Originally Published May 1, 2013
Hands down, the one fundamental question that has plagued human thinkers since the beginning is this: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Thinkers have tried to answer the question in many ways throughout history, yet even today, in discussion rooms like Why Is There Something, the question remains unanswered. To live and love, to leave a legacy, to discover truth, to contribute to society, to propagate good and combat evil, to create our own purpose, to acknowledge that there is no purpose, to deny self and serve God, to prepare for an afterlife – These are just a fraction of the answers that people give to answer the question of purpose. Certainly, these are all “purposes,” in a minor sense, but do they really answer the question of the big purpose?
MineCraft is a video game in which I’ve recently developed an interest for more than just amusement purposes. It is a 3D “open world” game, or one in which the “gaming world” is generated from an algorithmic seed, and the world is procedurally generated indefinitely in the “cross-country” plane. In non-technical terms, the game world is essentially random for each game, and the world will continue to build randomly as the player travels across the world. That means that there are no downloadable maps for finding things or places. It just has to be explored and utilized, and it’s new each time a game is started.
MineCraft gameplay starts out with the player being placed into this unexplored world with nothing but his hands. The first stage of gameplay is simple survival. You must locate dirt, wood, etc. in order to build a secure house or cave to keep monsters from finding and killing you. Once survival is no longer an issue, you can start building technology – firstly by building primitive wood and stone tools, with which you can mine ores, build livestock pens and farms, etc. The final tier of technology is to find gold and gemstone ores, with which you can build the best tools and weapons, as well as create electrical circuitry, automated machinery, vehicles, mapping and navigation equipment, etc. The game has an extensive amount of content to discover and build.
So how does a video game answer the question of the purpose of life? Well, the community of MineCraft players varies considerably. Some play to discover, some play to build, some play to craft, some play to fight monsters. But even with such a varied community, there is one single criticism of the game that keeps coming up: Why am I playing this? What’s the goal? In recent versions of the game, the programers have created achievements, items to find, places to go, monsters to kill, etc. in order to make consumers out of the critics. In so doing, they gave the game somewhat of a purpose that players can work toward. But why did they need to do that?
MineCraft works surprisingly like the real world. At first, it’s easy to get drawn into the game because the challenge is to survive and find the things you need in order to craft better and better items and machines, and preoccupation with survival and creation leaves no room for boredom. But at some point, survival is no longer a challenge, and sufficient ores and gemstones have been found to build whatever the player wants to build. At that point, the player becomes bored and asks the inevitable, “Ok, now what? Why did I do all of this? What’s the purpose?” For others more educated in social sciences than I, there is probably a name for this, but since I don’t know of a name, I call it the “Lego Scenario.” It’s like when we were children playing with Legos – we’d spend hours (or days) building a castle or a tractor or a ship, then after the final Lego is in place, we show it to our dad, he says “Nice,” and we tear it apart back into Legos. Even as a child, that always left a hollow feeling within me, as if I did all of it for basically nothing, just like the complaints that players had against earlier versions of MineCraft.
Yet real life is frighteningly similar to those earlier versions of MineCraft. Children and students are preoccupied with discovering the world and learning to survive its dangers. Adults are preoccupied with building and investing in homes, families, businesses, careers, and enterprises. Then the elderly look back on their lives and realize that they’ve already seen it, found it, been there, built it – and many look back and wonder what they really accomplished in their life. And many die believing their life was ultimately a failure because they accomplished a lot of “purposes,” yet never completed the big purpose.
I must now apologize to my readers because my title indicated that somewhere in this article would be some magically embolden text that defines the purpose of life. It isn’t here. What is here is a foresight, a glimpse into a possible future for each of us. We may not be able to define for certain the overall purpose of life that everyone will agree upon. But we can indeed be certain that if we spend our lives distracted by “purposes” rather than seeking the greater purpose, we may well find ourselves in old age looking back, only then realizing too late that we’ve missed it. We have only one shot at this thing called “Life.” Let’s get it right.