Playing the Nihilism Game
September 13, 2016
Eugene Thacker, in his Nihilistic masterwork In the Dust of This Planet offers a quote at the very beginning by Arthur Schopenhauer: "The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy." Earlier this year Hello Games released a long-anticipated game called No Man's Sky. Many have already offered reviews or thoughts on it, including Tim Challies. Many have opined on the game. This is technically not another review of No Man's Sky, but rather, as I see it, an opportunity to offer a philosophical reflection on it. In doing so, I'm also going to make myself vulnerable by admitting something as an evangelical living in the world where our heroes scream "Don't Waste Your Life!" I play video games, and I played this one! One of the things that first attracted me to the idea of playing No Man's Sky was the reviews. Initial reviews of the game out of the gate weren't great. Sure people complained about technical problems, but more than that people kept saying things like "There's nothing to do in this game" and "What's the point of this game?" Others said things like, "Why am I doing this? What's the point?" I know, I know...who demands that a video game have direction and purpose anyway? After all, aren't all video games purposeless? Aren't all video games ultimately meaningless? I suppose they are, if you demand that all video games have some tangible impact on the real world in order to be meaningful. But one could argue that football is pointless too. After all, it's just a guy throwing a thing at other guys and then people scream. In that sense, most human diversions are pointless. That goes for reading novels or other forms of entertainment, too. I don't mind the idea of a meandering and pointless game. After all, I struggle with anxiety. I'm always looking for ways to calm down and relax. I listen mostly to ambient music. I like Terrence Malick movies and nature documentaries. If anybody likes to stop and smell the roses, it's this guy. Surely the people complaining that the game was pointless were just thoughtless meat-heads who aren't satisfied unless they're shooting bad guys in the face or tackling someone in Madden 2017. And so, rebel that I am, I bought it. Probably everyone I was hearing from was wrong. And besides that, I was looking for a pleasant, soothing diversion to give my blood pressure a rest. This seemed like just the trick. My immediate response was positive. This was a pretty game. And very relaxing. Standing on the Cliffside of a planet teeming with life and watching an alien sunset as distant spaceships streaked across the romantic horizon had something to it I couldn't quite describe fully. What really drew me in was the promise of a game that didn't hold your hand, didn't rush you around, didn't hurry you, and instead let you explore and look at pretty places and then when you got bored there rush off to another pretty place. A few weeks ago, Bruce Baugus spoke of Kierkegaard on the importance of eloquence in preaching. In spite of his philosophical shortcomings, I would personally like to see a greater influence of Kierkegaard on Reformed thinkers and preachers. Kierkegaard had a firm grasp of the human condition and especially seems to connect with modern readers. He described anxiety as "freedom's actuality as the possibility of possibility." What I think he means is that anxiety is the paralyzing quality of one's existence when we realize the absolute freedom of choice. Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. In this sense of the word there is no more "anxiety-inducing"video game than No Man's Sky. After a few hours of playing, I can tell you that exploring and looking at pretty places is nearly all that the game consists of. The people complaining about the pointlessness of the game weren't wrong. In fact, if anything I can now see that they were at a loss for just how meaningless the freedom of this game is - only limited by the restraints of the English language. Listen - all games and diversions may be pointless. No Man's Sky is next level meaningless. I have probably never seen a game that felt more hollow, empty, directionless, and irredeemably soulless before. I mentioned the Nihilistic thinker Eugene Thacker at the beginning. One of his big complaints is that modern attempts to offer a consistently godless take on the universe fall short of their goal because they still do what the Christian approach does: ultimately center on the self as a meaningful and important actor. Here is Thacker: "And the modern existential framework, with its ethical imperative of choice, freedom, and will, in the face of both scientific and religious determinisms, ultimately constricts the entire world into a solipsistic, angst-ridden vortex of the individual human subject." And so here I am...playing an inconsistently Nihilistic game. A game without purpose. A game without direction. A game of absolute dizzying freedom and Kierkegaardian anxiety. But a game that still centers on one person and his space ship - looking to the limitless stars, but with nothing to do. If I didn't know any better I would think Hello Games was attempting to troll all of us with a reminder of just how empty, directionless, and self-centered a truly purposeless but solipsistic existence would be. Tellingly, in spite of all the complaints about purposelessness, meaninglessness, directionlessness in this game it is most revealing of our human condition that there are many gamers out there who are already claiming to have spent hundreds of hours exploring the empty, nihilistic universe of No Man's Sky. What does it say about our neighbors that so many of them have somehow found a way to live and thrive (and many of them are making up their own stories) in this story-less, direction-less, pointless game universe? Could it be that they are doing nothing more than what most people pretend to do every day already? These are the modern men. Those who have learned to live with and adjust to life as Sisyphus, pushing the rock only to see it roll down the other side and repeat again.
Adam Parker is the Pastor-Elect of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, MS. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS and the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.