Recently, I’ve had two very similar experiences with two very different games: Pokemon Go, and No Man’s Sky. And, as different as the two games are, my problems with them are incredibly similar. After only a short play-session, I found both games incredibly boring. And while each has its own mechanical deficits that contribute to my boredom, both share a pretty big conceit that lies at the heart of my issue with them – both Pokemon Go and No Man’s Sky aim to be entire alternate lives.
Now, every game is a kind of alternate life. Games are a form of escapism, and that’s a big part of the reason I enjoy playing them. They allow me a temporary alternative to my own life. It’s an escape to a life without the boring bits, or the existentially stressful bits. It’s a form of life with an increased urgency and the promise of predictable growth and meritocracy. In other words, a good game is a form of life completely unlike anyone’s actual life.
And it’s the unrealistic, un-lifelike elements of most games that make them enjoyable. You know why? Because I already have a life, and honestly, it’s not that great. I have bills, I have to interact with people I don’t like, I get sick, and I get bored. There are good times, as well, of course. I love my friends, I enjoy watching movies and reading comics and playing games and the such. But, and maybe I should see a therapist about this, the biggest reason I’m alive right now is that the only alternative is death – which isn’t a very attractive option.
And that’s another attractive element of video games, when I’m not enjoying a game, or just when I want to be doing something else, I can turn it off. That unlike life, which I’m forced to participate in; I can ignore a game and not miss out on any of it. I can not play a game and be confident that I’m not wasting time or opportunities within it. And it’s for this reason that I feel games that want to be entire realities, like Pokemon Go or No Man’s Sky try to be, ultimately fail.
Pokemon Go and Augmented Reality games in general aim to add a more attractive layer of reality over actual reality, essentially adding another, virtual, life over your real life. Like actual real life, to make progress in Pokemon Go, you have to pay almost complete attention to it. The app must be on and active on your phone for anything you to register.
Pokemon Go takes the idea that 80 percent of life is showing up, and runs with it, making 80 percent of the game based around showing up. It doesn’t matter where you go, so long as you walk an arbitrary distance to get there. And to rub salt in the wound, more times than not, having been there doesn’t provide much more reward than never leaving your home. Maybe I managed to hatch something neat, like a Dratini, but I can’t do anything with it until somehow obtaining a dozen more of ‘em; and there are more fulfilling ways I could have spent my time. And I don’t mean more fulfilling like, I could have learned a new language. I mean something as small as, I could have watched an episode of Monster Factory that made me laugh.
And while it’s cool in theory that Pokemon Go could give me something to do while otherwise absentmindedly walking from place to place, the game actually makes it harder for me to walk around, and distracts from my more important actual life. And this isn’t even one of those not paying attention to traffic arguments. If I pull out Pokemon Go while walking to a friend’s house, I’m not going to go 100 meters out of my way for a Squirtle.
No Man’s Sky has a related problem. Where AR games like Pokemon Go try to add a layer of reality on top of the universe, games like No Man’s Sky present an entirely different reality – one that ideally, is just as expansive as our own. And, if I may dip into Virtual Reality fears a bit, it’s a reality that has the potential to replace our own.
Where No Man’s Sky fails is that while it’s a huge universe that I could explore endlessly, the game gives me no motivation to. There’s very little game in it’s reality.
Yes, there’s an urgency to having to constantly refill the things that keep my character alive, and there’s a possibility that every new planet holds something interesting; but unlike most games, there are no promised, concrete, rewards. There’s no guarantee once I reach the next goal that my character will noticeably improve, or that I will experience a fundamentally different part of the game.
And if I’m going to participate in an experience where I constantly have to worry about staying safe and resource full, and where there’s a universe of possibilities without a promise of rewards, I figure I might as well try and experience the real world, where the exact same rules apply.
Yet, this isn’t to say that games require a limited world, or trationally game-y elements to be fun or successful. One example of one that succeeds where No Man’s Sky fails is Minecraft; and the reason why is simple. Because, in Minecraft, if I think of something I want to build, and I work hard-enough in game finding resources, I can build it. If I want to mindlessly explore for a while, that’s an option too. You might have to set your own goals in Minecraft, but so long as I keep doing that, and I plan, and I play the game, I can attain almost any goal. In NMS, not only are the goals nebulous and in-urgent, even if I make my own, I have no idea if I’d ever be able to achieve them. Also keep in mind, the goals I can make for myself in Minecraft are creative and constructive. The only possible goal in NMS is to keep going.
And there are many people who enjoy that sort of game. If you’re one of them, more power to you. I’d also presume that you’re pretty generally self-motivated outside of games. Anecdotally, the people I have seen enjoying No Man’s Sky the most are very self-motivated, creative types. And while I like to think of myself as both self-motivated and creative (motivated enough to post on this blog consistently, and if not artistically creative, at least critically so), I can’t keep on giving myself reasons to play these games – to live these lives – that ultimately don’t matter.
And now, because I understand nihilism, and want to address the issue before anyone else could bring it up: “But nothing ultimately matters. Heck, people like Elon Musk believe the entire universe could be a videogame-like simulation.”
And to that I respond: it doesn’t matter if the universe is a simulation, because we still either have to find a way to live in it or die. There are no alternatives, and because death is scary, most of us choose to find something worth living for.
When we’re playing a game, and we know it’s a simulation, then the game either has to keep giving us a reason to play, or we’ll just turn it off and do something better. Making your game a virtual or augmented reality, no matter how all-consuming that reality is, doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of people becoming bored with reality. And with more alternatives than life or death within the simulation of a game, if the game doesn’t give the player a constant stream of satisfying challenges to tackle or objectives to reach, the player has no reason to keep playing.
If I’m going to live in a reality where the goals are unclear or endless, and fun isn’t guaranteed, I’m going to choose the one where I can’t chose to stop living in it and do something else.