Elite Dangerous and Existentialism

Imagine someone pushed you 1300 years into the future, gave you a spacecraft, and then disappeared and left you to it. What would you do? And how does this question relate to our every day lives?

The universe is vast, dark and impersonal.

Elite: Dangerous is a vast space game. It which hands you the controls of a spacecraft in a simulated universe shared by millions of other players around the globe. But what does one actually do in it, and how does this question relate to our everyday lives?

Most games have a quest or story to complete, or some other kind of ‘win’ condition, for example beating the Big Bad Boss-thing and saving the land from eternal darkness and stench. However Elite doesn’t. You have complete freedom to do whatever you like. You can choose to fight other players, trade and amass vast profits, upgrade your ship take others on sightseeing tours, or just wander round and explore and take photographs.

But this has caused a few questions on the official forums, mostly from new players:  what’s the point of it all? What does one actually do in the game?

Right, we’re here. Now what?

This is a deep philosophical question that also applies to our everyday life. In particular this is a question raised by Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard and the Existentialist philosophers. The Existentialists noted that there’s no “win” condition for (real) life, no objective criteria for what to actually ‘do’ with our lives. So they set about trying to address the question of how we can deal with that lack of goal and direction that can ail us.

An “Existential crisis” can occur when one realises that one’s life has no value, meaning or point to it. When one realises that there are no actual rules to follow, we’re going to die one day, so what’s the point of doing anything at all? What’s the point of putting in effort at work or building a career?

By recognising this open-ended, non-linear “sandbox” nature of life itself, we can start to see that the questions posed on the Elite gaming forums by players can also apply to our wider lives. We’re born, we die, what do we do in between? We’re not born with a quest journal or manual for what to do when we arrive here.

The existentialists argue that, just as in Elite: Dangerous, there’s no objective set of rules, or “win condition” for life. This means  it falls to us to find our own meanings in the daily activities we find ouselves engaged in. We must, in effect, create our own quests and win conditions.

Sispyhus, and keeping the old ball rolling

In Homer’s Odyssey, we meet the character of Sisyphus, a man who is condemned by Aeus  to roll a giant boulder up a hill only to have to roll back down to the bottom again, for all eternity. Sisyphus could not possibly “win”. He was stuck with a very repetitive circle of activity, to be repeated day in, day out, for ever.

An etchign illustrating Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill.
“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” – Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”

In his essay “The Myth of Sysiphus”, the philosopher Albert Camus formulated this as saying:

The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd [than Sisyphus’s].

In work and life we find ourselves with a daily grind. Not just in work, but also domestically. Washing up is, after all, only an epehemeral solution to a cluttered kitchen. But we do have the freedom to pick and choose where we direct our attention, and what we do within the parameters life offers us.

The general consensus of the existentialists was:

“If there is any meaning to life, our limited minds will not be able to understand it, so find something you enjoy doing, and do that.”

Admittedly I would also add “…and find someone to pay you to do it”, but then I have a mortgage to worry about these days.

Go forth and play

So this is how I answer the question on the Elite Dangerous forums: find something you want to do in the game, and do that. Go mining. Explore and take photographs of sunrises on distant planets. Go trading, amass wealth and buy the biggest, baddest ship you can find, and paint it gold. Find your own meaning in the game. Find your own meaning in life.

See you in the black, Commanders!


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