Death and Illusion in Virtuality: existentialist philosophy explains why video games are so popular


There’s nothing that separates us from other animals. Nothing, except for a few key attributes. All other animals except for humans act primarily on instinct, and no other animal except for humans are aware of their own existence. How terribly unfair is that.


We are creators with minds that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, that can imagine, dream, and comprehend abstractions. All this in a body that once belonged to a fish, a material fleshy casing that can bleed and ache, and which will eventually decay and die. All other animals are spared from the humans knowledge of its own uniqueness, they move and act reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. They have no name and live in a world without time. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness, but to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death as the only possible outcome — that’s something else.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard used the biblical myth of the Fall, when Adam and Eve is ejected from the garden of Eden as a starting point of his existentialist philosophy. Emerging from the instinctive thoughtless action of the lower animals and then coming to reflect on their condition. If Adam would eat from the tree of knowledge God told him that he ”shalt surely die”. At that moment the union of opposites were formed; the physical body and the self-consciousness of it. This he saw as the true essence of humans. ”Further than this psychology cannot go… and moreover it can verify this point again and again in its observation of human life.” With this follows the anxiety, the existential angst. ”This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression and with all this yet to die.”

Apart from other animals we’re not just a body, we’re a body and a self. This is the tragic dualism. We’re all a body that will eventually wither and rot — and a mind that knows it. Not only are we aware of what is in front of the nose, but the whole surrounding, many surroundings. We can not only relate to other animals in our own species, but in some way to all other species. We can not only contemplate what we can eat, but everything that grows. We do not only live in this moment, but can expand our inner self to yesterday, time passed ages ago, and fear millions of years from now when the sun will cool. Not only do we live on a small piece of territory, nor even on a planet, but in a galaxy, a universe and beyond. All this and yet we’re just parts of flesh and bones.

It is pivotal to repress both our own mortality and the vastness of the world, American anthropologist Ernest Becker notes. That makes it possible to live in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralysed to act. Besides the burden of death, he argues, we must also avoid too much life. The result is that the human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death.

British artist Damien Hirst portrays the problem of repressing mortality brilliantly. In his Natural History series, dead animals (such as a shark, a sheep, or a cow) are preserved, sometimes cut-up in half, in formaldehyde. It’s a stunning experience to have one part of a cow on your left, and the other part of the cow on your right as you walk through the exhibition floor. It leaves literally nothing left to the imagination, it’s flesh, bones, and intestines; the body. The title of his iconic work, a 4.2 meter long shark is apt; The Physical Impossibility Of Death In the Mind Of Someone Living.

Let’s face it: we don’t know who we really are, why we were born, what our purpose is, or what we can expect. We are in dire need of control and we are in desperate need of meaning. We need to repress too much life and to deny our inevitable fatality. And the answer is? Well, religion used to work. Created by God to live a life on earth in holy righteousness in order to save yourself a place in heaven when you die. Your mission in life is to serve God in order to reach sanctuary when you pass. That’s a pretty solid idea. But in the age of reason and science it’s been growing quite weak. Bertrand Russell argued that “religion in any shape or form is a pernicious and deliberate falsehood, spread and encouraged by rulers and clerics in their own interests, since it is easier to exercise control over the ignorant.” Karl Marx too knew that it was the people’s favourite drug, a spectacle invented.

Instead, we invent all-absorbing activities; a passion, a dedication to something, a way of life that keeps us comfortably numb and ignorant of our fatal destiny. We invent a raison d’etre, since nothing can completely justify our existence. We imagine that our literature, poetry, or music shall outlive us. We desperately look for something to give us meaning and control in a fate were we otherwise can find no real meaning and that we are far from having any control over.

We’ve come so far that the tragic dualism, the body and the self, has almost separated from each other. We are so cerebral that the few times the body needs attention we attach feelings of guilt towards it. People are now obsessed with cleanliness, a way to avoid the dirt of the animal body. Excreting is something degrading and repulsive. It represents not only physical determinism, but also the fate of all that is physical: decay and death. We are so very cultural and so little natural. As recent as medieval times the wealthy arranged parties where they only ate with the left hand. They had to use the right hand to get rid of excrement, thrown down fortress walls in between meals. That was the physical body and we’re almost a stranger to it. Imagine the fear of running out of toilet paper or the anxiety when the toilet doesn’t flush. It’s an embarrassment of our animal body.

What we have here is the basis of existentialist theory and the human condition based on Becker and Kierkegaard. In summary:

● We are in search for meaning, of our own life and its purpose

● We are in need of intellectual nourishment — praise and reward — as a confirmation of our own existence

● We are in need of control, the notion that you have control over your own life

● We are in need of illusion, something that relieves the anxiety of our own mortality

● We want to avoid the dirty physicality of the animal

● We want to avoid “too much life”, the vastness of the universe is too overwhelming

How do these theories then apply to the virtual world of games?


● We are in search for meaning, of our own life and its purpose.

Acquiring a new life is surprisingly easy. This time around you get the divine opportunity to choose your own appearance and sex! In any video game your life is given a true sense of meaning within minutes — you are here for a reason — you are here to help save your clan, your species, or the world. Contrast this to the real world, where life is a chaos in which you are lost without any tangible sense of purpose. In the Fallout series of games you need to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in the Civilization series you are managing a whole civilization from prehistory to the future, and in the Uncharted series you are a treasure hunter travelling around the world to uncover various historical mysteries. In all of them your virtual existence is given true meaning.

● We are in need of intellectual nourishment — praise and reward — as a confirmation of our own existence.

Even though you are faced with new problems and new hardships, it is very much different from reality. The life in virtuality is in many ways a mirror of real life but it is a wishful thinking, a rationalization of it. Everything is simplified and rational to the extreme, the greyscale has been removed. Issues are measured in good or evil, friend or foe.

Think of how much you do in the real world that never gets praised or how much work one puts into something that gets attention years after its completion. Ironically, if you’re lucky enough, you’re only really praised when you die. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Kafka’s most famous works were not even published in his lifetime. In virtuality, once you complete something, there’s a 100% guarantee you will be rewarded for it straight away. That’s the wonder of instant gratification.

● We are in need of control, the notion that you have control over your own life.

In the virtual you are in full control of your actions and the following consequences of them. As opposed to the real world where having control of your actions and the consequences of them is a scarcity to say the least. In the real world we can only ponder what our choices will lead to, in virtuality it’s a clear cut case, basically every single time. Again this is based on a great amount of rationality; a simplification of the world.

Even in more complex games where you spend weeks investing in your avatars talents you can often unlearn everything in an instant to pursue another specialization. Or you can view a so called talent tree from the start. That’s the real world equivalent of instantly changing your University degree, or booking your holidays already knowing what the weather will be like.

You’re not constantly bombarded by commercialism and advertisement that can impact your virtual life or lifestyle choices. The virtual world is your oyster, one can travel and move wherever desired and nothing is there to hold you back or question your motives.

● We are in need of illusion, something that relieves the anxiety of our own mortality.

Once you enter the virtual realm, as magic indeed, the burden of your real life disappears. Like a fairy spell it enchants you and takes you in to a world of dreams. When you reach a deep state of immersion all of your thoughts and actions are absorbed and devoted to the new reality, and you leave the anxiety of your former body behind. In the 70’s, long before immersive virtual worlds, Becker argued that we ”need a second world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that we can live, dramatize, ourselves in. Illusion means creative play at its highest level.”

Virtuality can serve as a comfortable curtain of fantasy, something that fulfils the need to forget oneself for a moment or most likely for longer periods of time. It involves forgetting your mortal body and the anxiety that surrounds it, and it involves the great escape of death. Here lies the paradox. You (the extension of your new self — the avatar) die a lot! Regardless of how well you have managed to be a talented survivor in the virtual you can safely rely on one thing — you will die, and you will die a lot! So, how can one escape death and die at the same time? It’s simple. When your health bar reaches zero, real world logics of ‘what the earth giveth, the earth taketh away’ does not apply in our magical realm. Death here is always something passing into life again, and since it happens so frequently not much attention is put to it. It is reincarnation squared. In the virtual world you die so much that it becomes something trivial. Religion, and especially its pillar on the afterlife, becomes obsolete when death is shrugged away with casual abandon. What we have then is both an illusion so strong that it will maculate the tragic duality of the human, and a view on death that inside the virtual world gives you a sense of being eternal.

● We want to avoid the dirty physicality of the animal.

Virtual worlds lets you travel. In World of Warcraft as an example, one of the most popular games ever, you are taking on obnoxious ogres in the caves of Deathwind Pass, and fighting ferocious Furbolgs in the enchanted forests of Ashenvale. You can swim in pools of mud, and we’re not talking about the health spa mud here — everything from green gooey mud that oozes of fungus or poison to black ponds of tar - and every time you step out of them your armour shines crystal clear like it’s just been polished. This is avoiding the natural filth of the animal that reminds one of its decay and death. You can eat and drink as much as you please without worrying about the excreting which symbolizes the physical determinism. You never get dirty. You eat a lot, you stay healthy, but never decay.

● We want to avoid “too much life”, the vastness of the universe is too overwhelming.

The irony of the human condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death; but it is life itself which awakens it, so we must shrink from being fully alive. Virtual worlds might seem endless at first glances, but after the proper acclimatization, virtuality ends up being precisely the biting size of what an animal can chew. In the popular GTA series of games the entire world is one city. In Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic the worlds are an entire galaxy, but it is rationalized and the galaxies feel comprehensible. Coming from the real world it’s a question of narrowing down the world to what feels comfortable, and avoiding what Kierkegaard refers to as the sickness of infinitude.


Existentialism argues that a great deal of human activity is based on the denial of ones own mortality. Looking at the reality of the world is simply too terrible to admit. The illusion in virtuality changes this, it makes you (the avatar, the extension of your self) seem important and vital to that world, and immortal in two different aspects. It relieves anxiety by avoiding the deterministic physicality of the animal, narrows down your conscious path, all in a world which is comfortable in size.

In Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal from 1958, the knight Antonius Block has returned with his squire Jöns from the crusades only to find that his home country is ravaged by the plague. He eventually discovers that Death has come for him too. In order to buy some time he makes a deal with Death: they will play a game of chess, and for as long as the game is ongoing, Antonius lives.

Hey, cheer up! Have a look at this cute puppy.