Life has no cheat codes

A life lesson in pixel form.
A life lesson in pixel form.

Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-A-B-start.  If you’re a gamer of any kind, you’ve probably entered that or similar combinations of buttons into your controller, seeking to enable invincibility, infinite ammo, all power-ups or what-have-you.  In today’s video games, cheat codes are everywhere – originating as secret backdoors for programmers to enable them to jump to specific points in the game to test for bugs, cheat codes are in the mainstream now, with the option to enter them usually front and center on most games’ main menus.  Some are pretty harmless, like sticking a mustache on your character or changing his outfit.  But others turn you into an omnipotent juggernaut mowing down hapless bots as you stroll brazenly through bloody bullet-strewn battlefield after bloody bullet-strewn battlefield, with no need to strategize about your approach, or, you know, duck.  If you’re an adult and that’s the gaming experience you want, bully for you.  But for kids, being able to quickly button-mash their way out of the effort required to finish a game legitimately with its puzzles and dangers intact is one of the worst life lessons they can learn in their formative years.  Just a few short years ago I swore I’d never give a “kids these days” speech, but here I am, as inevitably as the tides.

I grew up in the era of the quarter-sucking arcade and the first home video game console systems – when the kid on the block whose dad got him the Atari for Christmas was the epicenter of the neighbourhood social scene.  In those days, you started with three lives, and no matter how far you got in the game, if you died three times you’d have to start again from the beginning.  The game might be magnanimous enough to offer you an extra life or two when you reached a certain point threshold, but if you were an amateur gamer like myself, struggling to elude those damned multicolored ghosts as you wheeled Pac-Man wildly through his maze of blinking dots, that was a rare prize indeed.  There was no such thing as “leveling up” – the aliens descended progressively faster while your skill set remained constant, limited to the extent of your hand-eye coordination.  No armor upgrades, invincibility potions or uber-mega-cannons to be found.  Mario was forever a lone soldier with nothing more than his ability to jump to a finite height pitted against the merciless barrel throwing of Donkey Kong.  And even though the frustration factor was enough to make us want to punch through the screen as we watched our Galaga fighter explode into pixel shards, the challenge, and the fun, kept us coming back.  If we’d all hated the experience that much, Wreck-It Ralph never would have been made.

In today’s games, along with increasingly sophisticated graphics and cinematic behind-the-scenes talent has come checkpoints, save points, official strategy guides and enough in-game cheats both hidden and obvious to let you plow through to the end in a few meager hours of play.  You never die in a game anymore; it merely pauses for a few seconds before you respawn in the same place (maybe back a few hundred in-game meters) with little to no penalty.  And almost every single in-game danger or problem can be mitigated by a cheat code.  Running out of ammo?  There’s a cheat for that.  Missing a crucial key to unlock the next door?  There’s a cheat for that too.  Instead of putting in the mental exertion or the time commitment to try and solve the puzzle, a kid’s first recourse is to go online for a code.  Getting to the end as quickly as possible, enjoying the spoils without the effort and without the experience of the journey, is the primary goal.  But the game is the journey – that’s the whole point.  SimCity remains a magnificent video game recreation of the trials of urban planning and municipal management, where success depends on learning how to allocate scarce resources and resolve the political consequences of important decisions.  Without a landfill, garbage will pile up on your streets, but residents will complain and move away if you put it too close to them, and so on.  But even SimCity has a cheat that gifts you with infinite cash and reduces the cost of all city improvements to zero.  I’m sure plenty of mayors and planners would love to have access to that!

Funnily enough, the reward for reaching the end absent any risk or need to think about what you’re doing is usually just a brief cut-scene followed by developer credits.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not that interested in who the second graphics assistant coordinator is for Halo.  I also know that giving in to the temptation of cheat codes is the quickest way to lose interest in a game.  I remember racing through the Facility level on GoldenEye 64 time and again, dodging bullet hits left and right from digital Soviet soldiers to complete the mission in under two minutes and five seconds and unlock the invincibility achievement.  Sure, there were times I wanted to chuck the controller against the wall, but I kept playing, kept trying to shave off crucial seconds.  Then I discovered that you could actually unlock invincibility with a few button pushes instead.  Once I did that, the challenge of beating the game was gone, and so was my joy in playing it.  I played it perhaps a half-dozen times after that before it was consigned to a basement box.

In an era when everyone is a beautiful snowflake and no one is allowed to fail lest their precious feelings be hurt, cheat codes are another message to children that they don’t really need to try, that they will be carried along to the next level regardless of how mediocre their performance is.  There is no point in trying, because there’s always a way to cheat yourself out of a tight spot.  The nobility of effort is a lost concept, and the video games we give our kids to play are emblematic of this problem.  Getting crushed by Donkey Kong’s barrels or caught by Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Sue were in their strange way, important rites of passage.  They taught us that we had to consider different approaches and to try harder if we wanted to get ahead.  One shudders at the thought of a generation of adults raised to believe that they need only to touch the right combination of buttons in order to be granted whatever they desire.  (That worked really well the last time I wanted a new car, and infinite ammo for my bazooka.)  Or worse – rushing through life to get to the disappointing cut-scene at the end.

Life has no cheat codes.  Video games shouldn’t either.

Greetings Professor Falken

Arthur C. Clarke posited that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Looking at the state of computer gaming now, with motion capture systems like the Wii and the Kinect, three-dimensional graphics with blood-spattering realism, and the phenomenon of online role playing games like World of Warcraft – where entire alternate lives are experienced within cyberspace – it’s hard not to imagine that the characters in 1983’s WarGames would make that assumption were they somehow able to glimpse the games of 2012.  Good science fiction has always assumed that we would reach these points, that our technology would eventually outpace imagination.  No doubt Apple is working on the iHolodeck as we speak.  The best science fiction though has recognized that despite the trappings of future technology, the ideas at its core must remain timeless.  Which is why you can watch a nearly 30-year old movie like WarGames, with its goofy costumes and haircuts and floppy disks the size of pizza boxes, compare its conclusions to history unfolding before you and appreciate its lasting relevance.

I suspect there’s little need to recap the film’s plot at length:  Underachiever (and spiritual godfather of Lulzsec and Anonymous) David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) unwittingly hacks into the United States’ computerized defense system (the WOPR) and engages it in a simulated game of Global Thermonuclear War.  The computer decides to play the game for real, never having learned, as its creator Professor Stephen Falken (John Wood) opines, the concept of futility.  The WOPR is another entry in the long list of troublesome movie computers, like 2001‘s HAL 9000, Tron‘s Master Control Program or Terminator‘s Skynet.  Yet especially unlike the latter, WOPR is not acting out of any sense of malevolence – it is a child, innocently smearing house paint all over a priceless work of art, not recognizing that it is damaging something valuable.  In terms of story structure this is an interesting dilemma – there is basically no antagonist in the movie, no bad guy to be defeated.  Rather, the goal is one of establishing an understanding – an awareness of how suicidally stupid the “game” of nuclear brinksmanship is.  Issues of intent, ideology, the worth of communism versus capitalism or ordinary prejudice are removed from the equation completely; in a world of nuance, this is the simplest, most black-and-white question there can be.  Consequently, the many characters populating the movie remain, for the most part, archetypes and relatively undeveloped ciphers.  We don’t get a real sense of why David is a computer-obsessed loner, why Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) wants to hang around with him, why McKittrick (Dabney Coleman) is so driven to prove that the WOPR can usurp the human’s place in the war response decision-making chain.  The question at the heart of the movie is more important, and the characters are servants to finding the answer.  And the writing, direction and editing are handled so well that even watching the movie for the tenth time you are still clenching up as WOPR hacks the nuclear launch codes, wondering if it will figure out what it needs to know in time to save the world.

It’s unfortunate that a movie like this still holds so much meaning; one would like to imagine that humanity has outgrown the hormonal foolishness that from Hiroshima onwards kept the infamous doomsday clock so close to midnight.  Fear of utter annihilation should not be what keeps us safe in our beds, and yet in many ways we are still like lemurs huddled together in a cave, afraid that the wolves are going to come and take us in the night.  The Soviet Union may be long gone, but the primitive paranoid braintrust that fueled the Cold War is still alive and well; somehow brandishing guns and bombs and strutting about like armed peacocks, boasting about superiority and threatening to metaphorically bitch slap anyone who disagrees is what passes for diplomatic skill in this age.  We read stories about North Korea’s long-range rockets, Iran’s nuclear program and the looming spectre of a potential bombing campaign and think Jesus – why have human beings, who are ostensibly more capable of learning than any machine, not grasped the lesson learned by the WOPR, and WarGames’ timeless message:  “The only winning move is not to play”?