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?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The strange and wonderful Chinese language

The Most Interesting Language

Chinese is by far the most interesting language I've ever studied. I learned a bit of biblical Hebrew as a kid; got pretty good at Spanish in middle and high school; studied Ancient Greek and French in college; and picked up a bit of Arabic and Latin along the way. But nothing has captivated my attention to nearly the same degree as Chinese has.

Indeed, picking up the language is a large part of my reason for coming to China in the first place.1 I speak and study Chinese every day, and I continue to find it fascinating. Here are a few examples of why.

"Do You Like It?"

The idea that language and culture are intertwined is one that I've always been skeptical of. I mean, do you really need to read up on French history or cuisine to get fluent in French? However, today I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the sentiment of that expression, after my mom asked me at lunch how to translate the expression "好吃吗?" into English. Literally, this is a simple statement: "[Is it] good to eat?"

Today's dinner: 好吃吗?非常好吃!(Hell yeah!) I ate three of those plates by myself.
But I realized that "is it good to eat?", or "is the food good?", or any such variation, aren't something we say very often in English – particularly when we're eating at home. The reason, it seems to me, is one of politeness. If you don't like something that your mom (or better yet, your friend's mom) made, it's much less awkward to say that "I don't like it", than it is to say that the food itself is bad, and perhaps, by extension, that your host is a bad cook.

So as I told my host mom, I think the best way to translate "好吃吗?" is, "do you like it?" The choice of translation is informed by knowledge of the culture. Maybe there's something to that saying after all.2