The Very Opposite of an Airport


Irvine’s late afternoon sun made Sean’s reddened and tear-streaked face all the more vivid. “I tried to find them but I could only find three and this one isn’t white all over, it has spots on it,” he stammered, the stones cupped in his hand.

“Aw, that’s okay,” his father said. “You made a good effort. You did your best, and that’s what count–”

“No,” Sean cried, wiping some tears away with his fist, which was curled around the rocks. “I was supposed to finish it. I was supposed to bring you ten white stones from the backyard and I couldn’t–”

“Sean, I… I didn’t even know if there were ten white stones in the backyard when I asked you to find them. I was just giving you a quest to find as many as you could.”
Sean sniffled. “Really? Then why did you ask me to find ten?”

Drew paused; one of the things that was beginning to strike him about fatherhood was just how honest your kids kept you. “Well, when someone gives you a quest in a game, you automatically know it’s achievable, right? Because it’s been designed specifically so that players can complete it.”

His son nodded. Maybe this was all still a bit over his head, but it was better than talking down to him. “When I design a quest at work, I make sure it’s doable from the very start. For example, I’d go out and put ten stones down. And if it looked like it was taking a long time for you to find the next one, I would program the game so that it gave you a white stone around the next corner you looked.”

“So why aren’t there enough stones?”

“The real world is a different place, Sean. In the real world, people might give you quests that aren’t actually possible, and you won’t find out until you try to do them and fail. You might get a quest and do all the work and find out there’s no reward at all at the end. You might–”

“The real world is dumb,” said Sean.

“Don’t say that. Think of the real world as… think of it as a game too, but with different rules. A different kind of logic to it, that’s all.”

Sean dropped the stones suddenly and ran past him into the house.

“Hey– where’re you going?”

“Gonna play Pokémon,” he shouted.

“I knew we shouldn’t have let him start so early,” said Natalie, who had been listening. “Now he thinks the world is supposed to behave like one of your games.”

“He’ll learn the difference.”

“If you say so.” Natalie turned back to her book. As if Drew ever had, she thought.

 

* * *

 

That night, as they were getting into bed, Natalie said, “I’m surprised you didn’t say your quest for Sean was just designed poorly.”

“I probably would have thought that a few years ago, but I’ve been thinking lately… that the last ten years of my life or so has been about funneling people through these game worlds, making sure they cleanly get exactly where they want to go. It’s like I’ve been designing train stations, or airports. How do we make things as clear as possible? How do we give the players the experience that they want?” Drew sighed. “And a lot of it is just data-driven, just based on statistics. If not enough people are finishing a particular quest, we know something’s wrong. We check to see if the objectives are clear enough, if the combat is appropriate to the area level range, if the reward is commensurate to the effort it requires. But the stuff I was saying to Sean about the real world today made me think– what if there was a game with impossible quests in it, or quests with no rewards at all?”

It had been a long day, and Natalie yawned. “I don’t think anyone would play a game like that.”

“Probably not. It’d pretty much be the worst game ever. But the possibility of something like that is kind of interesting. Plot threads that don’t lead anywhere, areas you can never actually get to, promises that aren’t kept. Just… disorder, chaos. More than that: uselessness. Maybe there’s room for something like that. In architecture there are things called ‘follies;’ they’re just these quixotic, bizarre structures with no real functional purpose other than to be there, built by rich madmen. They’re sort of like the very opposite of an airport.”

“Oh, you’re a rich madman now?” murmured Natalie, turning to her side, facing away from him. “That’s news to me…”

“Heh, no. It was just a silly idea,” he said, before they both drifted off to sleep.

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