Why we wish life was a game


homo economicus was a term first coined by John Stuart Mill, the influential utilitarian theorist and 17th century economist. Since its injection into the discourse of politics and economy, homo economicus has been a central characteristic of both neoliberal economic theories, as well as a heuristic tool by those infatuated by hegemonic thinking into believing that the normative prescriptions of these theories be not only taken seriously, but believed in seriously beyond their normative claims–used as a guiding principle, a basis to form judgement, a lifestyle or path upon which one must closely tread if they are to reap the fruits of its conclusion.

homo economicus is the Economic Man. To borrow a brief description from our friendly and publicly accessible online encyclopedia (and to borrow from Mill himself), homo economicus can be described as: “an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” this conception was eventually distilled further in the 20th century with the emergence of rational choice theory, the theory that individuals acted “rationally on complete knowledge out of self-interest and the pursuit of wealth”. for those more familiar with the history of Enlightenment thinking and project of classical liberalism it inevitably bore with it, the idea of rational self-interest (admittedly older than Mill, introduced by Machiavelli as it were) was given new rigor.

however, homo economicus’s most perfect form did not emerge in the ivory towers of very white academics. though existing in various forms, from proportionate arrangement of pixels to the highly detailed polygons (themselves, a series of clean triangles) of an anthropomorphised automaton, homo economicus found its most practical homonculi not in the real life people it was supposed to be describing, but in the multiple representations of video game player-characters.

anyone whose spent any amount of time reading up on contemporary political theory knows that something like rational-choice theory is losing it grounds. while this realization has been fueled by political scientists’ attempts to reconcile material reality with the ideals that were supposed to motivate its construction (ex: Locke, one of the fathers of liberalism and upholder of values such as freedom and liberty, writing plantation policy for the Carolina colonies and holding stock in the slave-trading Royal African Company…so much for walking the talk).  to be frank though, one doesn’t need to be an up-to-date political theorists to feel compelled that something about rational-choice theory is oddly off, in the alarming kind of way that would have you ask who thought it was a sound idea; one merely needs to simply live life, where we have witnessed, or ourselves made, irrational decision making. the irrationality of humanness has re-centered itself in the mainstream imagination by those both on the left and right, yet the dominant system and the people who construct it are seized, in a state of awe, at how clean homo economicus is.

play any video game though and it makes sense. .video games, in a way, can be understood as abstractions of life. i use abstraction in the critical theory sense popularized by Adorno and Horkheimer, who describe it as the process of rationality, which seeks to make “dissimilar things comparable” by reducing them to “abstract quantities” ; to pull away from (if we break down the ab-prefix and tract-suffix). no one person’s life is exactly the same, but homo economicus attempted to even out the roughness and diversity of the lived human experience by doing directly to the impetus of life — motivation.

however, we know material reality is different. complete information sets are not universal, the most rational decisions contextually varied and consequently diffuse, and what’s more, we do no live in a vacuum, temporal or otherwise; we are constantly adjusting to the decision we made previously, whose consequences may not appear procedurally in the order they were made.

video games are a lot easier than the lives we live. take a simple game like Pong. the individual, the pong player, can have a complete information set concerning the world contained within Pong, that is: goal, controls, and the game rules. if we are to think of Pong as just a game, we need not consider knowledge of the code, platform, or device as necessary (since the game was not built with those things in mind as necessary game components). With this knowledge, a person playing as a pong character can, for the duration of the game, honestly exhibit the most of homo economicus. for many simple games, this is the truth — knowledge of the goals, rules, and controls gives one the means to truly pursue one’s rational self-interest in the context of a game.

here, we find that rationality is a matter of construction and artificiality, than it is of a universalizing and objective principle. we also are presented with the notion then that inequalities of a certain kind are also a matter of construction and artificiality…

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