I have been playing this phone game called Homescapes by the company Playrix which has caused me to think of how, in some ways, it brings to light issues related to why we do the things we do and the nature of reality.
The premise of the game is that you are trying to help a butler named Austin convince his parents to not sell his childhood home. You do this by fixing it up and making it more presentable with the hopes that it sparks within his parents some measure of nostalgia. The way in which you fix up the house is by acquiring new household items, such as furniture and accessories, and general repairs and improvements to the existing structure.
Austin, our hero (or villain?), suggests actions that should be done to the house in a particular order. To carry out these tasks, such as acquiring a new couch or wall paper, you, the player, are taken into a sort of alternate world where you play a game based on match three mechanics. If you win the game (each game has different tasks but all revolves around destroying colored blocks) then you are transported back into Austin’s childhood home (“the real world”) and you complete the task of acquiring said item or action, thus making the house more attractive to Austin’s parents.
There are a number of ethical issues that would be fun to dig into, such as Austin’s manipulation of his parent’s emotions in order to achieve his own personal want, or the notion that purchasing nicer items than what you have will make you and others ultimately happier (remember, children are playing this game too), but I digress.
What I would really like to talk about is the strange nature of what this game suggests in terms of who is in charge, why, and how this could possibly relate to our own conception of reality. The game begs a number of questions. Who is Austin? What kind of power does he have? Why are you completing tasks for him? What is the nature of the tasks? And who exactly are you?
Austin seems to be in control of the entire situation. He not only interacts with the “real world”, but then breaks the 4th wall and communicates directly with you, the player, about things going on with the other inhabitants of the “real world”, what actions should be taken next, and why such actions should be taken.
Once you, the player, chooses to take said actions, you are transported to an alternate reality, which curiously enough is only visible to you once a curtain is pulled back, where you carry out the completely arbitrary task of destroying blocks for a particular objective. What is more troubling is Austin shows up at the beginning of this task with a reassuring wink before you begin, indicating he is somehow connected with what you are getting ready to do.
If you do not manage to beat the block destroying game in a predetermined set of moves, you must start over. You can only start over five times, after which you must wait fifteen minutes or purchase more moves, which is the ultimate point of the game in our real world, to make money off of players.
Yet, returning to the Homescapes world, if Austin, who says he wants to make his parents happy, can only do so by you beating the block destroying game, a game he is presumably in control of, why does he limit the amount of times you can start over? This seems to be particularly manipulative and calls into question Austin’s ultimate motives, which I am going to suggest is to torture you because, despite his very gentle and kind demeanor, he is a demon in disguise.
Am I taking this too far? Sure.
But in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes imagined such a scenario. One of Descartes’s philosophical quests was to prove to himself that the reality he was experiencing was, in fact, true reality. In order to grapple with this, he created a thought experiment we now call The Evil Demon.
In the thought experiment, Descartes imagines that the reality he is experiencing is just a fabricated reality and that an evil demon is using his,
“utmost power and cunning… [and] all his energies in order to deceive me.”
Why the demon is doing this, we do not know, just like the gamer does not know why Austin is doing the things he is doing. Why is it that Austin is the one encouraging you to play arbitrary games so that he can acquire things to make his parents happy? More importantly, why are you not questioning it?
“I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he [the demon] has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.”
Many scholars have suggested that Descartes’s demon is omnipotent, similar to how I suggest that Austin is the same. After all, you as the gamer do not seem to question the world you are participating in, nor do you question the reason behind the task you are carrying out. You just do them thinking it is totally normal to blow up cookies, teapots, cherries or whatever else is put in your way to stop you from beating the game.
Of course, the difference here, as opposed to Descartes’s demon, is that you actually have control of the situation; you can put your phone down, not play the game, and re-enter your own perceived reality, this world.
But to carry all this just a bit further, in our own lives, our own reality, how many tasks do we carry out because some Austin type person convinces us that it is important to do so? And are those tasks, whatever they might be, any less arbitrary, especially if those tasks are to simply provide something for yourself, such as a couch or a new rug? And what does this say about our notion of free-will and authenticity?
Are you just a player in some demon’s game?