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Games and the Anguish of Life

Bruno Faidutti

July, 2000

A game is defined by its system of rules," wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology. No doubt like many game players, I was initially shocked by this definition, which seemed to me overly simplistic at the least, if not out-and-out dismissive. "A game is much more than that," I reassured myself. "It's a universe, with its own atmosphere, and players." And yet, upon reflection, I've slowly come to embrace this definition: what makes a game a game, what differentiates it from all other human activities, is that it's entirely regulated, both in its objectives and in the way the play progresses. And if that's what makes games unique, it's also what makes playing them indispensable to society in general, and to me in particular.

Why should we need rules? Undoubtedly because the real world doesn't have them, or because if it does, we can't make any sense out of them. It may seem trite to say that life is a game, but it's more than that, it's inaccurate. Life is the exact opposite of a game. Every game assumes that you know its rules, but no one knows for sure exactly what the rules of life are. Every game has an objective, a goal, but just what is the goal of life? Money? Sex? Revolution? Saving the whales? Preparing for the return of Christ or the arrival of extraterrestrials? Who among us knows exactly what his place is in society? Who can look me straight in the eye and say with confidence and conviction that he's a good or a bad person?

As Durkheim noted a century ago, the history of society is marked by an ever-increasing complexity in its structure complexity in social rules, social interaction, social solidarities. Having become too complex to be understood by the very people by whom and for whom it was supposedly created, the structure of society has become an incomprehensible universe, strange and often hostile. In such a context, even the least angst-ridden person can't help but experience the anguish and anomie of coping with life.

Certain game players, notably those who prefer role-playing games, see games as an escape. Others, particularly fans of war games, see games as a simulation, a way to reproduce reality. Devotees of chess and go like to speak of the intellectual challenge and the sense of competition. But I think all of them are deluding themselves. Games aren't an escape into a fantasy world, they're a retreat. Games aren't an attempt to reproduce the complexities of real life; on the contrary, they offer an escape from life's complexities by simplification. Playing games isn't so much a challenge as it is an opportunity to give up the struggle.

In the face of the stress of the real world, games help us to preserve our sanity. From time to time, modern man needs to take a break away from our impossible world; he needs to relax and refresh himself in a universe that's simpler and smaller, more familiar and thus reassuring. Games bring simplification and rationality to the world, and it's significant that in the game playing universe everything is done according to rules. When we play a game, the goal is clear and the ways in which we try to achieve it are precise. Playing games, whether they're board games, video games, or role-playing games, gives us an opportunity to be someplace safe. When we play games, we're faced with tactical and strategic questions, not existential ones. This refreshes us and makes us feel better. And when we've finished playing and we return to the real world, even though it's as complex as it always was, it's easier for us to cope with it and we can even, vainly, make sense of its absurdities.

I remember, several years ago, defending this idea at a role-playing game convention. It stirred up tremendous hostility, with some game players insisting vehemently, "Games don't simplify anything. On the contrary! Our rpg universe is richer and more complex than the real world." I can certainly understand this reaction: a retreat, even when necessary and intentional, is never something to boast about. But this isn't a matter of glory; it's a matter of staying lucid and of knowing one's limits.

Anyone who rejects every possible respite from reality, who tries night and day to make sense of the world, is attempting an impossible task and putting himself at serious risk of sinking into depression or neurosis. Faced with the stress and anguish of the real world, playing games is a way in which to hold on to one's sanity while still keeping one's feet on the ground, a way to relax without completely retreating from reality.

Of course playing games isn't the only response to the complexities of the world, but it's certainly the most honest. Another response, undoubtedly more widespread, is self-delusion. There are some people, usually those who've wasted years futilely attempting to make sense of the world and of their lives, who eventually abandon all reason and try to convince themselves that everything is simple. And it's among these people that many simplistic explanations of the world, particularly religious ones, find their audience: This is what's good, this is what's evil. You're good, you're bad. Do what we tell you, obey our rules, and you'll achieve supreme happiness. Neither religious people nor political militants are big on playing games. They are calm and quiet, they have serious dispositions and they take the world quite seriously, but it's they not the game players who live their lives as if they were playing a game. They act, more or less consciously, "as if" the world had rules, "as if" life had a purpose. And this "as if" is what has always been at the heart of game playing.

Game players, in contrast, are full of stress and anguish, and often exhausted, because they've chosen not to delude themselves, but rather to cope with reality, day in and day out. Please, let's not begrudge them a couple of evenings off each week to play games!

- Bruno Faidutti

(Translated from the French by Sandy Fein.)

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