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App Awe: Life as a Game

What can we learn about life from games? WID video game researchers share insight in the editorial series App Awe.

Modified graphic of head in computer by Thinkstock

App Awe is a WID essay series exploring the transformative potential at the intersection of gaming, science, education and society.

Introduction by David Krakauer, director of WID, co-director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation and professor of genetics

David Krakauer

David Krakauer

“Each life is a game of chess that went to hell on the seventh move, and now the flukey play is cramped and slow, a dream of constraint and cross-purpose, with each move forced, all pieces pinned and skewered and zugzwanged… But here and there we see these figures who appear to run on the true lines…”

— Martin Amis, Money

The artist Maurits Cornelis Escher described his own life “as a game, a very serious game.” What is a very serious game? Perhaps it is a game whose outcomes spill over from the rule-bound realms into life. A game in which success and failure, freedom and constraint, and even life and death tunnel through from the territory of Ludus into actuality. There is a clear and profound connection between the lives we lead and the lives we simulate through games. There are good reasons why the mathematical theory of conflict and economic strategy was called Game Theory by the physicist and polymath John von Neumann.

The world of games is one of combinatorial possibilities: games create gardens of forking paths. Many of these paths end in failure, much the way most ideas, inventions and theories end in failure. And failure is the salt of success.

“There is a clear and profound connection between the lives we lead and the lives we simulate through games.”

— David Krakauer

Dennis Ramirez, in his editorial Failure by Design, explores the nature of success and failure. Dennis discusses how games manage to cultivate a positive and creative inclination toward risk — how it would be unthinkable to build a machine without first exploring the many ways in which it might fail. Games provide a laboratory for prototypes. After all, the ultimate failure-based algorithm, Darwinian evolution, is responsible for most of our planet’s extraordinary diversity.

In opening up possibilities, games encourage exploration. Art often inspires us by creating a sense of possibility, and as Ryan Martinez discusses in his editorial on MirrorMoon EP, a few games possess an existential quality analogous to compelling cinema. These games are not posing puzzles but atmospheres and attitudes. The goal is not to inform but prime and immerse. In this way a game might cultivate restlessness in the explorer.

Umberto Eco has explained to us how good books are all Open Works in which strong readers aspire to co-authorship. Keari Bell-Gawne describes the creation of collaborative narratives in her editorial on The Stanley Parable game. In a book, a reader rarely leads, but in a game there is the possibility of a strong gamer creating a better narrative than the designer imagined. There is also the subtle implication in The Stanley Parable that games could provide necessary tools for experimenting with our lives, thereby allowing us to live more than once, albeit briefly.



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More articles in App Awe:

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App Awe: 2048 Variations on a Theme

How acceptable is copying in order to create new video games? One WID and video game expert weighs in through the Institute’s App Awe editorial series.

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App Awe: LittleBigPlanet

Are video games tools in disguise for players to share their stories and perspectives of the world? That’s the idea behind this App Awe editorial from the Institute’s video games group.