It’s the beginning of a new year and I’ve dusted off an old smartwatch to help me with my new year’s goal of exercising and staying active more. I started to feel a bit guilty, relying on Samsung and Google’s proprietary systems to help me track things like heart-rate, time spent exercising, etc.
We all know the dangers of this kind of data. We’ve seen how it can be used to manipulate and market to us. I used to live in Dundee in Scotland, a hub for gaming app development, and I remember meeting people who had PhDs in data science, but whose job was now optimising feedback mechanisms in mobile games to maximise playtime, etc.
Yet, amidst all these negative attempts by corporations to control us through gamified interfaces, I still feel grateful towards video games for the educational role they have played in my life.
I am not a big gamer at all, but, like many others, some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing games like Zelda and Final Fantasy for hours during the school holidays. I think the point at which I first felt the impact of these games on my life was when I went on a cycling trip about 10 years ago. A friend and I cycled from Dublin, along the coast, down to Kerry. It was about 620 km over 10 days (including 2 days rest in Cork).
Anyway, neither of us were particularly seasoned cyclists, so it was not easy. But we were young and up for the challenge. I remember vividly the times when the distances we needed to travel seemed insurmountable. It was during those times that my experience with video games came to the rescue. I started breaking up the distances in my mind into ‘stages’ or ’levels’ and began to imagine myself as an adventurer in a game, trying to conquer each stage. For some reason, I even remember humming a song from Zelda in my head (one of the themes from the Forest). These techniques of imagination helped me and made the challenge of the journey seem fun.
It’s a bit of a trivial example, but it really did work.
Here are some other lessons related to my experience with games:
The relation between the local and the universal
When games are done well, we are subtly taught an important lesson about the way that individual experiences and skills ‘build’ and obtain universal significance. A lot of games will be broken into sub-areas or levels, for example a temple in Zelda. When we are playing we are totally focused on solving the problems or challenges of that particular level. Yet, quietly, the game is ‘rewarding’ our focus by adding to our skill-set. Maybe after conquering a particular area our character now has the ability to swim in water. We can now use that skill in different situations, or in some kind of ’endgame’. Many games have this dynamic of focused, localised development playing a role in building up the overall character. In life, too, we can learn from this, especially in today’s economy where all too often skills we build up in one area of employment can quickly seem to become redundant. Games teach us that all kinds of focused development and improvement can matter, even in totally different areas or levels. The skills I learn in one kind of job will stay with me even when I am forced to move because that industry declines, etc.
Observation/contemplation can be as important as action
I’m thinking about games like Dear Esther or The Witness here. But, in general this could apply to any game which puts a large emphasis on the role of the world in the game. Unlike with cinema, when playing a game our hands are always on the keyboard (or controller, mouse,etc.). We are poised for action. Yet, some games invite us to hold back on this impulse and spend some time simply contemplating or enjoying a world. Many games play with this idea that we are not as ‘central’ to the world of the game as we might expect to be, we are not the straight-forward ‘hero’ (Stanley’s Parable, Bioshock, Portal, etc.) Instead, we are immersed in a world which has its own logic and meaning, and which sometimes demands that we take it on its own terms. This is an important lesson for life, which we are all-to-often told is action-driven. Sometimes, the best course of action is to be ‘passive’, to listen to someone else’s story, to simply observe how things operate before diving in.
Frustration and failure are okay
Some games work to naturalise failure and frustration as a part of the experience. This may be games where we are encouraged to fail over and over (Celeste, Super Meat Boy, etc.), or games that more explicitly explore this theme like Anna Anthropy’s 2012 Dys4ia, which explores the everyday frustrations of living with gender dysphoria and having to fit everything into pre-defined boxes and categories. When we die or fail in these games, we are forced to restart and try again. The game doesn’t try to ‘punish’ or judge you for failing. Instead, it encourages you to learn to adapt through failure. This is an important lesson for life also. There are moments in life when we are under pressure to perform a task, say, interviewing for a job, and we make a mistake. Many people’s gut reaction will to place a lot of weight on this mistake. Perhaps a voice in their head will tell them how stupid they are. Indeed, the mistake may very well be costly - we may not get the job we were dreaming of - yet life goes on, just like the game. We can cling to our failure or learn to let it go, to adopt the kind of ’lightness’ that a player feels when sent back to the start of the level. Yes, they are frustrated and angry that they messed up, but they are ready and eager to jump back in and try it all again. In the case of Dys4ia, the message may not necessarily be to embrace failure/frustration, but the underlying point is the same - it teaches us how to notice and recognise frustration. In many cases, simply understanding that you are frustrated is already half the battle.