Pressing Play on Compassion


Definition of RPG: Role-playing Game. A video game in which players assume the roles of characters within a narrative, undertaking quests and building-up skills that that develop their character and progress them towards a goal.

A game called life. I know it may sound strange. When there are so many bad things that happen and we cannot undo, when it is filled with complex issues that have no neat answer in the back of a rule book and so many people telling us life is a very serious and sometimes scary business.

I have a discovered a secret though. The more I worry about the problems in the world and feel overwhelmed by its challenges, the more it seems that the only way to live life is “as if it were a game you choose to play”. (S.Deterding, May 2011)

In the construction of our self identity, role-playing can become reality. “As we enact a new role – college student, parent, salesperson – we initially feel self conscious. Gradually, however, what begins as playacting in the theatre of life is absorbed into our sense of self.” (Reading 2.1, p.38)

I would take this one step further and propose we are not the passive audience in the theatre show of our own lives, but the active participants in our own game reality.

In the game, you cannot sit on the sidelines, a spectator, waiting for the story to unfold. You can only jump in, choose your adventure and play out the best game you can. Even when the name of the game, might be; “living each minute of one 24 hour period, as compassionately as possible.”

It might seem wrong to treat compassion like a game, as if there were some measurable reward for winning (like meeting the Dali Lama) and a scoring for how much you achieved. After all, doesn’t compassion come from some inner place of Zen? Wouldn’t it completely miss the point, if you broke it down, worked out the rules and tried to game it?

To help answer this, please consider the following questions:

  • Do the scout’s badges earned for good deeds negate the goodness of the deed?
  • Are the experiences and emotions you have whilst playing a game somehow make it less worthy because it wasn’t real life?

I believe that the presence of a game layer, a set of rules to play by and narrative, even a fictional one, does not turn it disingenuous. We each construct our own reality to a far greater degree than we might often assume (Lecture 1.4).

Here in the quest to compassion I present just another abstraction. One I hope you will put aside your own reality and entertain for just a while.

In this world, imagine a small mouse waiting anxiously to begin, waiting to press play on compassion.


Note: The above post is taken from a piece submitted to Coursera Social Psychology MOOC with Professor Scott Plous. The course assignment included a challenge to live 24 hours as compassionately as possible with an award to meet the Dali Lami for one participant. This was part one of my submission.


Coursera Social Psychology – Reading 2.1 Myers, D.G. (2012) Social Psychology

Coursera Social Psychology – Lecture 1.4 The Psychological Construction of Reality

Don’t play games with me – Sebastian Deterding, School of Interactive Games & MediaB. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences (Plus Audio Link)

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