To Infinity and Beyond

When I was a kid, I used to think a lot about the future. This was not adolescent daydreaming about what occupation I would take, like pulling cards from the game of life. This was deep prognostication that arose from years of churching behind the gracious doors of Family Bible. I spent many Sundays thinking about the afterlife, specifically eternity. Those chosen for heaven would head for the starry heavens to spend the beginning of the end of days in joyous rapture with the Creator. 

But when I would sit in bed in the evenings and run my fingers along the white stuccoed walls of my room, my mind would wander, lingering on the question, “What would that be like?” More specifically, “What would I do?” In theory, I could read every book, play every game, and learn every language in the realm of eternity. It made no sense to me. In fact, it hurt. This was not an existential pain from pondering the imponderable. This was a real, tangible physical pain in the upper-left part of my brain as I felt myself become lost in a mire of confusion. (My mother, conversely, felt none of those things and was lost only to bliss of the future.) 

Ironically, though my mind struggled to comprehend a time without ending, I face that reality everyday. It happens when I play games.

Tetris. Bejeweled. Drop7. None of these games has a formal end. By that I mean, there’s no princess to rescue, treasure to find, or world to save. They are pure play experiences between me and the machine, fighting it out until one of us blows a fuse. Whereas the idea of foreverness terrifies me in the abstract, I play games all the time that offer eternity. What gives?

Adam Saltsman is an Austin-based independent game designer and creator of one of my favorite Flash titles, Canabalt. The premise is simple—you’re a man on the run from something. That “something” is deliberately opaque—it’s perhaps apocalyptic in nature, but he could just be fleeing from the taxman. We don’t know.

But we do know that there is no ending to Canabalt. He will run forever. I asked Adam why:

The true limit to Canabalt is the 32- or 64-bit floating point accuracy, which I think could be reached before the heat-death of our closest star (but I haven’t done the math!). Not putting an ending in Canabalt was less a decision of “this game shall have NO ENDING” so much as “how on earth does one end an experience like this?” If the game’s only metric is distance, then one would assume that the end point would be related to distance, but then how do you decide what that is? Is 10,000 meters a really good ending?

Games are the only medium that offer this type of dilemma, this sliding scale of performance and “completion.” Essentially, you’re done when you say you’re done. Books run out of words; films roll their credits; paintings stay in galleries. It’s not that games like Canabalt are on a loop—they’re literally different each time you play them, and continue to shift as you flee. The building heights change as you vault over boxes that sporadically appear. Saltsman designed it that way, because the good “ending” for Canabalt (or Tetris, for that matter) is wherever you want it to be.

But back to the pain. I remember reading an interview with Billy Mitchell in Oxford American about his world-record Pac-Man score. Pac-Man, as you might know, has a theoretically infinite number of levels; but due to a bug, the 256th level is unplayable because of the “kill screen.” What most people forget is that the levels max out in difficulty at 21, and then level 21 repeats … for more than four hours. He referred to it as “the long, slow grind.” But imagine expanding that Pac-Man slog across a lifetime or a millennium or until the stars burn out (as Saltsman suggested). Wouldn’t it drive you mad? 

What baffles me is that we, as game players, knowingly enter these spaces with no ending without truly thinking about what we are engaging in. We don’t think about the never-ending nature of the games, or that we could be playing them, in theory, until the sun burns out of the sky. At least I certainly don’t. Perhaps it’s because performance is tied to skill—even if we wanted to play forever, we don’t have the requisite chops to do so. But why doesn’t that chase preoccupy us with the future that could be? It seems the physical act of playing games overrules the mental process of thinking about interminability. 

We certainly see others who are tortured by their own limitations. Consider the case of mathematicians, who often wrestle with the concept of infinity and forever as a necessary part of their craft. Math historian E.T. Bell wrote in 1937:  

One conclusion appears to be inescapable: without a consistent theory of the mathematical infinite there is no theory of irrationals; without a theory of irrationals there is no mathematical analysis in any form resembling what we now have; and finally, without an analysis of  the major part of mathematics—including geometry and most of all applied mathematics—as it now exists would cease to exist. The most important task confronting mathematicians would therefore seem seem to be a construction of a satisfactory theory of the infinite.

In short—no infinite, no math class, no engineers, no Brooklyn Bridge, no videogames.

Bell was referencing the work of Georg Cantor, the founder of modern set theory, who suffered from depression and manic bouts for the remainder of his life. David Foster Wallace, in his biography of Cantor, notes that “The Mentally Ill Mathematician seems now in some ways to be what the Knight Errant, Mortified Saint, Tortured Artist, and Mad Scientist have been for other eras: sort of our Prometheus, the one who goes to forbidden places and return with gifts we all use but he alone pays for.” 

Like Wallace (who paid a similar cost in his own suicide), I am not drawing a beeline between Cantor’s work and his confinement to a sanatorium, but am rather noting that we are not surprised that math could drive you crazy. NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz argued last year that the game of Go is self-destructive, because it could consume your mind with its depth forever. “Leave a space for the infinite,” he said to his fellow game designers. 

Why doesn’t that chase preoccupy us with the future that could be?

But that endlessness hardly enters your thought when you plop down for a videogame. One summer my grandfather visited me. To my adolescent memory, he was a taskmaster who scuttled my usual plans of street football for a litany of chores. The only time I remember when he loosed his grip was each night when he sat down to play Tetris. His posture, normally erect with a martinet’s demeanor, changed and loosed as the title screen rolled. He was utterly addicted. Yet I never worried that he might lose his mind journeying into the infinite, but rather that he looked a bit tired and might not make me finish my daily porch-sweeping assignments.

Perhaps I should have. Perhaps playing games like Canabalt should force us to confront our own mortality, or the knowledge that the game will live on long past our existence—that even if we could engage this machine in our lifetime and for 100 generations or more, we would be no more in control than while collecting grains of sand on the beach. These are the types of revelations that led men in other mediums to the foot of the divine—or away from a God entirely, as Tennyson wrote: “Sorrow addresses the poet: ‘The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run.’” Comprehending our own humanity through play should bring us to a deeper reflection on our “time until death,” Saltsman called it. These Xboxes will surely outlive us.

I showed Saltsman the Bell passage and then asked him a simple question: What do you think about when you looks at the night sky?

I’m not a spiritual dude at all, but [that thought] puts me in a place where I can witness the vast random infinity of nature and I am definitely overwhelmed by this kind of sublime sensation that is really exhilarating. Isaac Newton had this idea that he was doing science for God; that he, the most superior of all human intellects (dude had an ego), was put here on Earth to solve God’s riddles of the mechanisms of the universe.

Or perhaps we’re here to play games instead.

Illustration by Daniel Purvis