Designing the Mind

The Pac-Man Principle



Not too long ago, I came across a video that expressed one of the most important insights I had come across, almost word for word. It imagined the actual experience of being the protagonist in a video game. The video was meant to be a joke, but this excerpt sounded to me like Alan Watts could have said it himself:

Let me ask you something. Do you think Pac-Man is having fun being chased around in a dark room by ghosts? Do you think he’s having fun when they catch him and he literally implodes on himself? No! Doesn’t stop you from enjoying the game though. But that’s why you’re not having fun. The simulation is running so smoothly, it got you thinking you’re actually Pac-Man. Of course you’re not having fun.

Just imagine how it would feel to be a character in an RPG game, fighting off evil with nothing but a sword, constantly on the verge of failure and death. It would be terrifying, painful, and exhausting.

But we don’t experience it that way when we play a game. We find it fun and engaging – as long as it’s not an escort mission. When our character is on the verge of death, we actually find it optimally engaging because it maximizes the challenge.

It probably seems obvious why this is the case. It’s not real! It’s just a game. But what if we could use this principle to game the system of our lives? Today, I’m going to share one of my all-time favorite psychotechnologies – the Pac-Man principle.

“Having realized what I really am, I can face all that may come with laughing equanimity, never sure that a change for the so-called worse (including death) will not turn out to be a change for the so-called better.”

– John Blofeld

I’ve got a real treat for you today psychitects. If you’ve ever wished you could turn your life into a game, start having fun more and worrying less, I think you’re going to love this concept.

When we explore what it really means for something to be a game, things get can complex. What exactly is real life, as opposed to a game? These questions are not just theoretical musings. After all, the games we choose to play have major implications for our emotions.

Consider internet trolls, who choose to play a game where the goal is to upset people. Normally, upsetting others is very… upsetting. But by making it into the goal of the game, they manage to turn it into a source of joy.

Now the point isn’t that we should all trade in our humanity and become internet trolls. It’s that, despicable as it may be, it clearly demonstrates that playing a different game can bring radical changes in the joy and suffering we experience.

We might say that “real life” is simply the term we use for the outermost game we are playing, which seems very important and serious to us. All sub-games within this outermost game are “just games,” and aren’t to be taken so seriously.

The question is, what would life be like if we could learn to play a game outside of our ordinary concerns? What happens when the game of life becomes a sub-game?

Play Your Character

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from writer John Blofeld, attempting to capture the spirit of Taoism:

So ha-ha-ho-ha-ha! Having realized what I really am, I can face all that may come with laughing equanimity, never sure that a change for the so-called worse (including death) will not turn out to be a change for the so-called better. If it does not turn out that way, that’s fine too, for a realized Taoist is too wise to take opposites such as better or worse at all seriously. I am soon to become an emperor-ha-ha-ha-ha! I am destined to be a lousy beggar – ha-ha-ha-ha! It’s all a game. Any part will suit me fine.

– John Blofeld

This idea that life is a game we merely need to play our “part” in may sound familiar to Stoics as well:

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

– Epictetus, Enchiridion

This concept can be liberating if properly understood. It suggests that it is possible to zoom out and come to view our lives as one great game, and ourselves as the main character we have to play.

Pac-Man is a good starting point for understanding this principle. But video games have come a long way since Pac-Man. Modern games have gotten more advanced, more engaging, and more addictive.

The most addictive games seem to fall into the genre of MMORPGs, where the player puts countless hours into cultivating the strengths of a virtual character within a world of other online participants. I have seen a number of friends lose themselves and pour hundreds of hours of their lives into games like this.

Unlike less addictive alternatives, these games don’t have an end-point. You don’t simply beat the game after you’ve played for a few dozen hours. It goes on forever.

There are nearly endless quests and missions to take on. But the appeal of the missions is really that they provide challenge, and the ability to hone your skills and level up your character.

And it is really no surprise that these games are so addictive. Addictive things, from sugar to social media to cocaine, always manage to tap into ancient evolutionary circuitry and hijack the mechanism without bringing the benefits.

MMORPGs effectively simulate the eudaimonia game. The most rewarding human activity, to optimize our character within a social landscape, is what we were built to do.

These games literally have you spend hours developing your character, trying to level up overall by exercising individual skills. It couldn’t be a more perfect mirror of the real-life virtue game. The reason we view addiction to these games as a negative is that players don’t actually reap the eudaimonic benefits of character development, no matter how far they progress in the game.

I find it to be beautifully fitting that the word “character” has two different meanings. It can refer to a fictional participant in a narrative. Or it can refer to the collection of traits and mental habits we call our “selves.”

But what happens when we merge these two meanings into one?

The Eudaimonia Game

The goal of the game is eudaimonia, or peak flourishing. The path to eudaimonia is to level up your character. The sub-goals, missions, and campaigns all serve as opportunities to improve your character.

A man’s life brings nothing Unless he lives in accordance with the whole universe Playing one’s part In accordance with the universe Is true humility So whether you’re a gem in the royal court Or a stone on the common path If you accept your part with humility The glory of the universe will be yours

– Tao Te Ching

The self is a fiction that we are wired to view as real. Spiritual practices often encourage you to give up the game when you realize its illusory nature. But to permanently transcend and abandon it for this reason would be to put down the most rewarding game ever made.

This is why I have advocated for self-becoming over ego-transcendence as the ultimate aim of our lives. We can learn to see through the illusion of selfhood, reap all the benefits that come along with this perspective, and still play the game to the best of our ability.

In Principles, I argue that we can choose to identify as the designer of our minds, instead of as the mind itself. We can rise above the mind and play a bigger game, saying:

The self, like all concepts, is a fluid, man-made construct, and it is best not to take it as a rigid reality. This book will urge you, however, not to eliminate your sense of self, but to choose to identify as the designer of your mind rather than as your mind itself. Imagine looking down on your own mind, observing, analyzing, and ultimately shaping and rewiring it.

– Designing the Mind: The Principles of Psychitecture

In BWYA, I talk about the distinction between the circumscape, the 2D plane of our circumstances, and the overview, the 3D landscape that adds our character into the equation.

The magic of this principle is that when you grasp it, external events cease to affect you like they once did. Not only do they begin to seem somewhat irrelevant to your happiness – you start to see ‘setbacks’ as opportunities to cultivate and express greater virtue.

– Become Who You Are

The magic of these ideas is that they allow us to choose to view our life as a game, ourselves as the main character. We can pour our efforts into leveling up our character, while simultaneously maintaining the awareness that it is all just a game. We can remove the suffering that naturally results from our outermost game without decreasing our effort.

You can take your life as seriously as a World of Warcraft power player takes their character, and  deep satisfaction will emerge instead of a vitamin D deficiency. You can play it to the best of your ability, investing all of your efforts and resources into success. But you can do it all while recognizing that it is just a game.

How to Adopt the Game Mentality

Even after grasping the nature of our experience, it can be easy to forget and lose yourself in the game. But there are practices we can adopt to internalize this idea and carry it with us wherever we go.

When you close your eyes, you see nothing but a dark space. All of your external circumstances disappear, at least visually. What I want to encourage you to do is link this inner space with the outermost game of psychitecture. This is what I call the Psychitect’s Solace psychotechnology, which Hermann Hesse alludes to in Siddhartha:

Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself, just as I can. Few people have that capacity, and yet everyone could have it.

Anytime you start to feel overwhelmed by life, close your eyes for a moment. Let this dark space you now find yourself in be a reminder that everything around you is a part of an addictive, immersive game. If you create a strong mental association, seeing this internal world can instantly snap you out of your trance and release your worries and ruminations.

With this game mentality, you can view failure as an opportunity to learn, much like when you die in a game and say “now I better understand how to win.” You can view your actual, difficult boss as a game-boss – an obstacle that makes the game challenging, and rewarding to overcome. When you face rejection or loss, you can view these events as the testing ground for your character.

You can say “I am playing the eudaimonia game. [Your Name] is the main character, and the way to succeed at the game is to level up this character. The game isn’t real – the character is a fiction. When I don’t succeed, I can enjoy the challenge without suffering.”

I’d like to close with an Alan Watts excerpt from The Book, in which he provides a brilliant interpretation of the great game of life.

God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside of God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.

Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it — just what he wanted to do. He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self — the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.

God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes, and you certainly can’t bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.

You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that he isn’t really doing this to anyone but himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad. It’s the same as when we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world.

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