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Kaya York experiences monism, mysticism, and Schopenhauerian ethics while playing David OReilly’s video game.
It’s normal to begin discussions about particularly interesting, beautiful, or profound video games by noting with surprise that such games even exist. They do. There are more games like these than one might suppose, such as Dear Esther, which has the player simply wander around an island and listen to fragments of a letter, and That Dragon Cancer, an autobiographical game about the loss of a child. However, it would be just as well to begin discussing David OReilly’s new game, Everything, by referring to a different canon – that of Borges, Camus, and Voltaire. Like these writers, OReilly and his team have created a work of art that’s structured around a philosophical idea. The difference is that Everything allows its player to encounter this idea through experience rather than through reading a narrative.
In the game the player begins as an animal, communicating with other creatures and objects. The player can then leave the body of the animal and become the other things he or she encounters: a tree, a building, a streetlight. This carries through to the micro and macro scales: one can become anything from a jellybean, grain of sand, or a microscopic particle, to a planet or a galaxy! (I can imagine a sequel where you can play as parts of things: the vein of a tree, or a wrinkle in fabric.) Although one is forced to experience being one thing at a time, the player’s avatar can ultimately be all of these things.
I would like to take a moment to consider this word ‘avatar’. One of the conventions of gaming is that an ‘avatar’ is the entity that one plays as in a game. The term comes from the Sanskrit avatarana, which refers to the incarnation of a deity in earthly form. In the 1800s in the West, the term ‘avatar’ also came to refer to the concrete manifestation of something abstract.
Everything manages to combine all three senses of this word. Thus not only is one an avatar in the sense that a whole universe can be incarnated in a single (virtual) organism, but by stretching the limits of what an avatar can be in the gaming sense, Everything itself is a manifestation or concrete representation of the abstract philosophical perspective called ‘monism’, the idea that everything is one.
Varieties of Monism
There are many different types of monism in philosophy, all of which seek to unify everything in the universe in some way, to say that everything is really one (kind of) thing. Spinoza, for example, believed that everything was really God. Spinoza argues for this in rationalist terms, but the same idea finds articulation in a number of mystic works, such as in the Kabbalah.
Instead of arguing that everything is the same thing, by contrast a substance monist argues that everything is the same kind of thing; that there is only one kind of substance in the world. Physicalism in the philosophy of mind is a currently popular substance monism. Alternatively, Berkeley thought that material substances didn’t exist, and that everything was really mental. This claim was also made by the Yogacara Buddhists centuries earlier. The Madhyamaka Buddhists argued against the Yogacara Buddhists, and identified the fundamental nature of the universe with emptiness. However, this can also be seen as a kind of monism since for them, duality (including that of body and mind) or any other kind of pluralism, is based on merely conventional designations. The Madhyamakas then take things a step further by saying that even the difference between conventional and ultimate reality is itself a conventional duality, using a unique system of logic to overcome the paradoxes this claim entails. For these Buddhists, seeing through this was a path to Nirvana.
However without our usual designations of the plurality of things, the ultimate nature of reality becomes hard to express and understand. The Daoist philosopher Laozi recognized this, writing:
“The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Dao is both named and nameless
As nameless, it is the origin of all things.”
(Dao De Jing)
Some recent analytic philosophers have tried to argue for or against different metaphysical monisms in painfully rigorous terms and intimidating logical equations, although only a few philosophers advocate monist positions. These philosophers often begin with a different set of presumptions about language, meaning, and reference, than do the Buddhists.
Everything game images © David OReilly 2017
Unity In Plurality
Everything asserts a monism of identity rather than simply substance, saying that everything really is the same thing, rather than just that it’s made of the same thing. The game is very conscious of its philosophical themes, interspersing gameplay with audio snippets of Alan Watts saying things like “Every living being is a manifestation of everything that there is.” Watts was a writer and speaker who did much to popularize Buddhist ideas during the middle of the last century.
Part of the appeal of video games generally is that they allow players to transcend their normal limits. In games you can be faster, stronger, or can easily outsmart others. You can ignore the normal boundaries imposed by morality and social taboos. Popular video games, then, function as wish fulfillment, or worse, a kind of coddling, an assurance to the player that, deep down, they are that smart and special.
Everything is different. The transcendence it allows is not of everyday reality, but that of the self or ego. This is not the kind of coddling that’s afforded by most video games. As the YouTube game reviewer Polygon says, Everything gives the player a sense not of their great significance, but rather of their insignificance. While playing the game, you gain different modes of being by interacting with different things, and figure out that those things already are you. As the game progresses, things become increasingly surreal and you can start to become anything at anytime, until finally you are everything. You cease to worry about whether your game avatar survives, since you the player aren’t that avatar, but are rather everything that exists in the game, including the game’s very structure! The player’s experience of ethical life and mortality in the game are thus similar to those described in the works of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860).
Schopenhauer was also a monist, arguing that the fundamental nature of reality is ‘will’, a sort of striving, or impulse for self-expression. His view is a rather dark one, picturing existence as suffering and the universal will as aimless and blind. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer’s consolations concerning death are among the most beautiful. In an imagined dialogue between two men, one of whom wishes for immortality, the other says,
“When you say I, I, I want to exist, it isn’t you alone that says this. Everything says it – everything that has the faintest trace of consciousness… It is the cry, not of the individual, but of existence itself… it looks as if it were concerned with nothing but the individual. There lies the illusion – an illusion, it’s true, in which the individual is held fast: but, if he reflects, he can break the fetters and set himself free.” (‘Immortality: A Dialogue’, Trans. Saunders & Kline.)
This understanding about the actual universal nature of the ‘I’, also articulated by Alan Watts in the game’s trailer, is for Schopenhauer the metaphysical basis for ethics. As he says, ethics arises “when an individual directly recognizes in another his own self, his true and very being.” This sensation does not come instantly when playing Everything, since one’s trained instinct in playing video games is to shoot or fight anything else that emerges in the game; but a sense of peacefulness and harmony eventually overcomes the receptive player. There are no puzzles to solve in Everything, no enemies to defeat, simply a way of being in the world to realize.
One With Everything
I haven’t said much about the visual beauty or the plain funniness of the game (four-legged creatures, for some reason, somersault around rather than walking). It’s tempting to say that Everything is unique even within the ‘artistic game’ genre because it is philosophically educational. But this would suggest that entertainment is usually about having a certain experience or feeling, rather than absorbing a set of ideas, which isn’t necessarily true. The structure of any game carries an ideology and in turn a basic philosophical orientation. The issue is rather that the lessons entertainment teaches us are often false, unhelpful, and ethically dubious. When you’re playing a shooter game such as Halo, on the one hand you’re mindlessly running around and killing things. But at the same time – leaving aside the old violence issue – you’re being taught through reinforcement that success consists in beating others, that there can only be one winner. At a deeper level you’re being taught that you’re a being divided from other beings against whom you must struggle for your existence, and that your purpose is to achieve things. Even the game Katamari Damacy, which resembles Everything in its quirkiness and micro-to-macro visual scale, teaches an opposite ideological lesson by making the goal of the game to collect everything in the universe, roll it into a ball, stand outside of it, and own it. By contrast, the goal of Everything is self-realization. So although you become more and more things, in a sense you already were them, so this is no more a goal than would be playing a shooting-game where your ‘enemies’ were already dead.
It’s usually supposed that games such as Halo and Pokémon are appealing because they’re simply fun. But I think their appeal has a lot to do with the fact that on some level these games support a view of the world, of consuming and competing, which our cultures and ways of life train us in, even down to the level of how we’re supposed to have fun. But we do not need to have fun in that sort of way. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that although Everything manages to question the ego rather than stroke it, to represent harmony rather than conflict, at the same time it manages to be fun. Perhaps its genius is simply in reminding us that ethics and fun aren’t intrinsically opposed to each another.
© Kaya York 2017
Kaya York is a graduate student in philosophy and has taught English and Western Culture in China. You can follow Kaya’s fiction at kayayork.wordpress.com.