Piece of Cake

I’ve been playing Minecraft off-and-on for over a year-and-a-half now. Yet only very recently was I able to complete a solo survival challenge, a cake-making challenge I set for myself. I entered a new world at the normal difficulty level on survival mode — and my goal was to make a cake without dying. A cake requires wheat, sugar, eggs, milk, and iron to make the milk buckets.

The toughest part was the fear. I had to stay alive while collecting all the ingredients. Yet funny enough, by the end of the challenge I didn’t even have a single run-in with a dangerous mob. I never saw a creeper, skeleton, Enderman, or witch. I heard a few zombies banging on my door at night but they were burnt by sunup. I was so cautious in fact, that I mined enough iron to create a full set of armor to ensure I’d survive any attacks. But I never needed the protection nor my iron sword.

I noticed too, the minuscule amount of space this world consumed compared to my creative worlds — it was tiny because I barely ventured beyond my hollowed-out cave in the side of a mountain. If I was a lazy programmer-of-life, the most efficient thing I could do, would be to scare my player into remaining inside all the time. Just bang on his door a few times and watch him scurry into a corner to sit with his anxiousness all day, mind racing, thinking about imagined dangers lurking everywhere.

Why bother designing a giant interactive world when I can simply keep the player excited and stationary through fright. But relying solely on scare-tactics is a cheap ploy for inducing excitement. But Minecraft isn’t that cheap thankfully, it actually does provide a giant interactive world for players to explore — as long as they don’t let fear get the best of them. I bet the real world is similar in that regard, although I wouldn’t know, I spend most of my time in a little cave.

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Virtual Games

My favorite video-games are the ones I initially suck at, where I struggle to achieve even the smallest victory. I’m lost and confused and overwhelmed. I figure I should quit but for whatever reason I don’t, I can’t. I just grind away with little perceptible progress. But then the switch flips, Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I am the living incarnation of power and my opponent lives by my will alone. But after that initial feeling of triumph and mastery I mellow out and go through the motions for awhile until I move on to something new and different.

It’s probably not a coincidence that when entering this life I was lost, confused, and overwhelmed. Yet I didn’t quit, I kept going, experiencing only the tiniest of victories. But underlying my path was a sense of power. A power I could never focus. At this midpoint of life, I wonder if the turning point is near, when I might be ready to wield that power.

Every game needs a quest or opponent, and perhaps my nemesis in this world is Maya/Mara the Tempter — not in a bad way, just a playful way. So I’ve been busily setting up booby-traps to catch life when it attempts to ensnare my attention. Now whenever something goes awry, I identify it immediately as one of life’s little funhouse tricks.

Yet I’m leaving the door wide-open if life would like to captivate me in pleasant ways. I don’t question good feelings and just soak in the warmth. After all, this could just be an open-ended game with no point whatsoever — where the only goal is to have fun. Maybe that’s the riddle I’m to solve, who knows.

Induced Fright

I’m using the virtual-world of Minecraft as a metaphor for the real-world again.

How would an efficient programmer design a simple yet captivating virtual world? By inducing a constant state of high anxiety within the player.

Using Minecraft as an example, my emotions are most invested when I’m in survival-mode with the normal difficulty setting that allows for aggressive enemies. I build a small cave in the side of a mountain and stay indoors most of the time and I don’t explore too far beyond my home. In this mode, my known world is tiny and my resource requirements are minimal, I care only about maintaining my existence.

But when I’m in survival-mode with the difficulty set to peaceful, my known world increase substantially and my resource requirements grow rapidly. I care about exploration and the adventure of reaching faraway places. I also care about the creation of impressive structures, tall buildings with artistically placed materials.

And when I’m in creative-mode, my known world is at its most expansive state. My resource requirements are enormous as I build large structures within small cities. I have no care for hunger or falling or any other dangers, as they don’t exist, so novelty and artistic expression are needed for maintained interest. This mode obviously requires the most work from the game-designer.

For an even simpler example, hide-and-seek is a very minimal yet exciting game. Just sit still inside a dark closet for many minutes as you’re entertained by the thrill of the hunt. Fear is an all-consuming emotion that engages us completely. So if I don’t allow myself to be at least slightly frightened, then hide-and-seek loses its excitement — I’m just waiting around — boring.

We can therefore see that fear is an easy way to captivate players while utilizing minimal effort. And the things players fear need not ever exist, the game can simply allude to their existence. But what we as players must do, is properly balance that feeling of fear. We need to pull back on our emotional investment if the fear reaches a level we don’t enjoy.

We can readily assume that life is employing this same type of fear-induced captivation technique. For instance, I was taking life way too seriously and my anxiety levels were unenjoyably high. I then started distancing myself until my emotional state reached a manageable level – and I’m enjoying myself much more nowadays.

The way in which I distanced myself was to invest in the idea that the world is a computer simulation. Nothing is physically real, only a mirage. Some people might not need to go to that extreme, but for me it’s necessary. What this belief means is that I no longer maintain any fear. Scary thoughts still appear but they’re dismissed.

My physical surroundings haven’t changed, but the way in which I interpret stimuli has altered dramatically. In Minecraft terminology, I’m still in survival-mode with enemies on, and I’m still in my little cave, but I’m happier here. I no longer imagine zombies banging on my fragile wooden door. I sit relatively comfortably just entertaining myself.

But it’s a strange transitional place I’m at. In one sense, I don’t hear zombies moaning outside my door, yet every form of media I consume assures me that they’re there, just waiting to get me. I don’t want to completely disengage from the world, so I have to take everything with a grain of salt, devising ways to interpret things from a pleasant perspective.

Think about this though: boredom is a state we must always avoid, as it’s unbearably uncomfortable. Unless I can successfully entertain myself in creative-mode, I’m actually better off in survival-mode. Creative-mode remember, requires artistic expression and novelty. But I think I’m ready to handle it, so that’s my goal, getting into a creative-mode mindset.

To illustrate the difference, let’s go back to hide-and-seek. If I’m no longer using fear as a means to induce a thrilling time, I would need to entertain myself through the creative selection of hiding spots, or by tricking the seeker in some amusing way, or by imagining some humor in the situation.

An important aspect to keep in mind is the assumption that this computer simulation is designed for entertainment purposes only, not as a means to torture inhabitants through perpetual discomfort. The discomfort we feel is due to our own misunderstanding — and once righted, we’re free to engage the world in a more enjoyable way.

Game World

Humans create virtual experiences in the form of video games. If existence is virtual, then there’s likely some overlap.

In video games, milestones are preset yet there’s some wiggle room in how goals are achieved. This bit of freedom allows the player to feel in-control and makes the outcome difficult to predict, creating enjoyment. But even though there’s some autonomy within games, players are locked within a very rigid structure, as games lead players along a predefined path comprised of predetermined obstacles.

If a game allows too much player autonomy, it can get confusing or feel pointless. If a game restricts autonomy too much, it can feel confining and not fun. Also, player input (in the form of controls) tends to be very limited within games, as too many options can overwhelm.

If life is game-like, then we probably have some autonomy within a framework of milestones. Our input would be limited as we’re led through a predefined path and challenged by obstacles. In life’s case, because of how unrefined the story is, it seems likely the path is a lax one, allowing for a lot of meandering. But there still must exist an underlying structure or existence wouldn’t be sustainable.

We also have to wonder if large-scale obstacles and advancements, such as WWII, flight, electrical power, and computing, are introduced by the game itself. And individually, it seems as though we’re all subjected to an endless stream of personal obstacles.

As far as our individual milestones, if life is game-like, then we’d expect that we can potentially fail to achieve these markers. Our milestones are probably those inner wants and wishes that we seem driven to fulfill. The bulk of our challenge is accepting the game’s premise and proceeding without hesitation. It does seem possible that we can reject our path, yet doing so is to our detriment.

In a game, we get better by syncing with its rhythm and understanding its ways. When we try to do whatever we want, carelessly jumping into the fray, we usually lose quickly. Gameplay practice is about getting the timing right and getting comfortable with the controls. Yet in life, we’re thrown into the middle of a game, we don’t really know what’s going on or what the controls are.

This mysterious aspect of life must be a necessary component to shield the inner workings of the game in order to immerse players and keep outcomes unpredictable. The constant barrage of stressors also helps to keep players’ attentions ever focused away from the underlying framework. And lastly, we should keep in mind that the point of every game is not to reach the end, but to experience enjoyment while playing — fun is the ultimate goal of every game.

Game Goal

In a video game, the goal is predetermined and the obstacles preset. A game is not about making choices, it’s about perfecting our conformity to the game’s structure and timing. If I don’t jump when the game sends an obstacle, my character loses a life.

As a player, I don’t set my own goal, I attempt to attain my character’s goal, the one he was designed to achieve. And as the player, my ultimate underlying goal is the enjoyment and satisfaction I receive from participating in the game.

Playing Games

Some people in this world make substantial amounts of money from posting videos of themselves playing video-games on YouTube. I interpret that to mean: you can do whatever you want and make a living from it.

Want to be a blogger? Go for it. Want to write songs? Sure. Want to sell your own homemade crafts? Do it. Want to cook and take pictures of it? Yep. Want to write reviews of iPad apps? Start writing. Want to draw and write comics? You can. Want to paint digital pictures? Paint away.

But, you have to sincerely dedicate yourself to what you do, that’s the way it works. Are you painting for hours every day? Composing and posting blog posts daily? Cooking or crafting all day? Are you enjoying yourself?

And the only way to fail is to quit. But if you can’t genuinely devote most of your time to a particular endeavor, then it’s probably not what you should be doing, pick something else.

Basic Human Stuff

A lion does what a lion does without much difficulty. It hunts, mates, and survives without needing to figure out anything first. Why do humans need to figure out everything? Many humans have to figure out mating, parenting, friendship, food-selection, and contentment.

If humanity existed for thousands of years, why haven’t these basic issues been mastered by now? Haven’t there been countless generations preceding ours onto whose shoulders we should be standing upon? Technologically, this seems to be the case, but in terms of basic human practices such as mating, parenting, friendship, food-selection, and contentment, we’ve pretty much stayed static.

Imagine a planet where a human-like species existed for millions of years. They are similar to humanity, except they refined body-maintenance and society-maintenance skills with each generation. Subsequently, there’s no mystery to mating, parenting, friendship, health, or contentment. The only challenge left was in the field of technology, which is where they focused every bit of their time and energy. Perhaps after a time they developed a way to maintain their bodies indefinitely, or maybe just their minds, since that was the essence of who they were at that point.

But if you’ve been alive for even hundreds of years, what would there be left to do? Perhaps having a fragile mortality and the challenge of basic animalistic skills (such as mating, parenting, friendship, health, and contentment) would be a fun way to spend some time? Humanity itself spends countless hours entertaining itself with video games that provide the players with very short-lived on-screen characters whose goals are to overcome basic obstacles. Even movies, shows, and books provide their consumers with vicarious glimpses of the short-lived lives and challenges of the on-screen characters. If a species with unlimited time and technology were to entertain itself, what form would that entertainment take?