One of my favourite films is Groundhog Day. Being forced to relive a single day forever seems both a fantastic daydream and a horrid nightmare. Now a cult classic, the film has garnered many fan interpretations. Some say that Phil’s trial of repetition and tedium represent our everyday lives. How each day seems the same, dull and meaningless, especially if we share Phil’s cynical worldview. The only way to break out of this depression is to carpe groundhog diem, and live our lives to the fullest.
Other fans claim the film is a Buddhist allegory. That each repeated day represents a reincarnation, and a new life on earth. Mankind, or in this case Phil, is trapped in an eternal cycle of Samsara, earthly suffering. But rather than poverty, disease, and war, his suffering takes the form of inclement weather and Sunny and Cher.
In order to break the cycle, Phil must attain enlightenment. By letting go of ego and desire, suffering can be transcended. Oddly, if this is so, the film represents enlightenment as getting a girlfriend. I’m not saying it’s a prefect fit, in fact the director, Harold Ramis, has outright denied any religious inspiration. But the theory certainly is interesting.
There’s another realm of popular entertainment which resembles Buddhist philosophy in this same superficial way: video games. Specifically, in the way checkpoints work in games. Mario is trapped in much the same way Phil is. He must run his way across World 1-1 over and over, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous Koopas, until he finally gets it right. World 1-2 is the next step in his karmic succession.
Every video game with checkpoints could be seen allegorically, as a quest for enlightenment. Each discrete attempt is even referred to as a “life” or a “man”. And if you go through too many lives without ascending, it’s back to square one. Now Buddhism doesn’t quite have this “three strikes and you’re out” policy, but souls do regress as punishment for living poorly, the same way Mario does for jumping poorly.
Some games, like Bioshock or World of Warcraft, even have your character be literally reincarnated after a death. Though neither game follows quite as clean a progression towards ‘enlightenment’ as the platformers of old, it is neat to see the connection between ‘reloading’ and ‘reincarnating’ being made.
The Zelda title Majora’s Mask has a particularly Groundhog-esque twist. In it, the Moon starts to fall, and a three-day countdown to the end of the world begins. But luckily, the player can control time to an extent. By bouncing around time and reliving those three days over and over, they can eventually prevent the apocalypse. Though since enlightenment is said to be some sort of blissful oblivion, saving the world and all its suffering is exactly the opposite conclusion you’d expect for breaking the loop.
Then again, I’m not saying the comparison is intentional. I don’t mean to imply some sort of massive Buddhist conspiracy within the ranks of game developers worldwide. It’s simply interesting when two unrelated systems end up with the same solution. Compare:
A religion or philosophy intends to answer questions about the nature of our universe, and the meaning of our lives. Buddhism puts forth that we are all trapped in cycles of birth and rebirth. We can only advance by living well, and can only be freed entirely by achieving a certain state.
A video game intends to challenge its players, both to extend the length of the game and to provide the satisfaction of growth or achievement. Many games do this by ‘trapping’ players in a level, a cycle of loading and reloading. They can only advance by playing well, and can only win entirely by achieving a certain goal.
And so, to complete the analogy, I should submit that Siddhartha Gautama must have had a game genie.