All The World’s a Game: How the Stuff You Play Can Get You Through the Daily Grind

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As someone who’s been gaming for most of her life, I’m quick to decry the notion that games — be they tabletop or electronic — are a mindless, empty-calorie hobby. “Games are great!” I say to the hypothetical throngs. “They’ve brought me friends! They’ve cheered me up! They’ve stoked my imagination and challenged my brain! They’ve given me hand-eye coordination that impresses my optometrist!”

Those are all good things, but I’ve always thought of them as side benefits. The vitamin supplements to the complete breakfast of life, if you will. But what if gaming is important for reasons beyond encouraging teamwork and keeping our brains sharp? What if games are actually giving us the mental tools we need to tackle the big challenges in our lives?

I was first introduced to the concept of positive psychology in gaming through game designer Jane McGonigal’s book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World. Her thoughts on how the skills we learn in games are transferable to the real world made so much sense that I nearly smacked myself for never realizing it before. In a recent interview on AlterNet, McGonigal had the following to say about what a game actually is:

For me, the basic definition of a game is that it’s a voluntary obstacle, an unnecessary challenge that you are volunteering to engage with. That’s the basic premise, that you’re going to agree to try something that’s hard for you, that you’re not sure if it can be done or how it can be done or how you’re going to try to do it, but you agree to give it your best effort and see what happens as a result.

It’s not hard to see how immensely valuable that kind of thinking could be if it were applied to real-world problems, even the mundane things you struggle with from day to day. Think about that song you want to write, or that case mod you want to build, or heck, even that cupboard you want to clean out. Now think about how many times you’ve found a reason not to work on it — and quite possibly, you decided to spend your time gaming instead. But why? Why is gaming a more preferable option? You are inevitably going to fail in the game, over and over and over again. Unless it’s a short game, you won’t beat it before bedtime. But every gamer knows that taking a few hours to clear a dungeon or to level up your character is satisfying enough on its own, even though the end is well out of reach.

It wasn’t until several months after I finished Reality Is Broken that I really began paying attention to the differences between how I think when I’m gaming and how I think the rest of the time. When faced with important challenges in real life, I can be impatient, pessimistic, anxious, and paralytically afraid of failure. In gaming mode, I am the polar opposite. I am patient. I take the time to practice. I ask for help if I need it. I think before I act, but I act even if I’m not sure that the action I’m taking will work. I delight in experimenting, and I often laugh when things go wrong. I try new things. I keep moving forward, even if the boss on the other side of the door scares me. If I get stuck on a puzzle, I never think, “Oh, there’s no way out, I might as well give up.” I think, “The answer is here somewhere, and I will not stop trying until I find it.”

I’m not going to speak for every gamer, but I know that’s how many of us feel the instant we jump into a game. It’s as instinctive as the way that our hands fall onto the keyboard or around the controller the second the loading screen pops up. We know exactly how to approach games. We’ve just never been taught to look at life the same way.

By this point, you’ve probably hit upon the apparent flaw here, which is that the dangers in the real world are actually … y’know, real. There’s an enormous difference between having to face the final boss and having to face a review panel at work. The reason I’m not scared of leaping from cliffs in games is because they’re not actual cliffs. However, if there’s one method of learning that humans respond well to, it’s metaphor. If we can learn life lessons from things as fictional as folktales and fables, then we can learn from games, too. Most of us already know how comforting a game can be, or how deeply an interactive story can impact us (and if you don’t, may I suggest checking out How Games Saved My Life, an ongoing project by Ashly Burch of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’, or the testimonials over at the ever-awesome Child’s Play Charity). If we can accept that there is value in storytelling and even in positive distraction, why, then, would the skills needed to beat the game be any less valuable? Just because the problems you’ve faced in game aren’t as important as the problems that face you at work or at home, that doesn’t make you any less adept at solving puzzles, or long-term planning, or collaborating with a team. You just need to figure out how to use those skills in a non-pixelated way.

Part of the difficulty of activating your gamer brain in the real world, as McGonigal has pointed out, stems from the lack of instant feedback. Your department manager isn’t going to leap onto your desk and shower you with confetti the moment you finish putting a report together (if she does, you have the best job ever). You won’t see a little “you have gained 2 points in Stamina” message appear after you go to the gym. The Pavlovian drive that pushes gamers to complete a tough level doesn’t apply to the real world, because we’re not coaxed along with happy sound effects and cool animations. It doesn’t always feel fun out here. But the truth is that games aren’t always fun, either. Nobody really wants to go kill ten more boars, but we all want to get to hit the level cap and wear the best armor. Killing ten boars is just one of the steps we have to take to get there. With the end goal in mind, we don’t think twice about plowing through the boring stuff. We’ll even get some snacks and chat happily with friends while we do it.

All it takes to apply the “kill ten boars” mentality to the real world is a little psychological nudge. In my case, I’ve started giving myself experience points. Seriously, I’ve got a little notebook where I write down all my +5s and +10s for everyday tasks (because as every gamer knows, even the little side quests help you level up). I’ve also stopped making To Do lists. I’ve got Quest Logs instead. Tedious tasks like editing old work or organizing my email suck on their own, but by looking at them as a means to an end, they seem a lot more doable. I’ve magically transformed them into prerequisite quests necessary for unlocking end-game achievements. It may sound cheesy, but I’ve found that using my gamer brain in real life has turned the daily grind into … well, a leveling grind. And I’ve become more conscious of my class abilities, too. You can’t be a tank and a healer and a DPS class all at once. Better to focus on your optimal talent build than waste precious points on skills you don’t need, right?

This all came to mind recently while I was at the home of two friends, who are expecting their first baby. They showed me a tabletop game purchased with the future kid in mind, even though, as the dad-to-be admitted with a laugh, “It’ll be a while before he can even speak to us.” The translation of the game’s tongue-twisting Icelandic name was “Adventure Land,” though I think “My First RPG” would be spot-on as well. The object of the game is to collect gold coins from a world map by interacting with townsfolk and shopkeepers along the way (role-playing suggestions are helpfully offered by story cards).

I upgraded the game from “pretty cool” to “genius” once I saw the coloring book style character sheets, which offered just six stats, things like thinking and looking and talking. The player marks their stat scores by coloring in little stars — but as in all role-playing games, only so many stars can be assigned. You’ve got the potential to do anything, but you can’t be good at everything. Understanding your weaknesses is just as important as understanding your strengths. If you want to improve your skills, you have to be patient and keep working at them.

What better lesson could there be for a little person just starting out in the world? What better lesson could there be for any of us?

I say it’s well past time to stop thinking of games as mental wastelands and start seeing them for the brain-buffing training grounds that they are. Solve those puzzles. Try new strategies. Pick yourself back up again after the bad guy crushes you. And if you get to the end and the outcome isn’t what you expected, don’t worry. It just might be that the princess is in another castle.

The title image was found around the internets; the design’s from a t-shirt offered by J!NX.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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