How to Play Life Like a Game

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I think I’ve found a new barometer to measure my mental health in a given moment: the degree at which I want to numb my mind by playing the online multiplayer game RuneScape. Right now, my urge to hop on and slay some virtual dragons and net some sick XP gains is verging on obsessive.

Growing up, video games were an escape for me. I didn't really like my life at home or at school, so I preferred to play in virtual worlds where I could craft a different life for myself. A game like RuneScape offered a playground much like that of real life, but with clearer goals and access to immediate feedback for your efforts in the form of digital money and experience points. I felt like I was good at RuneScape. I felt like I could control my outcomes. Living in a household with an abusive and alcoholic mother, I couldn't say I felt the same for my actual life.

Aside from a brief relapse, I've gone cold turkey on playing video games for the last two years. I regret having spent so much time playing video games, and being somewhere on the spectrum of having an addictive personality, I felt it better I quit altogether. I think some amount of escape in life is probably useful, and video games can be much more than escape. Video games are increasingly becoming a place for friends to connect, and I've learned a lot about trust, teamwork, strategy, economics, communication, and more from playing games like RuneScape.

But I now think life itself is the game truly worth playing. No video game can replicate the rewards and opportunities that can be found in the game of life, so why numb yourself from its full expression? Simply put, life is hard. While the upside of experience and meaning found in the real world are higher, there's a great deal of suffering that tends to come along for the ride.

Video games and other mind-numbing agents (pick your poison) alleviate our suffering, albeit temporarily. But overuse of mind-numbers is sort of like kicking the can down the road for your future self to deal with later. You can't be numb to life forever, so what happens when you have to wake up from your dream state? What means do you have to deal with your life when the mind-numbers wear off? 

What if we didn't have to resort to playing games built by corporations motivated to consume as much of our attention and dollars as possible, regardless of how it impacts our wellbeing? What if we could design our lives in a meaningful way that also feels like we're playing a game?

I've got good news. Your life is already a game. If that's not clear, I'd urge you to wake from your dream and figure out what the hell you've been playing all these years. But unlike most games, this one has very few rules. Eat, drink, respect the laws of gravity and physics, and you're pretty much good to go.

Any rules beyond those of survival are made up. We're truly free to craft our own rules and design games for ourselves worth living. Especially if you live in a democratic state that is free from poverty, authoritarianism, disease, and violence.

That said, there are games (and societal rules to match) that without making the conscious effort to do otherwise, you'll tend to fall in-line with. Humans are wired to fit in with the crowd. Within groups there's protection. Playing outside the lines runs the risk of being ostracized. And most are not well-suited to being alone.

Designing your own game with your own rules isn't easy, but the short-term pain is worth the payouts in the future. By treating every moment in life as a game worth playing, the pain that will inevitably arise can be seen not as suffering to hide from, but as an opportunity for growth to welcome. You can never remove pain from a game where the lives of the players must one day pass. So why not train yourself to recognize that pain is fleeting? It's holding onto pain, or numbing it temporarily without fully accepting it for what it is, that really causes suffering.

Much of what makes games popular is their ability to put us into a flow state where we can lose our sense of self. Our self, our ego, or the sense that there's an I that's thinking your thoughts is what drives your dissatisfaction.

The self can never really be satisfied. Any desire fulfilled is immediately met with another. Even the mouthfuls of double fudge brownies are eventually met with the desire for some milk to wash it down with. This game never ends and it can't be won by playing for your ego.

Theoretically, you don't need to play for your sense of self. With the right kind of attention, you can recognize that there's no self there to please anyway. With mindfulness, you can see your life for what it really is. You can learn to detach from identifying with the contents of awareness and simply rest as the context of awareness.

From the space of awareness, there's a natural, playful curiosity. There's a child-like sense of awe and connection that you may have felt while walking in nature, playing a sport or instrument, conversing with a friend, or by some means of reaching a flow state. With mindfulness, however, this state can be accessed regardless of the contents and conditions in your life. This is what gives mindfulness its power.

While I'm personally far from being able to bring this awareness into every moment of my life, conceivably it's possible, and I can vouch that the frequency and duration of these glimpses of our true nature can be extended with practice. And with this tool in your back pocket, even the most mundane can become a playground for curiosity and insight.

Even without mindfulness, you can still apply game design principles to create a meaningful life for yourself. The Art of Game Design defines a game as a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude. Thus with proper framing, even working in a factory can be treated like a game. With just a clock and the ability to count, you've got the chance to play for your personal high score of widgets made per minute.

Working in a factory may not be your idea of a game worth playing, but the point being that you can find a flow state within any problem-solving activity so long as you approach it with playfulness. The beautiful thing about the game of life is that you're free to design it as you please. So why not do something meaningful? Even if the path toward a meaningful life is undoubtedly hard, the choice to make your work play is your own. You just have to work at it.

Let's wake up together.

See ya Monday.
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