Alexandre Bensimon

Games

2020-06-06

Like many people born in the nineties, I started playing video games very young. From Pokemon on Game Boy to GTA on PSP, all the way to online computer games. Thinking about gateway drugs already?

In high school, I started playing RPGs: you control one character and make it evolve by endlessly fulfilling missions. It was fun for a while but it's only when I discovered strategy games (STR) that I was truly hooked. In this type of game, you don't control one character but a whole army. You have to collect resources, build factories, optimize production and fight your opponent. The big difference is that each game is a blank slate, like chess. I spent so much time practicing openings and thinking about the optimal way of doing things. I found forums on the web, started discussing strategies with others and joining teams. I was not spending time on one character anymore. I was improving skills that were transferable from one game to the next. Spoiler: it's a great feeling.

I didn't talk about the rest of my life at that time because it was almost non-existent. My strategy was to get passing grades with the least possible studying. I remember running from school at the end of the day to get home faster to play. I spent little time with my family, even less with any girlfriend. The one thing I did was thinking about the game. All the time.

Yes, I was definitely addicted. It took me a long time to realize that it would get me nowhere.

When you're a kid, you don't really have anything interesting to do, but why do some people keep playing as they grow older? There may be different reasons. Some manage to play recreationally: a game from time to time to relax. They focus on it while playing and then forget about it. It's like watching a movie. I won't talk about this type of playing here. The danger is when you keep thinking about the game even when you're not playing. This is when it can take over your whole life.

People also get addicted to Netflix, but I think it's a different kind of addiction. People watch Netflix when they are bored or stressed out and want to occupy their minds with something. Video games can be more dangerous because you're actively playing them. It gives you a feeling of control, that you have an influence on the task at hand. When you improve your skills and win, you get a feeling of productivity and achievement. And if you don't have other ladders to climb, you go all-in in the game and forget about everything else. Maybe we tie our self worth to some games when it's the only medium we have to prove ourselves.

I sometimes hear some highly successful tech CEOs talk about how they love video games. They say playing a lot of games as kids helped shape their way of thinking. The reason would be that most games are all about problem-solving and that practicing them over and over again can help you with real-world problems. I will assume that they don't only say that to seem cool (do they?). There may be some people who can draw the line between games and the real world and only play them as a controlled environment to practice their skills as pilots do with flight simulators. Unfortunately, most people forget about the line and keep playing without producing any value for the world. Then they rationalize it by thinking that they are practicing problem-solving skills that will be useful one day. But I think the right question to ask is: do Elon Musk and the like succeeded because they play video games, or despite it? We love to emulate successful people habits, thinking that it will make us more like them. But I don't think playing Factorio will make you the next Tobi L├╝tke, no more than taking LSD will make you the next Steve Jobs.

Playing can actually satisfy your need for achievement enough that you won't want to do something real anymore. After 5 hours on "problem-solving" games, will you want to work on that personal project you've been procrastinating on? Gaming can actually consume your motivation the same way porn consumes your libido.

I don't think I'm the only one to see this. Even some addicted people probably see it. So why is it so hard to get out of it? Because as hard as some games may be, they are easy compared to the real world. In games, you have clear goals and rules, incremental difficulty, and rapid feedback. Religion, culture, and community try gaming real life by teaching you what you should or should not do. But when you understand it, you can clearly see through the glass ceiling and it's not enough anymore. Maybe you read some philosophy and realize that you have to find your own meaning, goals, and values. Then you try some things and when you fail you ask yourself if you're going in the right direction and if all this is even worth it. Hard stuff, better go back to video games and get that sweet level 135.

If practice makes perfect, why not working on real-world projects? Yes, you might fail, but you will learn more. Do you really think someone is ready to go to war because they play a lot of Call of Duty? Or someone understands how sex works because they watch a lot of porn? It seems at best useless, and at worst dangerous because it can give you a false sense of confidence. It's better to know that you don't know than to think you know when you're actually clueless.

The real thing has so many details and subtleties that we cannot fake. Maybe one day we'll have games so realistic that it won't make any difference. But right now, it's just a cheap emulation. So take the red pill and wake up. There is so much stuff out there to explore.

Life is the ultimate meta-game.