Video Game Syndrome

By Justin Murphy,

Children’s Games (1560) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


In the 21st century, it's easy to forget you are not Super Mario.

The Jan. 6 protestors who stormed the Capitol are surely guilty of something, but mostly just stupidity.

When commentators impute to these protestors calculated treasonous intent, as far as I can tell that is just plainly implausible. Serious insurrectionists would never voluntarily record and publicize photographs and videos of their high treason. It’s one of the most bizarre facts about the Jan. 6 incident, that these protestors went very far out of their way to record and publicize their actions.

If you watch the video footage, you’ll see that few even covered their faces. I’ve yet to see any decent theory of this event that can account for this bizarre fact. So what were these people really doing?

Sam Bankman-Fried, we are told, is a huckster worse than Bernie Madoff. He cynically projected a devotion to ethics, all the better to cover his ruthless deception and self-dealing. That’s the emerging consensus, anyway.

Now, as one of the few voices explicitly opposing Effective Altruism and Rationalism before it was cool, I definitely took a victory lap on that point when FTX imploded.

Yet I think the emerging consensus overshoots the mark on SBF in the same it’s overshooting the mark on the Jan. 6 protestors.

The consensus mental model of SBF is similarly implausible, statistically and characterologically. We’ve seen vanishingly few people ever concoct systematic long-term plots purposely to lie and steal as much as possible, with some culturally optimized veneer of doing good. In some minds, this type of story pattern-matches somewhat to, say, Lenin or Stalin, but even if one grants such examples, these exceptions prove the rule (these are rare types bred in rare conditions).

More directly, though, this model of SBF is implausible given the other observable data about him. This is a kind, soft-spoken, mild-mannered, vegan, nerdy young man who likes to play League of Legends. We love a good plot twist, and we love when someone turns out to be the opposite of what they seem, but the reality is that humans are almost always precisely what they seem. So what did Sam Bankman-Fried really seem to be doing?

This pair of case studies has one great virtue from a research perspective.

Each one bears an opposite ideological load, with SBF becoming a poster child for Democratic evil, and the Jan. 6 protestors becoming poster children for Republican evil.

The most plausible and parsimonious explanation is the same in both cases.

The culprit was just playing a video game.

The culprit did not believe they were committing a real crime because it's not clear that we still live in a real world.

What exactly are the laws pertaining to the Capitol property? What exactly are the laws pertaining to all of these bank accounts filling up with money? Do you honestly know? I certainly don’t.

If I was in either of these two situations, I would have to Google these questions. Google is the portal through which “adulting” enters its video game layer—and mostly stays there indefinitely. When you Google the answer to an important life question, you generally get a few vague and competing answers—helpful but not conclusive. At a certain point your eyes get tired of scanning, and what do you do? You just take your best guess. And what happens? Nothing. Everything turns out fine.

We live in a world that has been so nerfed that we generally don’t even have access to committing real crimes. My car doesn’t even allow me the simple joy of breaking the seat belt law (it screeches at me). If I go to a website banned by US law, the website just won’t work on my computer.

Regarding those decisions we do still make for ourselves, the stakes are often embarrassingly low. A young man chooses not to drink oat milk and you would think he is Ulysses resisting the Sirens. Physical security and material comfort are so widespread in the West nowadays that, even after the worst decision in one’s life, one can usually start over without being revenge-murdered or going hungry. Super Mario never really dies. He just restarts.

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What is legal and illegal is often genuinely incomprehensible, thanks to the absurd agglomeration of legal regulations interacting with an increasingly complex society. Most people under 40 have lived their entire lives correctly assuming, in almost every context they’ve traversed, “As long as I’m not trying to hurt anyone, I can do whatever seems good to me.”

A museum today will tell you to interact with a piece of art over here, but not to touch this other piece of art over there. It’s illegal to move through the place too slowly (loitering) and it’s illegal to move too quickly (reckless endangerment).

The institutions of our government are supposedly governed by the people, and we’re encouraged to visit for tours. Why is Nancy Pelosi’s office not part of the tour? Why is her laptop not technically mine? It's not obvious.

If you conduct complicated cryptocurrency transactions and then seek to file your taxes diligently, you’ll find several conflicting interpretations. That’s because American tax law could not magically predict cryptocurrency being invented, and laws are updated slowly, so the law is objectively murky. Customer deposits are just a number on this screen here, and our trading funds are just a number on this other screen here. What really is the difference?

In a video game, is and ought collapse. If you can do it, then it is not prohibited.

In the video game of life, nobody is allowed to be evil and nobody is allowed to die. There is no explicit and coherent Law, just a zillion contradictory laws so insultingly nonsensical that they seem to say: "The real Law is whatever you can get away with."

The most plausible psychological model of the Jan. 6 protestors is also the most plausible psychological model of SBF:

“If it’s available to me, and I’m not a bad person, then I’m sure it will be fine.”

In almost every other context today, this heuristic is completely sound. This is a strong governing principle in the video game of life.

The only problem is, it turns out, life is not reducible to a video game. A government can get pretty close to nerfing the entire world and leaving its political subjects with the ethical stature of Super Mario, but there will always be glitches.

Beware of Video Game Syndrome.

Memento mori: You will not always get a restart.

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