Empty Calories


The tricky thing about procrastination is how satisfying it is. Say what you will, when your problem is that you’re stressing over a deadline, just doing nothing and letting the deadline slip is a definite solution to that problem, and feels satisfying in its own perverse way.

Not everything which feels like an accomplishment actually is. We like to feed the part of the brain that craves to get things done with false victories, the same way curare feeds false signals to our neural receptors until our muscles slacken and we asphyxiate, having forgotten to breathe. Games, in particular, like to feed into these tendencies: This is one of the ways they are powerful and compelling: This is one of the ways they are dangerous.

Is it okay to feed people false accomplishment? Even if these accomplishments are nothing more than illusions, the mind craves their satisfaction and finds it difficult to resist their allure. The satisfaction which achievement offers is, by its very nature, usually quite difficult to acquire, but games provide a method to circumvent this– to the extent where the term ‘achievement’ has been trivialized into a structure of meaningless rewards games offer players who submit themselves with sufficient aptitude and enthusiasm to the whims of the designers.


I hope you like fetch quests

What is it that makes the accomplishments that games offer false, though? The obvious response is that they affect nothing outside of themselves, but the same could be said of reading literature, of doing calculus, of any form of deep thought: Certainly the things learned by the process of doing these things can be applied to affect the outside world, but completing these things in and of themselves is as false, is as totally housed in the mercurial processes of the mind and the medium it interfaces with, as completing a game. The distinction is only the common consensus on whether the things learned can then be applied to affect the world around us in some way.

Is the same not true of games?

Here… is where things fly off the rails. This next part is difficult because each question leads to another question, and the whole thing begins to consume itself.


First: Is it possible for a game to be unethical by offering ’empty calories’? By offering the sensations of achievement, learning,  and exploration without the external benefits? If so, how? Which games are unethical? How is it possible to know what games really offer us, that we aren’t secretly learning things which are beneficial to us, such as patience, research, or abstract social skills?

We spend our time doing so many different things and we never know which of these will benefit us in the long run. Sure, study is nice, but maybe that time spent hanging around with your buddies bullshitting will develop the sense of humor that charms the guy at the party who eventually hires you. Yeah, hard work is swell, but maybe taking a sick day to get that game you’ve been looking forward to will grant you the latitude to perceive your flawed approach to a problem that has been stymieing you. Of course reading the great work of literature is an enriching experience, but reading cheap pulp tells you more about the tastes of the people you have to deal with every day than Faulkner would. Though we can make smart guesses, it’s impossible to unwind causality this way and to know what’s truly the best thing to do: Who would be so arrogant as to suggest otherwise?


Yeah, okay, well. Whatever.

Second: Even if games offer us nothing but happiness, or satisfaction or what-have-you, is that a problem? The problem with pursuing virtual achievements in our current reality is primarily that we, most of us, cannot support ourselves by these worlds alone, but what about the future, and what about those of us who can afford do so now? Why shouldn’t they? Most of our pursuits in life seek to achieve happiness for ourselves and for others, why is it a bad thing if we are able to circumvent the challenges that obscure this happiness using a simulated reality?

There is a thought experiment that explores this very topic, called the Experience Machine (oh, I rather like that title). it suggests that even if a machine were possible of giving flawless and eternal pleasure to the populace of the world, many would not volunteer to submit to it. The reasoning behind this, though, suggests that the machine is not actually flawless: That those under its thrall would be able to tell the difference between false and real experience and be unsatisfied by the former, that there would be limits to the kind of world it could create. Given the option to build a world on top of this world, though, a boundless paradise without suffering that all could partake of, would we choose not to live in it? Isn’t a perfect world, safe and happy for all, precisely what we’re supposed to be working towards?


Won’t anyone think of the virtual cows?

Third: What are the real benefits of achievement, of creation, of accomplishment? Are they, in the long run, any more tangible than the virtual achievements we cull from our games?

Throughout our history, we have constructed vast monuments to ourselves, lest we forget. We will forget. Eventually, there will be none of us left to remember, and eventually there will be no universe left to remember us. Everything is transitory, but it’s all a matter of degree, isn’t it? Our children’s children’s children are basically strangers: Fuck those guys. How many generations are we supposed to give a shit about? In the long run, constructing a pyramid is only a mildly less transitory accomplishment than getting 100% in Super Meat Boy.

Oh, I hope you didn’t come here for answers: Here, we specialize in questions.


Interestingly, according to Valve’s user metrics more people have constructed gargantuan monuments to themselves than have gotten all the achievements in Super Meat Boy.


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