2 min read

The Purpose of Video Games via Life Rules

In one of Venkatesh Rao’s latest Ribbonfarm posts he writes about creating rules for your life. The majority of the piece is not about the specific rules, but the role that life rules should play. That role is the ability to navigate the Default Mode Network and the Task Positive Network. These two networks form the operational spectrum your mind works along.

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is the wandering mode. It’s daydreaming, thinking about the future, and processing the past. It’s both where your great ideas come from, and the source of your anxiety.

The Task Positive Network (TPN) is the concrete work mode. It’s executing a project, doing chores, or driving down the street. You know your end-goal, the steps to get there, and you’re actively working through them.

Balancing your time between these modes is critical. Spend too much time in the TPN and you’ll find yourself optimizing some local maximum. You’ll be perfecting execution on a meaningless outcome — working towards something without wondering why. On the other hand, spend too much time in the DMN and you’ll find yourself in constant existential crisis. You’ll be banging your head against an unsolvable problem, unproductively searching for a concrete answer to some nebulous question (what is the meaning of life? what is my purpose?).

If life rules help you navigate the space between these modes, video games help push you into one specific mode — the Task Positive Network.

Most entertainment pushes you into the Default Mode Network. Watching a movie is channeling your DMN to a safe play space. You’re sitting back and letting a stimulus guide you, with the director giving you something to chew on. Some movies have a lot of meat to them, pushing you into a wide exploratory space of the DMN. An art film might shift your perceptions, or even cause some existential discomfort. A dumb action movie, on the other hand, will probably push you into a corner of the DMN so tight there’s really no room for getting lost.

In contrast, playing video games is explicitly in the Task Positive Network. They provide a safe, clean, and engaging ruleset with clear goals. They let you enter the TPN and skip over the DMN almost entirely. You don’t have to wonder if the thing you’re doing in the game is existentially meaningful — the whole reason you’re engaging with the game is to momentarily set aside those concerns.

People who play video games strike me as more anxious than the general population. I suspect this anxiety often comes from spending more time than is useful in the Default Mode Network. It’s not that video games are so much providing an escape as they are providing a task. And that task, that certainty, gives people access to living in the less-anxious space of the Task Positive Network for some time.

This also helps explain some of the controversy over what qualifies as a “game”. Some people struggle to identify games that exist more in the Default Mode Network as games, since they don’t play the typical role of games. This is ostensibly the problem people have with “walking simulators” and other sorts of interactive-fiction style experiences.

Twitch is also interesting through this lens. It pulls the video game experience out of the TPN into the DMN. It’s a sort of synthetic TPN experience.

Games provide a beautiful and useful way to help people deal with their mental landscape. Computers helped push us further into a world where we don’t have to exist in the TPN all the time. We’re no longer fighting for survival and spending every waking minute working towards staying alive. This is beautiful, but of course opens up a lot of time for wandering the DMN feeling unnecessarily anxious and lost. So what a blessing that computers also gave us a way to give ourselves a break back in the TPN — video games.