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Like all normal boys of my generation, I grew up playing video games—arcade, console, handheld and computer. When I was young, I recall many conversations with my parents where I swore up and down that video games were not a waste of time and brain cells, and they weren’t damaging me forever.  But as it turns out, I do think that my current life patterns have been shaped by video game logic and not necessarily for the best.

This is because even as video games are aiming to become more and more complex and realistic, they have massive, unescapable incompatibilities with real life, and I’m not just talking about things like how high a plumber can really jump or whether it makes sense to store important medical supplies in crates scattered everywhere. I’m taking about bigger issues that you come to expect in video games, and which simply aren’t in our real world.

1) In video games, you control time

Video games training you to expect that you that you control time. You can pause most video games. Sometimes, you can take a break at the end of each turn. Even if one game isn’t pause-able, you can play a video game when you want and if you come back to it a month later, you can continue where you left off and your character won’t be bored or out of shape or mad at you (1). And in some games, you can control the passage of time. In Peggle, you can fast forward to the perfect shot, and in old text games surely you remember “wait 10” to wait 10 turns.

Yes, there are real time strategy games like Warcraft and Starcraft. But even these can often be paused or the speed changed. And yes, online games do have an independent clock—the first MUDs had time and weather, and some had systems where if you didn’t take your character back to an inn, it wouldn’t save, and it had to pay inn fee each “day.” But on the other hand, those online games are always there. They don’t have operating hours, they don’t close up at night like a bar or open up at dawn like a market. Time exists, but like in a Vegas casino, time ceases to have meaning. 

So basically, video games teach that time is something we, the player, control.  But in real life, we have not a whit of control. If we’re late,?the show starts without us. If we miss a deadline, we can’t undo or slow down time.  If we neglect a friendship or a skill, it wilts and erodes. And if we’re having fun, time flies, and if we’re injured, we can’t skip a turn until we’ve recovered.?I have seen in myself and other guys this faulty sense that we can put something on hold or do something later without consequence, to my detriment.

2) In video games, you can do it all

I know not everyone is a completionist. Many modern games are so huge it’s hardly possible to complete it, and some new games are designed to force you to chose a path that shuts down alternatives as you go. But nevertheless, video games almost always allow (and most require) you to complete them. For instance, Super Mario Galaxy could be just a fun game, but it has 80 stars that need finding before you’re done, and the completionist has to get them all.

Even Spore, the latest no-ending Sim-style game, has stages and a final goal and a finite number of body parts to unlock. And now, thanks to XBox, game achievements, which show you just how much you’ve done and how much remains, have become standard. And Sacred 2, my current obsessions, has 1 bazillion quests including things like, “kill 30 frogs and bring their flippers back to town.”

Life, of course, is not like this; it’s almost the opposite. With certain exceptions (high school, college, some training courses and life itself), there’s no end point, no high score and no way to know how much more you have to do. There are both an infinity of quests, and no way to know when you’ve completed most of the ones we all attempt.  How much harder should you work? How much more should you relax (or bear down)? How many more friends or jobs or loves should you have? How much longer is your life going to last? It’s unknowable and ultimately at odds with video game world logic.

3) In video games, numbers matter most

In video games, all things are ultimately based on computations.  The developers live and die by their calculations and comparisons and formulas.  And so it’s natural to expose those computations and give the player feedback based on raw numbers—the most basic example of this being the high score. The sum of your actions creates an increasing numerical value.  And to be the best at a video game, you need to get the high score.  But does this work in real life even slightly? Does it really matter what your exact numbers are for most things?

Role playing games that became video games are, perversely, the worst offenders. The games that used to free my imagination the most as a kid, putting me into a rich fantasy world where any behavior or action was possible, have become number-crunching slog where you compare a flail to a broadsword not on the basis of what’s more appropriate, but on which has the best “damage per second.”

Video games focus us on numerical outcomes to everyday events: eating restores 25 life, killing a werebear earns us 576 experience points, and if we become level 27 finally,  we’ll be able to add two more skill points to fireball to cause 76-114 points of damage per casting.?

But in real life, that’s just not important.  How many friends do you have on Facebook? Is it “a lot” or is it 117? ?What is your salary? Is it about $1000 a week, or is it $23.65/hour?

Sure, the ability to do math may be what separates us from other animals. And there’s no denying that making something measurable allows us to improve it or compare it. But it’s not the numbers in your life that matter. It’s not how many cousins you have, or exactly how many square feet your house is, or what your salary is. We now seem to self identify by all these numbers, when what we really should identify with is the non-numerical “quality” of things in our life (2).

I watched a older kid playing Gauntlet in the arcade when I was a kid.  I chose “wizard,” and he truly was a wizard at this game.  He played for about an hour straight on one quarter, not focusing on score, leaving some levels quickly that he simply didn’t enjoy playing, and when he had to leave, he just walked away from the game, despite having 75 lives left and a very impressive score.  He wasn’t playing for the numbers—but he was clearly the best player I’d ever seen. He had escaped the game designers’ numerical system to play the game his own way for his own sake.

4) In video games, other things behave predictably

The behavior of the other agents and characters in a video game follow rules, and while they may have random behaviors, those behaviors are bounded and scripted.

Starting with Pacman, the ghost each had a certain set of triggers and rules that control how they interact with you.  In Doom, the creatures moved in zones, reacted in one of a few ways, and had things they didn’t ever do.

And in video games where it’s more than one person, your behavior is still quite limited.  In Street Fighter, you can’t go drink a beer, or run and hide, or even disarm your opponent.  You have to work within a very very limited set of parameters.

In life, though, you’ve probably noticed that there aren’t a lot of restrictions, and the other “intelligent agents” you meet have a fairly wide variety of possible interactions with you.

If you treat life like a video game, you try to predict the actions of others based on past behavior and observed inputs, when really, people act weird, and they act weird for all sorts of reasons that you can’t know about. Granted, making assumptions and trying to find patterns is something that people do without video games (I’m told), but video games do give you additional hubris that this method should and does work.

Correspondingly, in video game, you look at your own possible options from among a necessarily limited palette of choices.  Will you, punch, kick or jump?  Well, what about meditate, negotiate, bribe, fart, distract, countermand, delay, hog tie or forgive?  Counterstrike is a great game, but it doesn’t have much programming dedicated to allowing one team to surrender and be imprisoned until diplomatic bargaining brings you home.

In real life, yes, it’s a good skill to be able to predict things and choose among options, and yet the blind spot created by video game logic is that which Captain James T. Kirk realized—that you can change the rules of the game; there is nothing that is proscribed.

5) In video games, the endings are always underwhelming compared to everything before it.

Actually, real life’s like that sometimes too.

(1)  A few Nintendo games like Brain Age and Wii Fit do chastise you for not playing more often.

(2) For more on “quality,” read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Overheard

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?

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