The emptiness of videogames

As a teenager I loved video games, especially first-person shooters and RPGs. I logged days and days of playtime between the two genres over the years. But then something changed. I sold my console and stopped playing. Since then, I have toyed with the idea of getting another and playing video games in my downtime, but I always feel a little distaste at the idea.

In part, it has to do with long-term utility. I think back to my playing days and I think, “What was the point?” I was striving for something that doesn’t matter. Who cares about my kill:death ratio or the level, armour and magic items my character possesses? More specifically, who will care about them when I’m in my final years, on my death bed? I can’t imagine that I’ll look back on my life and recall fondly the story missions I completed and the side quests I undertook to help out favourable NPCs.

But as I said, “In part”. This is only a minor reason behind why I avoid playing video games now. After all, there’s nothing wrong with doing things solely for fun and pleasure, as an end in and of themselves. No, there’s a deeper reason for my newfound video game aversion, and it has to do with risk.

In Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb says:

“Because, to repeat, life is sacrifice and risk taking, and nothing that doesn’t entail some moderate amount of the former, under the constraint of satisfying the latter, is close to what we can call life. If you do not undertake a risk of real harm, reparable or even potentially irreparable, from an adventure, it is not an adventure.
…the real requires peril…”

The consequences—good or bad—in video games are severely constrained. Dying or failing to complete a mission is of little real-world importance. As is completing something or winning. This is why I’m struck by a sense of emptiness at the thought of playing. There is nothing on the line, no concrete risk or reward to play for. But there is in the games of the real world.

In the real world, I can hurt people and be hurt by them. I can help and be helped by others. I have to balance conflicting forces, make reversible and irreversible choices, direct processes of destruction and creation and in turn be directed by them. In the real world, I must choose how to spend finite resources and at all times deal with the reality that is our fragile mortality.

Taleb said that “the real requires peril”. Videogames offer no substantial threat and offer no significant recompense on investment. Thus, to me, playing them is a banal and futile activity. Better that I play the games of life.