In life, we are given a limited amount of resources. One of our primary responsibilities is to take these resources and use whatever opportunities we have to improve our lives. Video games teach us these principles through high scores and skill points. We can learn important lessons about ourselves by thinking of ourselves as heroes in our own video games. How will you spend your skill points?
There’s a reason I haven’t written a new essay in quite some time, and it has to do with skill points. Simply put, rather than updating this site, I’ve been spending my skill points elsewhere.
When I originally started Gaming Culture, I did so to not only to better appreciate video games as an artistic medium, but also to improve my own writing skills. Here I clearly envision myself as a helpless character in a Sims game, told to write trashy novels to improve my writing until I’m perfectly capable of writing the next Moby Dick.
But as I grew older and my career progressed, my priorities changed. If we’re comparing life with video games, this makes sense. In an RPG, a player just starting out has to feel his or her way around the skill tree, trying to figure out what makes sense. In video games, the player asks:
- How can I do more damage?
- How can I get more achievements?
- What skills do I need to match my play style?
The player then gradually understands what skills are needed to meet the challenges of the game.
In real life, people ask similar questions:
- How can I be happier?
- How do I reach my goals?
- How can I live my life according to my strengths and desires?
A key difference between games and real life is the fact that when you pour time into leveling up a useless skill in video games, you can always restart, go online and find what strategy is best for “min-maxing” one’s skillset. Oh, the strength skill tree is a waste of time compared to the agility tree.
But in real life, any time you spend devoting to a certain skill is a sunk cost. Pouring 12 hours a day into leveling up your video game playing ability is time you can never get back. I overestimated the value of fluency in Klingon. Should have taken Chinese instead.
But here’s the thing: time is only wasted if it does not match your own objectives.
For instance, let’s say you understand that if you spend all of your waking hours working and studying, you will inevitably burn out, leading to mental or physical penalties. Understanding this means that time you spend with recreation is actually valuable in its own way.
Even more important than spending your skill points effectively is understanding that real life is not actually a game in the sense that there is an obvious, obtainable goal. In order for the game/real-life metaphor to hold water, we must first acknowledge that success in life is measured solely by one’s own expectations for life.
For some people, victory in life means having children.
Or becoming a millionaire.
Or finding a soul mate.
So how can video games allow you to live a better life?
Step One: Identify the goals or conditions that bring you happiness.
Think long and hard about this step, because once you make a decision, you must commit to spending your limited time to pursue these objectives. The worst thing you can do is pick a goal that someone else thinks will make you happy. Pursing such a goal will only bring you misery and regret. The only thing worse than picking the wrong goal is picking no goal at all. In a modern world of comfort and excess, it is far too easy to drift through life, bouncing from one instant pleasure to another.
Step Two: Identify the skills or activities you need to engage in to reach your goal.
Take both a general and detailed view of your goals. What skills do they require? What investment do they need? How long would it take to achieve your goals under ideal circumstances? What obligations must you meet along the way? What would make you abandon your goal realistically? How can you avoid those circumstances?
Step Three: Identify milestones within those activities such that you can measure achievements (or even perks!)
Milestones are important for any long term project. If happiness means looking better, then your achievement path might look something like:
In games, achievements exist to encourage players. Adopting a similar attitude in real life is an effective way of attaining big things.
Step Four: Play the game.
Practice those skills. Gain experience. Level up. When you live life understanding that happiness can be measured by steady improvement over time, small gains and small setbacks are all part of a bigger picture. It’s impossible to win every match or maintain a perfect KDR. Life is like that too. But just as you can never get time back, no one can take time away from you.
Ironically, it’s video games–the activity that many call the biggest waste of time–that can actually teach us the most about using our time effectively. On our death beds, we will be forced to look at our achievements and ask whether or not we used our skills effectively. By playing our lives as if they are a game, we introduce a sense of urgency that pushes us to make the most of what we have. It pushes us to the top of the leader board.
The arcade of life will close eventually. Use your quarters wisely.
In the meantime, I’ll be pouring my skill points into vacation time. +2 to Relaxation.