Sunday, May 20, 2012

Life on "Easy Mode" [non-China]

I came across an interesting essay which makes the analogy between being a straight white male and playing a video game on the "Easy" setting. The metaphor is a good one, but I'm skeptical about the assumption that in life, playing on the "Easy" setting is necessarily the most desirable.

According to John Scalzi, the author of the essay,
In The Real World, you don’t unlock any rewards or receive any benefit for playing on higher difficulty settings. The game is just harder, and potentially a lot less fun.
But in a video game, playing on a harder setting is frequently more fun than playing on the easiest one. Why? Often, not because doing so unlocks any rewards, but because it's more of a challenge, and many of us like challenges. Is "The Real World" any different?
This gets boring fast
Scalzi writes,
Well, here’s the other thing about The Real World: You only get to play it once. So why make it more difficult than it has to be? Your goal is to win the game, not make it difficult.
Again, I think this isn't quite true, either for video games or for real life. People don't play video games for the sake of winning them; they play to have fun. Achieving the goals of the game is only a means to that end. The goals in The Real World are probably even less important, since we don't even know what they are! How do you win the game of life? By achieving wealth? Sex? Power? Love? Wisdom? People have been arguing about that question for a long time, and don't seem likely to reach a consensus any time soon.

Perhaps the only thing most of us can agree on is that we want something called "happiness", which ISN'T any particular objective in the game, but is rather a BYPRODUCT of playing the game. Just as video game players don't really care about "beating the game" so much as they do about enjoying playing it, people playing The Real World aren't really looking for wealth, sexual satisfaction, power, love, or wisdom, but for the happiness they believe will come as a byproduct of achieving those things.

So what difficulty setting is most conducive to producing enjoyment/happiness? In the case of video games, I'd say that playing on a medium difficulty setting is the most fun. Too easy, and the game is boring. Too hard, and the game is no fun at all.
The latter part of the metaphor definitely applies in the case of life: There's nothing fun about playing on the "impossible" setting, whether you're starving, clinically depressed, or living with abusive parents. But what about the other extreme? Is it possible to play The Real World on too easy of a setting? In a video game, when you're playing on easy, just beating the objectives soon becomes boring. You start asking yourself what the point of playing the game is, and looking for other reasons to keep on playing. And if you don't find any, you stop playing the game.

In the game of life, some very smart and very gifted people have gone through the same process and ended up running out of reasons. For them, playing the game on easy was no fun. Are the rest of us privileged people in fact better players? Have we actually succeeded in figuring out how to obtain happiness from this minimally challenging game? Or are we just better at distracting ourselves?
Are they the lucky ones?

Some questions for discussion [thanks to Ruth Feldman] (2012/11/21):
1) Are video games more or less fun if you realize that you don't care about the game itself? Is life?
2) Are philosophical questions about happiness relevant to persons experiencing racism or other real-world deprivations? [thanks to Aleph, below]
3) Is it possible to completely achieve the superficial goals of life? If so, would attaining them make one happy?


  1. Hi Dan,

    I enjoyed that essay, and your response to it. When I saw you had read that essay, I hoped that you came across that essay from my Pinboard. I think you would like a lot of the links that I put on there.

    Here are a few suggestions about the ideas/writing:
    - You are misusing the phrase "begs the question" in its colloquial sense, not in its rigorous, logical sense.
    -Even if you still want to use the colloquial sense, you could have brought the reader to thinking the question was "begged" more naturally by putting the first quote that you used between your first and second sentences. And instead of dropping it (partially, i.e. "Says the author, John Scalzi", you could have said something with a little more context and interpretation, like "The author, John Scalzi, concluded that because a player of the game of 'The Real World, [doesn't] unlock any rewards or receive any benefit for playing on higher difficulty settings... the game is just harder, and potentially a lot less fun.'"
    -I don't like your transitions between his quotes and your arguments. "Hmm, let's explore that 'potentially.' and 'Really?' Both seemed excessively argumentative, especially since, if I remember it correctly, Scalzi wasn't really making an argument about what "winning the game" is. Argumentative responses are useful and effective, but they make the reader uncomfortable (and ideally just as invested, upset, and in agreement), and I'm not sure you've justified that discomfort here. I think it would have been better to transition between Scalzi's metaphor and your own ideas about what happiness is.
    - I like the way you used hyperlinks. However, it is easy to confer the responsibility of articulating your implications from you to the reader; and when I did that for one of the link, specifically the DFW link, I found it a bit distasteful. If easy mode is just the three variables of sexual orientation, race, and sex, then DFW was playing "The Real World" on easy; but I don't think those are the only three variables, and as such DFW was definitely not playing on easy.

    Hope this helps! Look forward to seeing more like this.

  2. Thanks Michael. I made some revisions based on your comment.

    Though it got lost in the moving around, I still like (the colloquial) "begs the question" because of its English sense of "begging" for a question to be asked.

    I'm not sure about David Foster Wallace. I linked to him because I think of him as a victim of his own intelligence, and as such an example of how playing on "easy" can be really fucking hard, but that could be totally wrong. Are you thinking of his depression as the fourth variable?

  3. I'm skeptical of the premise. In my observation, in the pursuit of happiness, no one's life is on easy settings, but many people who share few objective criteria have access to a large measure of happiness. Their common denominator seems to be a mixture including judgment, attitude, perspective, work ethic, and, maybe primarily, lack of self-pity and resentment. I'm not sure just how those qualities for success are allotted to people.

  4. I'm skeptical specifically of your premise. It seems to me that you are (perhaps willfully) misunderstanding the point of the original article. The point you make about life's "goal" being completely unclear is a good and interesting one, but it's not actually very relevant in the context of discussing American racism.

    While it is true that the challenges faced by a black, American man are myriad and difficult to describe, there are definitely some traditional examples, most of which relate to commercial success: admission to college, fair treatment by teachers, and fair treatment in the business world. While I don't think I'd say that success in business is The Meaning of the Real World, I think those examples created the kind of discussion to which Scalzi is responding. White men say things like, "nobody just handed me a job when I got out of college," and minorities respond, "me either, and also I was pulled over for no reason (what up, Jay-Z?) and denied a job for which I was patently qualified." Sure, there are other issues-- common racism towards Asians involves dating in many cases-- but I don't think the issue you take with the second quote you include is really what's at stake.

    Furthermore, I dislike Scalzi's article from the get-go, mainly because I think the word "privilege" has been and continues to be sufficient. Honestly, when white boys get their panties in a bunch because they don't feel privileged, I think they can either read up on the issue or suck it up while the rest of us talk. The fact that the explanation that gets passed around on the internet is about video games is so white-dude-friendly as to be painful. None of that is your fault, of course.

  5. Hey Aleph, thanks for the comment. I would say that I'm not ignoring Scalzi's (and your) points about racism. I'm questioning whether they matter. In the particular context of racism, I'd ask, does easier access to commercial success make white men happier than black men? But I also want to generalize the same question to all of the privileges/gifts/blessings that are generally considered "good to be born with".

    I came across two quotes from War and Peace (II.2.1) that I think illustrate my point:

    The Torzhok peddler woman, in a whining voice, went on offering her wares, especially a pair of goatskin slippers."I have hundreds of rubles I don't know what to do with, and she stands in her tattered cloak looking timidly at me," he thought."And what does she want the money for? As if that money could add a hair's breadth to happiness or peace of mind. Can anything in the world make her or me less a prey to evil and death? — death which ends all and must come today or tomorrow — at any rate, in an instant as compared with eternity." And again he twisted the screw with the stripped thread, and again it turned uselessly in the same place.


    You are young, you are rich, you are intelligent and well-educated, my dear sir. And what have you done with all the blessings bestowed on you. Are you satisfied with yourself and with your life?

    'No, I abhor my life,' Pierre declared with a frown.

    So my question is, who is happier, the peddler woman or Pierre?

  6. I agree with the validity of that question (and love those quotes), but really my point is this: when a discussion about racism is occurring, the question of happiness is irrelevant. And although I don't think you intend this, bringing up said question frustrates the discussion and slows down the process of (in this case) trying to convince people that racism exists.

    It's like when you are trying to figure out a Book V Euclid prop in freshman math and someone out of the blue asks, "but what do we mean by 'congruent,' anyway?" Admittedly, in that scenario the most likely cause is that the asker didn't do his homework, and I'm certainly not accusing you of that.

    In summary: You're asking a good question, but I wish you'd ask it directly and not divert attention from the original problem of both Scalzi's article and the internet (and cultural) discussion from which it came.

  7. @Aleph: Fair enough. I think the question is still relevant, since if we aren't trying to make people happier what are we doing?, but I can agree that while we are debating it we should try to minimize possible causes of unhappiness such as racism, a lot like Descartes's provisional morality. Certainly racism meets Descartes's standard of (IIRC) being commonly held to be a bad thing, at least by the people of our country (America). (Though interestingly, in China racism seems much less verboten.) I also agree that I'm not really doing justice to the original essay with my quotation of it, so, for anyone who's interested in social justice issues, go read the original as well!