Here I will examine whether a life devoted to playing WoW (World of Warcraft) can be considered a good life. This is not because I like to pick on people who play WoW (well, at least it’s not completely because of that). WoW serves as an excellent illustration of some of the problems that arise when attempting to define what the good life is, and how this issue is tied to our conception of what is valuable. Additionally I should note that this post will not make complete sense unless you have at least skimmed what I have written about the good life previously (here and here), as the good life that I am talking about here is not an ethical life, but rather a valuable life (roughly).
Now no one can live a life without any fun (or at least very few people can). Thus no definition of the good life should exclude recreation of some sorts, for the simple reason that most people who attempted to lead such a life would die young from overwork. Thus a discussion of the good life and WoW can’t have anything to say about the people who play WoW for only a brief time each day (say as much time as the average person watches TV or relaxes in other ways), especially if they are foregoing those other recreational activities to play WoW. And few people play WoW all the time either, most people have to spend at least some time at work supporting themselves. And some people may have jobs that automatically qualify them as leading the good life, although which jobs count as leading the good life will differ depending on how you conceive of the good life (maybe they build homes for the poor). So the people I am concerned with then are those who work at an ordinary job, one that does not automatically qualify them for leading the good life, and then devote the majority of their remaining waking time to playing WoW (or entertaining themselves in some other way, WoW is simply my example of choice; the points raised here about it can be applied to many activities).
There are some who might say that such a life is good; specifically I have in mind those who define the good life as one that is filled with happiness (who seem to be the majority of people, since most people seem to strive first for happiness). However the most “addictive” games (like WoW) do not make people happy most of the time, and they certainly make them less happy then games that are much less “addictive”. Games like WoW are structured so that the player has to complete tasks that are by themselves only moderately entertaining, or even slightly unpleasant, tasks that are in many ways like work. For completing these the game rewards the player (which obviously does make the player somewhat happy), but then they must return to the less pleasant activity in order to work towards another reward. People return to these games (and occasionally devote their lives to them) not because they are extraordinarily happy playing them, but because the games are triggering a feeling of accomplishment. Usually this feeling of accomplishment is triggered in real life only when we put in some hard work to reach a goal, and thus it is useful in leading us to accomplish things of worth (which often require unpleasant work). However, in games like WoW there is nothing of value that results from the “work” (no matter how you define what is of value, because anything you do in the game could be accomplished by a small script running on the server, and surely if the result was truly valuable it would only make sense to pursue it in the most direct way possible). And thus the compulsion people feel to play games like WoW might be in many ways described as irrational.
But is there anything to prevent us from defining the good life as one that is lived as the person wishes, even if those wishes are “irrational” (they don’t yield anything of value for either the person (happiness) or the world in general)? I think there is. Besides the obvious counterexamples (the serial killer who is thus leading the good life) such a definition simply makes the good life too easy. Since our desires are internal, and subject to alteration, it would be possible to simply brainwash ourselves into desiring something simple, and thus lead the good life without trying. I think this is a sufficient reason to reject satisfying one’s desires as the definition of the good life. But if you accept this you must also accept that the good life cannot be defined in terms of happiness, because the arguments above apply equally well to that definition.
But why do we desire things; why do we want to be happy? The immediate explanation has to do with our brain chemistry. But from the long-term viewpoint our desires can be explained in two ways. One goal that our desires are “designed” to promote is our survival with some margin of safety. If that is assured our desires seem to push us towards contributing towards society at large, both in terms of being a good member of society (ethical), but also in the sense of accomplishing something that advances society as a whole, whether that be developing a new branch of mathematics or digging a well. Perhaps then the good life is better framed in these terms, as a life that is lead in the way our desires were “intended” to push us.