Watching Dr. Jordan Peterson’s lectures on Personality and Maps of Meaning has been incredibly enriching, and as a result I’ve been thinking about what makes games meaningful. When Peterson describes the state of mind where one is engaged in something meaningful, it sounds nearly identical to the state of having fun: you lose track of time, are completely invested in what you are doing, and all the suffering in your life seems to fade away. I believe that what makes a game feel fun is exactly the same as what makes any other activity feel meaningful.
Your brain is attuned to identify meaningful activities. Experiencing a good drama, whether in the medium of video, literature, or music, feels meaningful because those dramas provide you with patterns of action that you can utilize in your own life. When you see someone in a good movie deal with a problem that is facing them, that provides you with a possible pattern of action that you can carry out should you ever face a similar problem in your own life. This is also what happens when we ask each other “How was your day?” We aren’t looking for a scientific answer detailing every muscle movement from the time you woke up; we’re looking for a narrative where you came across a problem and were able to overcome that problem, and we want to know how you dealt with the problem because it provides us with strategies for our own lives.
I believe that games feel meaningful for the same reasons that reading a good book or watching a good movie feel meaningful: they train you to better face problems in your life.
Games have been a part of human culture throughout history, and are even important parts of behavior in social animals. Puppies play with each other because (among many other things) that is how they learn to fight predators. When kids play house—”you be the mom, and I’ll be the dad”—they are playing a game where they each agree to take on social roles and attempt to get them right. When fathers roughhouse with their children, they are helping their children to learn what kinds of physical actions will and will not hurt themselves, and others, and to train themselves to control their own bodies. As we grow up, the nature of the games we play change, but they become no less important to our personal development. Social deduction games like Resistance train our ability to navigate incredibly complex social environments where people need to figure out one another’s motives, form coalitions, and assign trustworthiness. Chess is perhaps the best simulation of warfare we have ever come up with (not in a materialist sense, but in the world of meaning).
Knowing whether or not a game is fun is relatively easy, but knowing why a game is fun is far more difficult to figure out. I’ve been thinking about two of my favorite games—SpyParty and Mahjong—and why they feel so meaningful to play. SpyParty has some fairly direct applications to real life, but Mahjong is far more abstract in its mechanics.
SpyParty is a game about telling and interpreting stories. The spy must tell a convincing story to the sniper and construct that story so that the spy is able to achieve his own ends while misleading the sniper. To do this, the spy must know what parts of the story he is telling will appear meaningful to the sniper. The sniper must not only interpret the spy’s story, but also a dozen other stories told by the AI party goers, and must do so under an incredibly strict time limit. Essentially, the sniper must look into a sea of chaos and deduce meaningful order. This process is exactly what it means to be human; we are the only beings that are able to produce order from chaos, and doing so is the unique territory of the infinitely mysterious process we have identified as consciousness.
To look into chaos and produce order is at the center of being human. We are, after all, narrative creatures, and the process of constructing and interpreting narrative is perhaps our most important skill. Narratives are what allow us to function, to solve problems, and to converse with others. The ability to interpret narratives is what allows us to derive meaning from experiences, and to learn patterns of action we can implement to solve problems. Playing SpyParty trains the most fundamental skills that we have, which is why playing SpyParty is the best simulation of what it means to be human I have ever experienced.
Mahjong is far more mechanically abstract, but I also think it touches on fundamental aspects of being human. In Mahjong, you have a hand of thirteen tiles, and each player takes a turn drawing one tile and discarding one tile, with the goal of assembling a winning hand. Winning hands must match at least one “yaku,” or scoring pattern.
Playing Mahjong is a simulation of self-improvement. Whenever you encounter a new idea, you are faced with a choice; you can either incorporate that idea into yourself, or reject it and maintain your previous ideas about how the world works. Every time you learn something new, you must let go of the part of yourself that embodied your old conceptions. This process is, in Peterson’s words, a miniature death and rebirth, and we go through that process all the time. To learn something, from “you don’t have to go to work tomorrow” to “your significant other left you while you were out shopping,” requires you to go through this process, and it’s not always an easy process to go through. The latter example requires you to rethink your past, present, and future, and requires you to let go of many of your presuppositions about how the world works. I’ve been going through a very similar process since dropping out of law school, where I’ve had to rethink just about every aspect of my life.
Playing Mahjong is this very process. Whenever you draw a tile, it is as though you are considering a new idea, where you must decide whether or not that idea will be beneficial for you. If you decide it is beneficial, you must cut off the part of yourself that is inconsistent with that idea. Once that process is done (drawing and discarding a tile), you have taken one step closer to the ideal “you.” The “yaku” in Mahjong are like a set of ideals; every time you draw and discard a tile, you are drawing closer to one of those ideals. In reality, those ideals are like “a good father,” “an effective leader in my job,” or “great artist.” Every time you burn off part of your old self and incorporate something new, you are doing so in pursuance of one of those ideals. A winning hand in Mahjong is like attainment of a real-life ideal. Mahjong is essentially training you to be better at the process of developing your conception of yourself and the world around you; it helps you to understand what new ideas will be beneficial for you and to be willing to let go of those parts of yourself that are not serving you well.
Here are Peterson’s lecture series on Maps of Meaning and Personality, which provided the foundation for this post: