out the games on social networking sites yet, so I dove in and started playing Crime City on Google+ (it’s like mafia wars on facebook). What I discovered horrified me.

Crime City is not really a game in the traditional sense. There is no way to lose; it’s all about constant upward progress with no real obstacles, meaning, or end. You are given a certain amount of energy to use, and once you use it up committing crimes and such you just have to wait for it to regenerate. You can’t go to jail or die. Time is the only real commodity, which can be exchanged for money by simply clicking on jobs. You can buy buildings and make your own little crime city, and these buildings will slowly accumulate cash, but they usually don’t pay themselves off for about a year (especially if you upgrade them). The game is a strikingly good example of the nature of capitalism: the constant drive to reinvest, the endless accumulation, and the loss of meaning in life. Looking over the cities of my mafia members, I could see quite clearly the struggle between having a nice looking little town or a cash producing industrial complex. Players are allowed to get two of most every building, a good financial choice but poor aesthetically.  Some players clearly compromised, with a line of meaningless doppelganger buildings on the border of their city and a nicer intentional image in the center. Some just abandoned all hope of a nice town and paved everything over with concrete, shoving all of the buildings to one side.

I struggled with this dichotomy for some time in the game, between making money and having a pretty home, and each time I had this struggle I realized that there was absolutely no point to the game. Was I supposed to make money? Have the best looking city? Have the highest stats? Kill the most people? Every accomplishment became a means to more accomplishments and thus lost value. Eventually I sold all of my buildings and put down grass and dirt where the concrete used to be, and I remade my crime city into Crime Park. The ironic thing about my park is that now that I’m not constantly looking for buildings to reinvest my money I have more money than I know what to do with, and once again I realized how pointless the game is.

Looking around, almost every single game on social networking sites follows this model (even the Real time strategy games and The Sims Social). It’s a good model because it creates an opportunity for the game creators to sell you things in the game for real money. I didn’t think people would fall into the trap, but probably about 20 out of 450 of my mafia members have used real money in the game, and I have seen a person who spent at least $300 on his city. To reiterate, someone spent enough money to feed a starving child for a year on fake buildings in a meaningless game.

The point of the game, in the end, is status. Just as with capitalism. It’s not about what makes you happy, it’s about what makes other people jealous of you; it’s about your jealousy of others. After helping a less powerful mafia member kill a boss he told me “Wow, I’ll be so happy when I can do as much damage as you.” Of course, the game scales up with your power, such that you always feel less than adequate, needing something more. You’ll never be happy in such a perverse system.

Video games don’t have to be this way, and they shouldn’t be this way (and the same goes for real life). This contemporary iteration of meaningless social games is a reflection of our social ills: we are looking for games not to enhance our lives, but to take up time, be addictive, and provide symbols of status. We are looking for games that are trying to sell us something. One mafia member renamed his city “Capitalism is Crime.” I would also say “Crime City is Capitalism.”



Video Games and the Technological Singularity

This is the first of a two-part post. This first post will be a more positive discussion of the relationship of video games and our view of life and the technological singularity. The second post will be about how some contemporary games reflect negatively on our social system.


I grew up on video games. My parents were opposed to the idea of console game systems, but they couldn’t help but have computers in the house, so my two older brothers and I would sit around a clunky monitor all day, taking hour long turns playing the original Prince of Persia, The Incredible Machine and so on. Looking back, it would have been nice if my parents had forced me to read a book every once in a while, but I know that was probably a pretty hard battle to fight.

It’s not like I don’t value my time playing video games. There is something spiritually fulfilling about them, something innate to our being. That’s probably why they’re so addictive.

I really enjoy watching commercials for video games. Whenever they come on my girlfriend rolls her eyes and says “we get it! There are guns and explosions in slow motion!” and I rebuke her, telling her in my condescending way that she doesn’t understand what she’s seeing. Take the recent trailer for Max Payne 3 (a bit graphic):

What is being sold in this trailer doesn’t look like a video game as much as an action movie. Actual screen footage of gameplay is seen as detrimental to the effect. Some producers have applied this ideal not only to trailers but to the game itself, with a trend toward having more action in cut scenes than in actual gameplay, as if watching a movie that you can occasionally participate in. The main difference between contemporary high production video games and action movies is the protagonist. A video game must be more like a novel: character driven and approachable. Any given player must be able to see himself in the protagonist, whose struggle is the centerpiece.

These trailers above all sell realism, which is why they want to look like movies. This will change soon, and it relates to the singularity. Very soon computer generated images will look as good as real life: actors will easily be replaced by animations. This point is a sort of singularity for computer generated images. After reality is easily mimicked the next frontier is somewhat unknowable. How can images be more than life-like? When video games no longer have to aspire to the status of movies they will become something much more: a participatory movie, a virtual reality.

While trailers like the one above are pretty common today, they will lose relevance to us after computer generation catches up to reality. There are other ways to advertise that will likely endure this transition, and a couple of the trailers for the recent Deus Ex games are great examples. Along with the normal trailer with the protagonist narrating his struggle over slow action scenes the creators released a couple of live action advertisements, blurring the real world and the game. Deus Ex is great for discussion on this blog because the central issue is human augmentation and enhancement. Here are the two ads I’m talking about (the second one is pretty graphic):

The teaser was followed shortly by this next one:

And if you’re interested, here’s the more traditional trailer they made (also graphic):

Here the video game is, like science fiction, a platform to express fears of the future (which is fast becoming the present). There is so much to discuss here in terms of the singularity, but I think that the teasers speak for themselves. An article on Singularityhub was titled “Awesome Deus Ex Trailer, But Why Does Everyone Hate the Future?” and that pretty much sums it up for me. I would answer by saying that that’s the role of science fiction and video games like these: they are warnings. We all seem to be so pessimistic about the future because we have to warn each other about what could happen. It probably won’t happen, but it especially won’t happen if we make a video game about it. Every time we think up a dystopian future, that particular future becomes unfeasible. If people found themselves living in a future like the world of Deus Ex, they could point to Deus Ex and say “Remember how we didn’t want this? Well this is what we have and we need to change it,” just as people do today with books like 1984.

I’m not sure Deus Ex will be very helpful though. The game presents a strict dichotomy between augmentation and humanity, between evil and good. I hope this does not encourage people to believe that any scenario of human augmentation is negative. There’s a line where pessimism stops becoming valuable.

To wrap things up here’s a video of a simulation room for a video game to show you where video games are going. It’s expensive now but could of course be commonplace in the future. The guy gets so immersed he actually sticks out his hand when he’s dragging a virtual wounded soldier, and began directly talking to other virtual soldiers.