Solving Systems vs. Joyfully Playing

Solving Systems vs. Joyfully Playing

I played the Sims 4 for about 9 hours today and didn’t do other things I had intended to do like take a walk, see Birds of Prey, or make progress on any of the 4 books I’m currently reading.

A thing that bothers me is that it wasn’t even really fun by the end of it. Not only was it not fun, but I felt like... actively drained. I’ve been trying more and more lately to step back and examine my feelings when I have them and I was annoyed by this.

Why wasn’t it fun for me anymore? And why didn’t I stop earlier? You might think this is a silly line of inquiry (who cares about the Sims?) but it’s salient because this applies to larger areas of my life too.

I think it’s related to how I approach systems. When I encounter a new system with novel inputs and a reward mechanisms, I’m intrigued. I tend to get bored really easily but only once I feel like I understand the mechanics of the situation.

Once a problem is “solved” for me it’s very hard to care about it. And I approach most things in life this way.

“Oh, a set of new conditions. Interesting. How does this work? Can I optimize it or solve it? How do the pieces of the system fit together and how can I move them around?”

Playing with shiny toys. But there’s a midpoint between novelty and boredom that feels very much like an intoxicating flow state. Once you start understanding how things work, you want to engage the system (play the game) to see how effectively you can optimize.

I tend to do this with everything. The point of the activity is no longer the activity itself. It becomes about creating the “best” possible solution for that system that I can.

Usually the “best” possible solution is defined in my brain as the one that removes manual actions. Streamlining.

I’m not sure if this is from a lifetime of playing games where spending time efficiently allows you to “get ahead”, exposure to business and operations thinking, or if it’s just classic nerdy kid “work smarter not harder” ethos. Maybe I’m just wired this way. I can give myself convincing arguments for why I do it from all kinds of biological or social angles, but it doesn’t really matter.

Our culture is kind of steeped in this type of thinking and we all experience it to varying degrees. The same drive that makes me ignore all activities but the optimal financial output crops in Stardew Valley or create a fully automated supply chain in Rimworld is the same drive that makes me chase ever higher salaries in a career I don’t like.

I’ve had this exact conversation with @seconds_0 before. He needs to take breaks from games once he realizes that he’s optimizing a system instead of playing a game. It’s worth unpacking that because almost everything in your life can be modeled like this. I find myself doing this with my publishing business too.

“Oh, I could be writing right now. And make print books for all the ones I haven’t yet. And more translations. I can probably jack revenue 30% over three months if I lean into it.”

But lately I’ve been asking “Why?”

I feel like the Sims is a particularly good game to unpack this with because really it’s a game about stories and relationships you create in a sandbox. The whole point of the game is meaningful human interactions and making your Sims have fun and make friends.

So of course the very first thing I did was keep my Sims locked inside their house, working 12 hours a day on building passive income streams so they wouldn’t be “distracted” by things like having to go to work all day at a 9-5. One was a painter. One was a writer. I wasn’t going to have time to make friends or let them do cool stuff if the annoying parts of their lives were constantly pulling them away. It was too much to manage and kind of overwhelming.

So I streamlined it for them. The whole goal for me became getting them to a point where everything was on autopilot. Why buy the stove upgrade one level up when you can work hard, save, and just skip straight to the luxe endgame model after you have a massive income stream? I sent away neighbors who showed up, ignored their needs unless it was interfering with their work, and did only activities in the service of building the skills necessary to minimize anything resembling challenge or drudgery.

I figured I’d get to the fun afterwards. And while I was grinding away on my author’s lucrative publishing career and my painter’s ever-increasing mastery of her chosen art form, it felt pretty good. I was in that flow state. I had a goal. I was winning. I was pursuing it doggedly.

Somewhere around hour 8 I got there. I had $5000/day rolling in from royalties. My house was covered in the masterpiece artworks that I didn’t even need to sell anymore. My Sims were loaded.

But my flow state was ruined. I had my goal completed. And then I tried to have fun.

Except... it wasn’t that fun. I already had everything I wanted to satisfy my Sims basic needs. What was the point in playing guitar or meeting the neighbors or taking them to the museum? It didn’t advance my goal. The system was solved. And so I got off the game and immediately felt drained, bored, and awful.

I realized I had spent 8 hours of my life doing nothing except obtaining a goal I could have fast forwarded to with a cheat code immediately, having the same amount of fun. The problem here is that I’d started mistaking optimizing the system for “play.”

And lost the joy of experimentation and creating meaningful emotional experiences for myself. Play is about discovery and joy and novelty. I experienced more emotional resonance and joy in 20 minutes of watching animated music videos this morning than in 8 hours of my time with the Sims.

And the real mindfuck here is that I chose to do that. The Sims is about as sandbox-y as you get. There is no game. It’s literally playing house with little characters you create.

And for some reason the game I chose was “shut-in capitalism simulator” which ultimately ended in nihilism.

This seems really unhealthy.

I was so upset by this realization that I couldn’t focus for a bit. I tried to read a book but kept thinking about whether everything in my real life was like that too. Wondering why I should try to do anything at all because what’s the point? But then I realized I was making the same mistake I had in the game by reducing everything to systems to be optimized. Of course if you view it through that lens it all seems pointless.

I decided to say “fuck it” and went to go watch Parasite and clear my head. Parasite snapped me out of it right away. It surprised me, intrigued me, delighted me, resonated with me. Great storytelling, raw emotions, real human drama. Everyone should watch it.

And by the end of it I felt great again. Funk dispelled.

The point I’m rambling toward here is that it’s important to understand that “solving” the system (whatever system you might be absorbed in) isn’t what will bring you joy. If you’re focusing on that, you’re just distracting yourself for a while. And I probably need to learn a new pattern of engaging with the games I play, whether it’s on my PS4 or in the real world around me.

I want to spend less of my time from now on doing things in ways that aren’t fun or joyful and more time approaching my whole life as an exercise in play and novelty.