Game Balance | Castronova on God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Ted Castronova


On page 189 of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the orphan Selena describes the oath she was forced to take every day. Part of it reads:

I understand that I have not been placed on Earth to be happy. I am here to be tested. If I am to pass the test, I must be always unselfish, always sober, always truthful, always chaste in mind, body, and deed, and always respectful to those whom God has, in His Wisdom, placed above me. If I pass the test, I will go to joy everlasting in Heaven when I die. If I fail, I shall roast in hell while the Devil laughs and Jesus weeps.

Some tests—the tests in games—make us happy. Bad games have bad tests and we naturally don’t like them. Nobody wants to be forced to play a bad game. We are forced to play the game of human existence. Is it good or bad?

The oath describes a merciless game. There are numerous fail conditions: selfishness, drunkenness, lying, and so forth. Fail any one of these and the outcome is eternal torture. Truly this is a game to be despised. The oath requires its taker to acknowledge that life is just this sort of game. It is fairly clear that Kurt Vonnegut does not think this is a worthwhile oath to take! Vonnegut thinks that this is an awful game, a game that no one should be forced to play. Judging from his many religious references, Vonnegut seems to think that the real game of living is scored in a completely different way, with many points for compassion and love and no points at all for being heartless and merciless, as the designer of the Oath game above must have been.

Perhaps we can reverse-engineer Vonnegut’s writing here to discover the rules and mechanics of Vonnegut’s game of life.

The players are us. Vonnegut is no materialist. He thinks people exist as choosing agents.

The players have meaningful strategic choices. He believes in free will. He thinks that Eliot Rosewater is able to choose one thing over another and that the choice results in significantly different world states. People are not helpless.

The choices players make have significant payoffs for them and for the world. Vonnegut believes that people are capable of doing right and wrong. This game has outcomes.

Thus we have the classic game trio: players, strategies, and payoffs. Vonnegut’s game has people who play, choices for them to make, and victory point rewards and penalties. In the game of the oath, the victory points are allocated harshly. Sustain conditions C throughout life to gain infinite points. Fail once and be penalized infinite points. Vonnegut’s game is different in its payoffs, though. Eliot is a drunk, but he also does charitable works. Vonnegut sees him as a good person, a winner of life’s game. Sure he loses some points for being drunk a lot, and for setting off that ridiculous fire alarm, but he gains all that back and more through his kindness toward the people. Vonnegut’s victory point schedule is more forgiving.

The idea of a more forgiving attitude toward life appears everywhere in 1960s culture. The typical approach is to wrestle mean old fathers down from their stances of unforgiving, harsh judgement. The father in Mary Poppins is taught to relax. The father in Hello Dolly is bamboozled into a second marriage. The father in this novel is declawed. What a contrast to only a decade before, when the fathers in It’s a Wonderful Life were treated with compassion and reverence.

Fathers (and mothers) in the 1950s and 1960s thought of themselves as survivors of a horrible catastrophe, fighters, tough people. Their children came to resent them for these attitudes.

What are a few comparable literary episodes of father-son tension?

Henry IV’s son Hal seems to be more relaxed and forgiving than his father, but when he holds the crown in the hour of his father’s death, he changes his mind, becoming a firm upholder of laws and mores.

Scrooge is not a father but an uncle, and while he is a caricature, like Eliot’s father here, he is revealed to have had a bitter childhood, one that makes him a well-rounded caricature, one with whom the reader develops sympathy. Scrooge changes his game too, but in the other direction, toward softer rules.

Then there is the case of the loose father being replaced by a firmer son: Denethor /Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.

These are episodes of game balance. The male authority figures have the role of judges, which means game masters. They are expected to run a good, tight game. If they don’t, everything will be far too easy. But they are also supposed to be forgiving. If they aren’t, the game will end in rapid failure. Game masters are always balancing between player frustration and player boredom.

Lately there has been a surprising new development in games: the extremely hard game. There is a certain class of games, such as Dark Souls or even Flappy Bird, considered to be so difficult that no one in their right minds would want to play them. Yet they are some of the most popular titles in recent years. Some players have developed the feeling that game designers are coddling them, tricking them into thinking a game is challenging while secretly guaranteeing that the player will not fail. Perhaps these insanely hard games have appeared as a corrective to the tendency of game companies to be too kind to their players. Players who, in the 1990s and 2000s, began to feel they were being patronized, have begun to seek true challenges, games that are genuinely designed to frustrate the player. You might see hard games as games that validate the player as a mature person and not a child or a simpleton.

Perhaps there is a similar cycle in the affairs of the world. Here’s something I saw on the internet: Hard times make tough people. Tough people make easy times. Easy times make soft people. Soft people make tough times.

There has not been a war between major powers since 1945, which would imply that these are “soft times.” The last huge war was more than 70 years ago. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. If these are soft times, they are long, soft times. Vonnegut’s writing comes near the start of this long peace, and he is reacting strongly to the horrors of war. I suppose that would be characteristic of soft times, in the sense that people who have just experienced war, and gotten through it, would do everything to make the world a peaceful place. Vonnegut, on this account, would be a “hard man” who has the desire and the ability to contribute to making his times softer. His writing certainly seems to aim in that direction: It could be seen as a long sermon against fire-bombing and genocide and all of the other horrible things people did to one another from 1939 to 1945.

I wonder how Vonnegut would have written if he knew that that war would be followed by more years of peace than the Earth had seen in millennia. That is, if he knew that his passionate commitment to peace and human kindness would actually be validated, would he have been so forceful in his writing? I fear it might have robbed him of some power, if he had known that many of the lessons of World War Two were actually going to be learned and put into practice.