The game of life: You will die. A lot.

It’s happened so many times and in so many ways. I’ve fallen into old mine shafts, stumbled into explosive booby traps, and tumbled into bottomless chasms. I’ve been tossed around by foes twenty times my size, frozen to death after wandering off course, and been zapped senseless by electric slime creatures. I’ve been poisoned, starved, run through with swords, pierced by arrows, and crushed by the various appendages of giant monsters. I have fallen dead more times than I can count and, after each “game over,” consented to die yet again, always sooner than I would prefer.

It is common in some new age, self-help, and religious circles to claim that reality itself is nothing but a game and that our life purpose is to learn the rules and develop the skills necessary to compete and, perhaps, to “win.” Some believe, quite literally, that life is a game, that, say, god has created a stage on which we temporarily forgetful mortals must play out the characters we’ve been assigned. Some even posit that angelic beings may be observing our mundane gameplay and providing hints and other supernatural help at critical junctures. Whether such metaphysical views are expressed through movies like The Matrix, new age podcasts, traditional religion, or ancient mythology, the idea is that we humans generally take as real an illusory “reality” that has been created to challenge us, and maybe even to punish or reward us for deeds done in previous iterations of “the game.”

Less literal life-as-a-game accounts simply offer this theory as one that, paradoxically, might actually help make our lives feel more meaningful. In the absence of epistemological certainty — since I can’t, apparently, know with certainty what the ultimate point of life is— could it be helpful to imagine life as a sort of gamified classroom? Could conceiving of life in playfully educational terms help us avoid some of the traps of existential nihilism that can make it hard to dust ourselves off and try again after mundane or tragic disappointments? From this point of view, our many “deaths” along the way might be experienced less as momentous failures or interruptions to our life trajectories than as inevitable and expected parts of the process. In fact, such obstacles and lessons might be understood as having been embedded quite precisely and deliberately within the very purpose of the entire framework.

Within such an imagined open world game of life, there would, it seems, not be any one “correct” path to the finish line, nor might there even be any specific ultimate goal toward which all successful paths “should” converge. For some the journey would be marked primarily by the satisfaction of collecting boons and booty, an adventure focused on the avoidance of obstacles and enemies. Others, though, might actually be attracted to battles and barriers, compelled to explore each nook and cranny of adversity, aiming to gain new wisdom and strength, or merely eager to satisfy their curiosity. Regardless of the nature of one’s particular journey, though, it seems that being surrendered in some sense to the inevitability of (perhaps repetitious) loss, injury, and death would be necessary in order to find any sort of satisfaction in the process.

The first video game I remember getting pretty good at required nothing more than moving one bright blip of light past a shifting line of other, dimmer blips. In the 70s this could be plausibly marketed as virtual football. During my high school years, for accidental reasons, I got pretty good at playing Centipede in the back of a smoky bar, a game that required horizontally moving a “bug blaster” to destroy a descending line of blips. While Centipede was far more sophisticated than “football” (or Pong) had been, it was still impersonal. In many of the video games that followed, though, the stakes began to feel very different. Whether I play as a medieval knight or as a stray cat, I usually become quite attached to the little being who seems to have come to life through me. In flow moments during the game, I don’t just feel that I want to keep my avatar alive but that it is my very own life that I must fight to nourish and sustain.

The great weakness of the life-as-a-game framework is how it can seem to minimize and trivialize both the lives of individuals and existence as such. For sure, when I taught Eastern Philosophy to college students, some understandably balked at the concept of “lila,” the notion that reality itself might be a result of divine play. Isn’t it insulting and invalidating to have one’s suffering described as ultimately illusory? We are surely much more than a mere collection of animated pixels in some deity’s arcade game, aren’t we? These are enormous existential questions to be wrestled with by individuals who are inclined to ruminate on such things. I am certainly not here to excuse or explain away individual or collective suffering, or to try to persuade anyone of some potentially glib metaphysical theory.

I can say, though, that when I play some of these video games, the criticism that the life-as-a-game theory is nihilistic or trivializing begins to fall away. While I am immersed in the game’s ephemeral, complex unfolding, I am invested. I certainly care enough to strategize to preserve “myself,” and also to help recreate, grow, and shape the circumstances into which I have been thrown. I don’t know if life is a game, but, if it is, then this does not preclude it from also being a simultaneously rich, absurd, and incredibly serious endeavor.

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