Widgets Magazine


Sartre and video games

I have been reading excerpts of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “Nausea” over the last week, initially for a class and subsequently because I found the book bleakly resonant and wanted to continue. The novel is written as the diary of a saturnine historian, Antoine Roquentin, who confronts the key problem of existentialism: the absurd. In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus writes of “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart,” which must contend with the absence of any such clarity, purpose or meaning in the world we inhabit. This tension, simply put, defines the absurd.

I will not delve into existential philosophy — I am certainly not qualified to do so, and a number of beautiful writers have already produced reams of essays on the subject. I do, however, wish to draw attention to a passage in “Nausea” that illuminates one of the more banal asperities of the modern condition: our failure to appreciate the everyday details of our lives. Sartre writes,

When you are living, nothing happens. The settings change, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are never any beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, it is an endless, monotonous addition. Now and then you do a partial sum: you say: I’ve been traveling for three years, I’ve been at Bouville for three years…

But when you tell about life, everything changes… You appear to begin at the beginning: ‘It was a fine autumn evening in 1922. I was a solicitor’s clerk at Marommes.’ And in fact you have begun at the end. It is there, invisible and present, and it is the end which gives these few words the pomp and value of a beginning. ‘I was out walking, I had left the village without noticing, I was thinking about my money troubles.’ This sentence, taken simply for what it is, means that the fellow was absorbed, morose, miles away from an adventure, in exactly the sort of mood in which you let events go by without seeing them. But the end is there, transforming everything. For us, the fellow is already the hero of the story. His morose mood, his money troubles are much more precious than ours …

‘It was dark, the street was empty.’  The sentence is tossed off casually, it seems superfluous; but we refuse to be taken in and we put it aside: it is a piece of information whose value we shall understand later on. And we have the impression that the hero lived all the details of that night like annunciations, promises, or even that the lived only those that were promises, blind and deaf to everything that did not herald adventure.

Perhaps you read this passage and were not moved in the slightest, and the idea that one takes greater notice of everyday details in narratives than in their own lives is alien to you. If so, I envy you. Of course, there is nothing particularly romantic or exciting about having money troubles or simply walking. It is unlikely that, outside of narrative form, such details will ever take on a higher significance. But for those facets of life a step above — a tiny bird flitting around campus, a warm smile from a fellow student or professor — what is it about Roquentin and people like him that let such little pleasures wash over, virtually unnoticed, without the slightest hint of spiritual gratification?

Max Weber saw modernity as the progressive disenchantment of the world. He is surely right. Science and reason have gnawed away every skerrick of meaning that we were naive enough to believe had an empirical grounding. For some who seek escape from this degrading process, religion still provides a rich spring of fulfillment. This is a big ask, though; one’s faith enchants their world most profoundly only when it is deeply-felt, when it manifests in an immersive belief in a supreme numinous order. For those who are part of what Ross Douthat calls the religious penumbra, a term that encompasses those who might tick “Christian” on the census but not regularly attend church, faith might function in the same way science functions for most non-scientists: an explanation for the world, but not a source of rejuvenatory awe.

What else might re-enchant the world? I know people who wouldn’t call themselves religious but whose spiritual health is vital to them. Such people, I think, have important lessons for everyone, lessons in leading a more serene, contented life. But ultimately some will see appreciation of nature and balance — the sorts of things such people tend to preach — as concepts too nebulous and immaterial to bear the weight of their spiritual yearning.

And so, to answer Sartre’s implicit question about how one might more attentively engage with the mundanities and small joys of life, and in what will doubtless be a tear-inducing parody of the modern era for certain readers, I am going to propose video games as an unlikely savior. No, I don’t think that video games are the final answer to our search for meaning. No, I don’t think that video games and religious beliefs are equally gratifying. But if a lack of engagement with the world you are immersed in presents a profound spiritual problem — and I agree with Sartre that it does — then video games provide a welcome remedy.

Video games not only force you to pay attention to the (game) world around you, but they reward you for doing so. Games like “Skyrim,” “Dishonored” and “The Last of Us” encourage the player to scour every nook and cranny of the game’s setting to find hidden items, quests and easter eggs. Video games are also consumed actively and, especially in first-person games, implicate the player in the fabric of the story. You are encouraged to wholly identify with the character you are playing as. One can only imagine how comprehensive such identification might become as virtual reality technology develops and games become hyper-realistic, nigh-indistinguishable from real life. This distinguishes them from other narrative forms, like the stories that Sartre writes about, and thus infuses them with greater spiritual potential.

Readers might bristle at the mere comparison of software engineers with theologians, game designers with clerics. I ask such readers to imagine a not-too-distant future when games are so advanced that the wealth of locations, sensations and experiences that they contain make a mockery of our everyday lives. A future where the drudgery of an office job is brightened by the opportunity to explore sublime virtual worlds when you get home. Such a transcendent experience, unlike anything most people are able to access today, might yet be the balm for our chapped souls.

Is something important lost in such a world? I’m not sure. A niggling, perhaps irrational part of me suspects yes. But another part can’t wait.


Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • jessica

    this is a really beautiful, thoughtful and original piece. thank you sam

  • Sam Coulson

    Well-written article. Though I’m not sure if I’d agree that Sartre’s implicit question is about “how one might more attentively engage with the mundanities and small joys of life.” I find it more a question of weighing a desire to find innate meaning in the world around us (and being disappointing), and thus grappling with the personal responsibility of defining your own meaning (in the true existential sense). The ancient question of chaos and flux.

    But even in that slightly different framing, I think you’re right in many ways when it comes to the role of video games, if not for slightly different reasons. Open world gaming–though it allows you to seek out side stories and meaning, to collect things, and master small, and often pointless skills for incremental achievement–always (or almost always) has an overall story as well. The world has a shape.

    Roquentin sits and stares at his beer mug or Chestnut tree, and has a good ole’ existential freak-out because he doesn’t see shape (literally and figuratively) in the world. In Video games, we’re rescued from this fate. Because the world itself is designed. There is a maker. Even in games without real or substantial narrative shape (I’m looking at you No Man’s Sky!) people will play them, and look for clues. They will look for structure–because they know it exists. It *must* exist, because the video game has a creator. In this way it makes me think back to Kierkegaard–Your little Skyrim character is a true knight of faith in that way.

    But, int he end, I think if Sartre had ventured into video games, Roquentin would have been terrified by the inauthenticity. If the soft jazz could barely save him and tie him back to reality, then how could a contrived, digital world–especially when the Woke man knows that it’s a contrivance. At the end of the day, the veil of meaning in the video game world becomes a mockery of life–and in the end even highlights the meaninglessness of the real world. Death–the one constant that all existentialists grapple with–the one absolute–is gone. You can restart. You re-spawn.

    To meander over to Nietzsche–talk about inauthentic being toward death!!!!

    To wander back on your topic 🙂 I think that Roquentin would just find the video game to be another failed foray on his search for meaning–though, like most of us, it would likely consume a decade or two of his life before he was able to gain the perspective and realize that the tree is just a strange shapeless thing.