God Got Game
Video games teach us everything we need to know about the tension between destiny and free will
Part of my week each week is spent at Tablet Magazine, where, among other things, I write this column of Torah commentary. Another part is spent at New York University, where I teach and research video games. And there are weeks, like this one, when these two undertakings seem remarkably intertwined.
Reading this week’s parasha, we come across an odd formulation. As the story begins, Moses is in a revelatory mood, telling the Israelites about to enter Canaan a scary story with a happy ending: God’s chosen people, he prophesies, will soon abandon their covenant with the creator, suffer punishment and exile, and, finally, return home to the Promised Land. It’s just the sort of speech you’d expect from a dimming leader; like Eisenhower’s grim prognostications about the military-industrial complex in his farewell address, Moses’ last hurrah warns of hubris and sinfulness and downfall. Nothing new there.
But then, Moses takes an odd step: “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments,” he says. “Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life.”
You needn’t be a particularly astute theologian to note the inconsistency between the two parts of Moses’ speech. If the fate of the Israelites is foretold, if it is indeed a tale of betrayal, repentance, and redemption, then all that stuff about choosing life is irrelevant; and if the bit about choosing life, namely the free will to chart one’s course through the choppy seas of morality, is true, then nothing can be predetermined and everything must be predicated on the choices we make. Put simply, one of Moses’ statements seems to contradict the other.
It’s a tough knot to untie, but, luckily, we video gamers are the right folks for the job. Just as earlier this week a group of gamers managed to decode an enzyme structure that had eluded scientists for a decade, so may we offer commentary on the nuanced and profound essence that Judaism shares with video games, namely the existence of choice in the absence of choice.
If this is confusing, just consider tic-tac-toe. This classic game has no narrative; all it has is a grid and a simple set of rules, from which 255,168 distinct possibilities of play arise. In other words, jotting down circles and exes on nine slots drawn on paper offers us a quarter of a million individual scenarios, a cornucopia of choice.
Video games, on the other hand, are far more limited. At their core, they are algorithms, a series of if/then propositions. Even recent, advanced games are bound by being pieces of software, lines of code designed with particular, unchangeable ends in mind. Take, for example, Nintendo’s celebrated The Legend of Zelda: To rescue Hyrule, the game’s fictitious kingdom, the player must solve a series of puzzles and defeat a series of enemies, all of which are specific activities that must be performed in a certain way. True, the premise played out in Zelda is much more complex than that of tic-tac-toe, and one that demands some thought and analysis. But anyone wishing to play the game successfully has no choice but to closely follow a script.
Which, at first glance, sounds like no fun at all: Video games wouldn’t be a multibillion dollar industry if all they offered players is the pleasure of pushing the right buttons in the right order. Of course, they offer much more. This is where intention comes in. The term was coined by videogame designer Doug Church and is defined as an abstract design tool used for “making an implementable plan of one’s own creation in response to the current situation in the game world and one’s understanding of the game play options.”
Serious gamers, like serious believers, know that they live in a world that they did not design, playing a game whose rules they did not make up and do not entirely understand. And yet they know that their success—their survival—depends on coming up with some sort of implementable plan and doing their best to overcome the challenges they face at every turn. This is the source of the immense joy we feel when we crack one of Zelda’s puzzles, say, or figure something out in a video game: We know well that the problem we just solved had only one solution, a solution written into the game by some unseen and omniscient designer, but that doesn’t make us any less proud of our achievement. As far as we’re concerned, the solution was entirely of our own creation. For a moment, we forget all about our cosmic helplessness; for a moment, we believe that we can impose order on an inherently chaotic world.
Even without having ever held a video game joystick in his hand, Moses understood this idea well. His prophecy, of course, is both valid and accurate. But it, the game’s script, takes little away from the tremendous burden placed on each and every Israelite to choose life and reject evil and go with God. To paraphrase Rabbi Akiva, all is foreseen, but permission is still given to play the game as we see fit. Mankind has wrestled with this elemental theological conundrum for millennia, but a generation reared on video games should have a much easier time resolving it.
After the Arab Spring, a summer of Israeli protests, and the Palestinian bid for statehood, what will rabbis say in their High Holiday sermons?