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Analogies of game and play, life and death

[ by Charles Cameronno trump — a situation in which no suit is designated as trump ]

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    There are at least three major analogies for life to be found within life itself: dreams, games, and plays — and in each case, there’s the possibility of an infinite regression, of dreams within dreams, games within games, and plays within plays.

    Shakespeare has the play within a play motif down nicety, but it traces back if I’m not mistaken to Plotinus, if not before. There’s that favorite remark of mine in the Enneads:

    Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man, that grieves and complains and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing. All this is the doing of man knowing no more than to live the lower and outer life, and never perceiving that, in his weeping and in his graver doings alike, he is but at play; to handle austere matters austerely is reserved for the thoughtful: the other kind of man is himself a futility. Those incapable of thinking gravely read gravity into frivolities which correspond to their own frivolous Nature. Anyone that joins in their trifling and so comes to look on life with their eyes must understand that by lending himself to such idleness he has laid aside his own character. If Socrates himself takes part in the trifling, he trifles in the outer Socrates.


    We can move from theater to dream with almost suspicious ease via Pedro Calderón de la Barca, whose play La Vida es Sueño plays (in what is more a “game” sense than a “theatrical” one) with the idea of life as a dream — the idea embodied in his play’s very title.

    Indeed, as the translator Michael Kidd suggests in his Introduction to the play:

    To emphasize the illusory nature of this existence, the Spanish Baroque relied on three central metaphors: life as art, life as theater, and, most important for Calderón, life as a dream.

    Here, then, is the heart of Calderón:

    We live in such an exceptional world that living is no more than dreaming; and experience teaches me that he who lives dreams what he is until waking. The king dreams that he’s king, and he lives under this deception commanding, planning, and governing; and his acclaim, which he receives on loan, is scribbled in the wind and turned to ashes by death. What grave misfortune! To think that anyone should wish to govern knowing that he will awaken in the sleep of death! The rich man dreams of more riches, which only bring him more worries; the poor man dreams that he suffers in misery and poverty; the man who improves his lot dreams; the man who toils and petitions dreams; the man who insults and offends dreams. And in this world, in short, everyone dreams what he is although no one realizes it. I dream that I’m here, weighed down by these chains, and I’ve dreamt that I found myself in more flattering circumstances. What is life? A frenzy. What is life? A vain hope, a shadow, a fiction. The greatest good is fleeting, for all life is a dream and even dreams are but dreams.

    And for recursion — an earlier translator of those lines about anyone who might “wish to govern knowing that he will awaken in the sleep of death” renders them thus:

    Who would wish a crown to take,
    Seeing that he must awake
    In the dream beyond death’s gate?

    Why, we are almost in the realm of Chuang Tzu..

    Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.


    Oho — do we imagine we have escaped moral necessity by viewing life as a dream?

    Calderón again:

    I want to do what’s right, for it pays to do what’s right even in dreams.


    Ah, but games.

    It was the quote that follows, about death and games, that drove me to write this post, and I believe it takes us deeper into the mystery of these analogies of life and death: Gabby DaRienzo is writing about “ussing game mechanics to encourage players to think about death and mortality” in her piece, Death Positivity in Video Games:

    Death serves multiple mechanical roles in videogames — it is most commonly used as a thing you want to avoid, a goal you need to accomplish, or as a narrative device. While death is prominent in many videogames, we generally give it much less thought and treat it with much less seriousness than actual death, especially when it comes to the player.

    And there we have it — the recognition that we care less or more, proportionately, about some things in games than we do in “RL”.

    Some of that difference, it would seem is to do with the mechanics and “inworld” motivations of particular games — but it would be an interesting landscape to plot, game by game or genre by genre. Flight simulators need to be in close correspondence with the realities they are represnting in terms of turbulent air flows, fuel consumption, and landing strips, for iunstance — but if their clouds are visually a bit less than realistic, it’s no big deal. A Tibetan mandala-based game, on the other hand, might want to get the scrolled cloud-work so characteristic of Tibetan art and the Thirty-two Excellent Signs of a Buddha’s Enlightening Body exactly right — in Tibetan cultural terms. Strage, but true:

    Each hair of a Buddha’s eyebrow is exactly the same length.


    Money, then.

    In Monopoly, it’s everything — and life?

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