And Finally

What does your future hold?

A game that predicts ‘life outcomes’ makes waves in China


Feeling good about his choices?

When readers are first introduced to Nora Seed in Matt Haig’s bestselling novel The Midnight Library, she is a 35-year-old with regrets. She no longer talks to her only living relative and is drifting apart from her only friend. When her cat dies, Seed tries to commit suicide but finds herself transported into a world between life and death, aka the Midnight Library. There, a librarian tells her that every book is a doorway into a different life and Seed can enter and exit, as she likes, to address her regrets. The novelist asks the question: if you could relive your life, how would you choose to live it?

A browser game designed by two young programmers in China has been tapping into a similar set of questions, by giving its players the chance to see their lives unfolding in front of them.

Life Restart was played 20 million times in the first three days after it was released this month. Players build up profiles by choosing their own ‘talents’ (from the more traditional aspirations for a “body of steel” to the more unexpected edge of “holding an American passport”.) Each player is also given points, which they can allocate between physical appearance, intelligence, family background and happiness. But after that, the game is no longer in your control. Algorithms start to tell you – based on your choices – the story of your life, year after year.

Many of the outcomes seem random although they are anchored to aspects of current reality. For instance, those who weighted more of their points to physical appearance are more likely to become celebrities as they grow up. But they risk becoming embroiled in sex scandals. As the government cracks down on showbusiness excess, they end up spending time behind bars.

Players who ascribe more value to their ‘intelligence’ quotient find out that being frighteningly smart is not always a positive either.

One outcome (the algo seems to be amusing itself here) is that the cleverest of the bunch are abducted by aliens keen to find out what goes on inside the human brain.

There are myriad ways to die in the game and netizens have enjoyed documenting them. A couple of instances of more esoteric departures are unlikely electrocutions from peeing on a telephone pole, and untimely ends in accidents during space travel.

The game also makes fun of social and cultural trends in the here-and-now.

One outcome advises, “At 29 years-old: Tencent acquires NetEase [its rival in gaming], which doesn’t affect you because you stopped playing NetEase games long ago.”

Another mocks the government’s efforts to boost birth rates: “At 59, China has increased limits to allowing 18 children. But no matter, because nobody even wants one child.”

Players have been trying to divine a deeper meaning in Life Restart. “So, what is the game trying to say?” asked one rhetorically. “After playing it I understand the impermanence of the world”.

Others took an even gloomier line: “No matter your starting point or how talented you are, most of the paths are similar: you will face enormous pressure when it comes to your studies; your health will deteriorate once you hit 50; your parents will leave you when it’s their time; and at some point, we all die.”

Like all fads, the game’s popularity isn’t likely to be prolonged. But its current popularity does tap into the subversive vibe (at least, from the government’s point of view) known as the tangping, or ‘lying down’ sub-culture, we profiled in WiC544. As such, if netizens don’t get bored of the game themselves, expect the authorities to take a much closer look at it soon…

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