In much the same way that a distinction exists between somebody who likes to go to the cinema and a cineaste, there is a distinction between people who play computer games and those who consider themselves ‘gamers’. It’s a question of degree of attention, dedication, and discernment. Aficionados in any realm form a relationship with their subject. They cultivate a critical appreciation of the craft: a curiosity that leads them behind the shiny facade of a finished product, informing and rarifying their tastes.
I never considered myself a computer gamer. What held me back was the realisation, when games had achieved a certain level of sophistication, that they were mocking me. Several years ago I completed Grand Theft Auto IV. I conducted its unmemorable Serbian protagonist through the tortuous stations of a biblically violent morality tale. In a handful of simulated weeks, he transformed himself from a penniless immigrant with a blood-soaked past into a dead-eyed, materially successful, violent mercenary.
For hours I watched this Faustian avatar tearing up a miniature New York: stealing and driving sports cars, earning money through organised crime, at once befriending and then executing gangsters, and acquiring piles of possessions. He achieved all this, even had some simulated fun, but failed to locate his soul. The on-screen existence clanged with the emptiness it was supposed to. Here’s the actual moral, though: to make this investment in the story required my real-world time and my real-world money. The game entertained and delighted enough to keep it fresh, but after fifteen hours of pillage, the protagonist had become a millionaire who had extricated himself from his past with all the freedom that this entailed. All I’d achieved was a few mouse miles and a stiff back. I didn’t play the sequel.
What rankled is that my working life at that point was a microcosm of the experience I had just played. At work, too, I was stabbing at a keyboard and pushing a mouse all day while my boss rolled between the office and a country estate in a fleet of huge cars, wining and dining his successful friends. A self-made man, he was absolutely entitled this success, and for his part was as magnanimous as any businessman I’ve known. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to distinguish life from Grand Theft Auto IV. I co-piloted a CEO to measurable achievements, to greater wealth, and to bigger and bigger projects. The better I worked, the larger and shinier his car. I realised that I’d invest my time far better if I worked out how to ‘+1′ my own story.
Fixing this is the tricky part. Life is famously and lamentably short: at most, we get about three attempts at a big change of course before the game’s up. It’s also very hard to measure success, so it’s not always clear if a particular course is the right one. Steve Jobs picked over this dilemma in a talk he gave to Stanford students, in which he covered the problem of not being the protagonist in your own story or, as he put it, ‘living somebody else’s life’. While his conclusions might inspire us, we might not be happy to imitate him. He became a multimillionaire at the age of 26, but his biography portrays him as a psychopath. Those of us who want to take a more conventional orbit nevertheless face similar difficulties. It is hard and often tedious to work on oneself.
Most cultures create a dichotomy between a person’s obligations to the world, and those to themselves. In the East, they place the fulcrum between being and doing; in the West, we balance rest (or ‘life’) with work. The idea is expressed just differently enough to convey that our two cultures tend to create different kinds of screw-ups. Westerners like to make leisure feel like work, by turning it into something measurable. Success can be quantified in wealth or children or Twitter followers, and validation pursued through a frenzy of acquisition and consumption. In the East, the line between being and doing is so intractable that some people cannot survive if they separate themselves from their duty. The Japanese language contains the words salaryman, a person who devotes their life to the corporation, and karoshi, a single word that means death through overwork.
Social networks abound with promised shortcuts to any goal you might have, and they’re not very good. Every professed ‘life hack’ I’ve seen falls into one of four categories:
- Transparent scams;
- Vacuous platitudes;
- How to use a privilege of birth to steal a temporary advantage, before leaving others to clean up the mess;
- Tips for turning up your treadmill.
A hack might truly accelerate your life, but nobody can tell you with certainty whether you’ve pointed it in a decent direction. Just as there is no quick path to enlightenment, and no single book can turn you into an instant expert, you cannot be told what to do with your time. In any case, passage of time and investment of labour is not an inconvenience: we’ve made it the entire point. People can trap themselves into believing that some poor life choice was all the more noble because it hurt. This is called the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, and books about business psychology contain warnings to detach yourself from it.
This just emphasises that, in some way, humans need a narrative. It feels better to struggle for what you desire than to be handed it for free. It isn’t sufficient to just learn and understand something: you have to grok it.
Being; doing; balancing the needs of the self against an obligation to serve the wider world. These are old problems with old answers, and here’s one of the best. Rabbi Hillel’s response has continued to resonate with poetic simplicity since the Talmud was written twenty-two centuries ago. ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I for? If not now, when?’
The greatest of teachers, when faced with such an important question, answers it with three more. And, in doing so, reveals his contempt for shortcuts.