Astronauts or Video gamers

Posted on Jun 26, 2020

I remember reading an article long time ago that had a bleak outlook of the effect of Video games on us as Human species. The argument goes like this. There must be Alien species out there in the cosmos that must be more intelligent than Humans, given the enormity of the Universe. Any species even a little advanced than humans will have mastered the Space travel and hence could travel across vast distances to have found us by now. However to the best of our knowledge no such Alien species have visited us. Why could that be?

Is it possible that when those intelligent Alien species became advanced enough to manage Space travel, they also invented Video games? The virtual worlds that these video games created fed the need for happiness. Their investment in such gratifying virtual worlds supplanted the urge for space exploration. They never managed to leave their planet (or its vicinity) because their space technology didn't advance, instead they spent more time in creating meaning for their lives inside the virtual worlds of video games.

This argument is an indirect way of analysing the role that video games are playing in progress of our civilization. Creating and playing video games can be such a joyful experience. And more importantly it's easier than doing rocket science. Why would people want to address the hard problems like Space travel, if they can live in new virtual worlds of their liking?

This point of view has bothered me for a while. It's something I've to reconcile with given that I'm a game developer. Below are some of my thoughts that try to make sense of this argument.

  • Can easy access to happiness make us less inclined to work on hard problems?

  • Do we need everyone to work on hard problems or just few will do?

  • Is the framing of this problem right? Why is exploring the space more important than exploring our plane of conciousness?

A video game creates a virtual environment with a made-up problem. Player solves the problem according to the skills they have. If they fail, the difficulty can be decreased until player solves the problem, feels good about it and moves on to next problem. Thus giving us taste of success by overcoming made-up challenges that are only sufficiently difficult to keep us engaged and not give up in frustration (i.e. achieve Flow).

The real world problems though do not come with adjustable difficulty. They cannot be solved unless one has skills and patience necessary to tackle them. Only the ones who have talent and opportunites to acquire necessary skills can rise up to take on these challenges. Whether you get right education at right age matters. Whether you were born in specific country and in favorable social conditions plays a big role. Of course, conscious efforts are also necessary to excel. But the motivation, persistence and patience also depend on the psychological makeup of the person, which also in turn depends on external factors.

Not everyone gets lucky on all fronts. Most are going to be bystanders, while few will walk the Moon. How should the society reconcile this seemingly unbalanced situation?

Even if we should be working towards building rocket ships as a civilization, not all of us are needed to work on these difficult problems. In fact the work of the few which leads to novel progress, can only happen in a stable society. A stable society can only be achieved in which the bystanders have something to do worthwhile. Have a sense of well being. The bystanders are the ones who will keep the economy going that will provide funding for ambitious projects. Video games do the job of bringing happiness to the bystanders.

No one’s life has any inherent meaning. So astronauts’ work is no more meaningful than a Minecraft player. Meaning is only found in our mind. Reality may also be a simulation like the video games created inside this reality. So the challenges incurred in reality are not that different from challenges incurred in a video game. The only difference is the degree of simulation.