Opting for Discomfort

Games such as ‘The Sims’ are fun because they give users an opportunity to create a universe centered around progress. Sports video games provide a similar opportunity with career modes that allow users to create their own player and slowly develop the player’s skills through investing time and energy into productive endeavors. Many phone games allow users to make decisions that influence their character’s personal and social life, from minor decisions such as how to spend a night to larger ones concerned with whether or not to get married. It is satisfying to transform one’s character from a rookie with a limited skill-set into the league of MVP after spending enough time and energy practicing. In non-sports games, the same satisfaction comes from transforming virtual characters from uneducated, low-income, and single, into individuals with a college degree, high-income, and happy family. No matter the game’s specific circumstances, the appeal is the same: users can actively create a life for their characters that justifies their time spent playing the game.

It is ironic that such games perfectly capture individuals’ blindness to improving real life through a similar approach, where our decisions carry meaningful implications. One can imagine personal ratings that measure variables such as health, energy, mood, money, and social life, with each decision moving the ratings in a positive or negative direction for the relevant variables. Meditate for 20 minutes: mood +9%; road trip with friends: social life +15%, money -11%. This approach highlights one’s own responsibility for creating the life they want. In the same way that we can transform our virtual player from mediocre rookie to league MVP, we can intentionally focus our time and energy to revamp our personal and social deficiencies into sources of strength. Understanding life through this framework re-frames personal weaknesses as logical outcomes of decisions rather than as inherent features of one’s identity. Out of shape? Makes sense if you consistently choose to stay on the couch instead of go to the gym. Feel better than normal today? That’s what happens when you eat healthy food and get eight hours of sleep. Our current life circumstances are a result of our past decisions, and our future life circumstances will be a product of our current decisions. While that seems obvious, we often neglect our capacity to create a remarkable life using the same means that employ to do so in virtual worlds.

The decisions that create an extraordinary life are not inherently more difficult than those of a forgettable life, but their threat to our current conception of ourselves results in significant discomfort during the initial stages of change. It is more comfortable to watch TV than to go for a run; to eat unhealthy than to eat healthy food; to stay up late than to wake up early; to spend impulsively rather than delay gratification. We justify our bad tendencies because our egos are too fragile to consider the ways in which we are incomplete. In short, we choose to settle for less because the process of becoming more requires us to accept responsibility for our laziness and insecurities. Instead, we continue to play games to feel a sense of character growth without viscerally experiencing the growing pains ourselves.

Just as characters in virtual worlds do not improve without intentional effort aimed at improvement, our lives cannot become remarkable unless we actively decide to make them so. Like the decisions we make for our virtual characters, each decision asks the individual: which option most benefits my character? Which areas of my life am I neglecting, and how can I tend to them to create a more well-rounded and meaningful life?

Of course, the anxiety of recognizing one’s own incompetence soon arises as the ego realizes the chink in its armor. The mind begins to look for a way back to comfort where the identity’s self-image can remain unthreatened. While scary, this is a natural part of acquiring new skills. The ego does not enjoy discovering its own incompetencies, so the psychological urge to avoid this process is understandable. But the ego is survival software programmed to keep us safe. Our consciousness separates us from virtual characters, taking us out from under the thumb of our evolutionary software and giving us the opportunity to transcend it.

In virtual worlds, we maximize our character’s development in order to make the game as enjoyable as possible and consider anything less to be a tremendous waste of time. Real life poses a similar opportunity but with more significant implications. We create the most meaningful game through actively seeking out weaknesses and transforming them into domains of understanding despite the psychological discomfort of shedding our own ego. While the process of continually identifying and developing new sources of weakness is painful for the ego, the alternative result of an underdeveloped potential is much more painful. With continual effort, we become more competent versions of ourselves and soon realize that the initial discomfort is simply the ego’s attempt at self-preservation. Using our unique capacity for consciousness to voluntarily embrace the discomfort of shedding the ego is the process by which we can escape the ultimately meaningless fate of characters in virtual worlds. If life is a game, this is how we justify our time spent playing.