The Sometimes-Beautiful Struggle

Life resides in a broken frame. Games must acknowledge this, not try and save us from it.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Criticism Life Movies


A 1997 Italian film directed by Roberto Benigni tells the story about a family ruptured apart by war, genocide and oppression.

La Vita è Bella,” (or, Life is Beautiful), engages with some terrible subject matter: a boy Giosuè, and his father Guido are torn from their mother Dora after Nazi officers transfer the three of them by train to a concentration camp on Giosuè’s fourth birthday, in 1943.

Committed to keeping his son alive and keeping his morale up, Guido pretends that their predicament is a game in which they have been elected to play, in order to 1,000 earn points and ultimately win a tank.

Giosuè can lose points by crying, begging to see his mother, saying he is hungry, and so on.

In so many words, “Life is Beautiful” is about a game.

This is a game that protects a child from a harsh reality, keeping him motivated and spirited enough not to give up against terrible odds. This game also teaches Giosuè, his father using this set of rules to instruct him on the conduct, interactions and habits that will keep him alive— and making up many rules dynamically, according to whatever new threat is presented to him, but always integrating them into the same basic framework.

Described this way, we forget the heart-rending dramatic irony of the situation: a family torn apart by intolerance, a boy desperate to see his mother again, a father desperate to keep his son alive in an impossible situation. We’re brought into the world of the boy, who cannot understand the adult world very much, outside the constant reaffirmation and instruction of his father. He relies on the game, on the authority of his dad, because he is a child.

Whenever he wants to leave, or wonders why the guards are so mean, or wants to know where the other children are, Guido is there to pull the comforting veil over his son’s face. You must keep playing, Giosuè, otherwise you will lose. You mustn’t give up. Even when the Americans close in on the camp, and the guards scurry and scramble, Guido reminds Giosuè to follow his tutorial: stay in the sweatbox; don’t leave until everyone is gone.

Even here, he plays along for Giosuè’s sake, while dressed in female prisoner’s clothing and avoiding searchlights, while being caught by a guard with an assault rifle and a pugnacious attitude. While mocking the guard’s goosestep, being marched off-screen, being audibly shot and left in an alley.

It is in the prologue and in the affective epilogue for Life is Beautiful, when the adult Giosuè reflects on his experiences, that we realize the necessary difference between the game and real life. In the context of the game, he won: he exits the sweatbox to be greeted by an American tank; he reunites with his mother while riding in it along a dirt road lined by liberated prisoners. In the context of real life, he realizes the sacrifice his father made to bring his family back together. He realizes the profound loss that he could only mourn long afterward.

In retrospect, Guido offered his son a “gamified” experience—a term we have not heard for a long time but whose theoretical approaches still afflict us in a fairly big way. Guido gave his son a strategy for survival which eliminates the real-world anxiety and boredom of being imprisoned, using a series of noble manipulations to convince Giosuè there was something to work toward.

But it seems cheap to label this story something which, as Ian Bogost writes in his well-known critique, Gamification is Bullshit, “…ticks a box” on a marketer’s clipboard. It goes without saying that this boy really did have a meaningful goal; that the achievement of getting the tank was a shallow motivation for a deeply profound experience—one which he only realized later.

Looking up the word “gamification,” one finds a quarry of business-related articles. Games as motivation. Games as productivity. Games as a morale booster. In some cases, as in Jane McGonigal’s now-famous work Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, the arguably more altruistic presumption is declared confidently that games can “change the world,” as a teaching and community-aid tool.

But there is a problem with superimposing games on the real world. Bogost, at least insofar as gamification is used as a business strategy, is right when he writes that,

“This rhetorical power derives from the “-ification” rather than from the “game”. -ification involves simple, repeatable, proven techniques or devices: you can purify, beautify, falsify, terrify, and so forth. -ification is always easy and repeatable, and it’s usually bullshit. Just add points.”

Gamification as a strategy reveals itself to be a method of manipulating people into performing all kinds of boring, repetitive or mundane tasks for meaningless or impertinent achievements, using only “incidental” qualities of games (points, win conditions, etc) as incentives. McGonigal’s approach is philosophically and ethically different from the business-side of gamification, at least on paper, but it suffers from the same conundrum: superimposing games onto life.

“The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy,” McGonigal writes in Reality is Broken. McGonigal wants saving the world to be easier and more engaging. Fun, even. To tap into the best of us.

And while none of this is immediately offensive, the idea that one can bypass the murky difficulties and injustices and contradictions of life simply by making it into a game-like experience seems to miss the point of what makes life impactful in the first place.

Sometimes life has to be boring. Sometimes it has to be hard. Sometimes it has to be tragic and unfair. Sometimes the hero has to die ungraciously, and be left in an alley.

Games have an incredible, novel, awe-inspiring capacity to frame experiences. Games can translate life, ideas, themes, skills and so on in a fascinatingly tangible way. Games have this ability to reveal to us sublime truths using only small details, teach us lessons using patterns and consequences, and impart symbolism and meaning through clever and heartfelt dynamic systems.

But to do this really well, games must also look to life. The hard parts. The dirty parts. The horrid and terrible parts. We cannot ignore them. Rather, games must reflect on what about life is resonant, formative, human. Reality has to be broken—and that’s ok. Art is one of the ways in which we try to organize it.

We simply can’t have experiences like Spec Ops: The Line or To the Moon or Journey—or hell, even DOOM—without appreciating the uncertainties of war, or the despair of profound regret, or the sensuality of wordless intimacy, or that which frightens us, and makes us feel vulnerable.

This is where the notion of the game as a kind of messiah becomes problematic. By creating strategies and approaches which “gamify” life, we forget that the superimposition of games onto life actually serve to detach us from what it is we are doing. We become fixated on getting the tank, perhaps, even when in the back of our minds, we know that things are not quite right around here.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s bad to treat some things as games, especially those trivial matters which we must be more motivated to accomplish some other way—and it may well be extremely serviceable to instruct and educate people using game-like approaches. It may well be extremely soothing to use game strategies ease one’s body and mind in stressful scenarios. I understand that. I even respect it.

It’s not up for debate for me that in the context of Life is Beautiful, Guido does do a valiant, selfless, heroic thing for his son—a very young child. He reframes the narrative of the war for Gosuè in a way that inarguably allows him to digest and survive it. And certainly, being that it is meeting certain filmic and thematic constraints—Life is Beautiful operates on two levels, showing us both the indispensible value that this game has for Gosuè, but also the very human, very real context that makes this game both necessary and tragic. To be resonant—to be humanizing—the film must reach beyond the efficacy of the game and into the brutality, the anguish and the familial love that push it into existence.

Life is Beautiful needs to remind us that life can be very, very ugly. That yes, Gosuè won his game, and that Guido’s imagination kept his son alive—but that the cost of this sacrifice was a mortal, permanent one. That Dora has lost the love of her life; that Gosuè has lost his father; that Italy and much of Europe has been ravaged by war and pain and misery. That people died here.

Must we reframe, or conceal, these things with games—games that we can only play along with until life flips the board on us? If it makes reality more palatable, game-like qualities can possibly be applied to life without any conflict. But to entertain notions of empathy—even of awareness of both the world outside of us and within us, it’s necessary for us to endure, accept and engage with the ugly and the difficult, the unfair, the unjust and even the oppressive. I’m not convinced that these are things that can satisfactorily be understood by looking to game-like incentives as a global panacea. Games as an expressive medium are still figuring out how to portray these themes and issues better as it is.

And I believe that part of the way to do that is to accept the powerful and anguishing—and yes, even boring—things that constitute real life. The greater intimacy we have with life, the greater intimacy we can have with games.

Filed Under: Criticism Life Movies

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

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