You are a slave to the messages you look for

by Crispy Chicken

Video games have a visual language they use to communicate with players. The most commmon message is: You can interact with this.” For instance, indicators of climbability” in Assasin’s Creed:

assassin’s creed meme

Video games need a more tight, attention-grabbing visual language for this than the real world because they compete with each other by maximizing the entertainment value per minute people are investing their leisure time into. Unlike real life, video games have an extremely limited set of affordances for situations (even the incredibly detailed and complex ones) and these affordances are often extraordinary, purposefully defying the usual rules of everyday life.

Of course, when the real world needs to minimize time-to-affordance realizations, it looks like a video game tutorial: NYU emergency callbox

The interesting thing is that due to acculturation processes like the Tetris Effect we quickly impose the languages (visual or otherwise) that we get used to on everything. Suddenly, you’re talking to people and trying to figure out what quest” they’re trying to send you off on and what your reward will be:

quest dog meme

And that’s the funny thing: you get stuck in it, even if you know you’re stuck in it.

The hilarious side-effect of this is that when someone tries to communicate outside of the normal frame you often have trouble seeing it”. There are milliions, literally millions, of posts out there about being in a certain part of a video game and getting stuck” because you don’t know what switch you’re supposed to flip or character you’re supposed to talk to in order to get out of the current situation. A lot of the times the solution is obvious if you’re not thinking in video game mode.

I’ve played video games since I was six. When I got stuck I would call my mom over, explain the basic context, and ask her to help me look for what I should do. The conversation would look like this:

Mom: What about that tree?

Crispy: You see how it’s kind of a faded color, unlike the bright colors of everything else? That’s because it’s part of the background.

Mom: What about that console?

Crispy: You see how it’s just a texture instead of a 3D object? That means its just there for show.

Mom: But the screen is blinking.

Crispy: oh no

Crispy: goes over and click X button, unlocking the desired door

It took someone who hadn’t gotten so used to the language of a given game, type of game, etc. to see what the affordances might be and work in that expanded space.1 The thing is, it’s not that my mom was better or more efficient than me at these games. She would sometimes sit with me and we’d talk through them while I was playing, and she would constantly mis-guess things in the situation where I was just blazing through. But it was precisely because I was adapting to the kind of tricks that I expected video game designers to pull, and because they are by no means limited to these clear signifiers, that my mom had more insight than me in these special moments.

Except, that’s everything—that’s how the real world actually works.

You don’t have the cognitive capacity to constantly be looking at all the things your environment could be trying to tell you, so you get used to the language that you can reliably use to manipulate things with. Unfortunately, there’s a frequency bias here: you get used to manipulating short-term outcomes and then it becomes harder and harder to even see how you might effect long-term outcomes.

There are many ways out, but a good one that I’ve been using since I was six: asking someone out of your context, since they’re not stuck in the games you play. I think that’s one of the reasons a really good life partner is often not stuck in the same headspaces as you, so there’s a continual mutual unraveling of narrow interpretation bands.

The weird part is, since this is the real complex world, it’s worth putting quite a bit of probability mass into the possibility that there are languages for communicating with your environment you’re completely unaware of. Getting there by trial and error is hard, so the only real way forward seems to be to trackdown people who are getting things done in a way you can’t explain and figure them out.

  1. My mom’s a pro. Let’s have moment of silence for how many hours of frustration she saved me.↩︎