Saturday, June 30, 2012

What Video Games Can Teach Us About Life

There are a lot of things that we can learn about life through video games as long as we keep an open mind and avoid being extremely dismissive about them. Wait! Before you turn away thinking that this is going to be another one of those generic long tirades about the wonderful stories behind a select few video game titles that you couldn’t really care less about such as Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, Skyrim or something similar, then you’re horribly mistaken. While admittedly, there are some video game stories that are so engaging that hardcore fans might find their stories infinitely memorable, the everyman/average Joe/Jane really cannot be expected to take a liking to these stories given the fact that not everyone plays these types of in-depth video games. Fortunately, this article is all about the real life lessons that we can learn from much simpler games; the kind of games that every other person on FaceBook plays or has played at some point; the “casual games” – so to speak. Of course, given that there are hundreds of different casual games on the market, I will be focusing on only a select few games which I have had some personal experience with either through observation, actual gameplay or both.

Plan Ahead

Of course, this is not a lesson that you can learn only from video games alone, but that’s not the point that I’m trying to get across here. What I would like to say is that the importance of planning ahead can really be visibly seen when you play video games. For example, take a game like Tetris – which is seeing quite a revival nowadays thanks to Tetris Friends partnering up with Facebook to make the game easily accessible for anyone with a Facebook account. 

At this point, I’m going to assume that everyone is pretty familiar with the mechanics of Tetris so I’m going to go ahead and get directly to the meat and potatoes of the subject matter. When playing Tetris, your main objective should be to go for as many Tetrises as possible by clearing your stack in lines of 4. A newbie Tetris player will simply place the blocks in any way that he/she sees fit as long as it doesn’t create gaps and go for singles or doubles as well as occasional triples by chance. While this might work well enough for slower speeds, the weakness of this strategy becomes quite apparent as soon as the game starts to speed up. A stack that was built without proper planning is quite prone to gaps and goes up pretty quickly even with modern piece-holding mechanics in place. 

On the other hand, a savvy Tetris player knows that building a good stack is the key to beating the game at higher levels and usually stacks with multiple Tetrises or, depending on which version of Tetris he is playing, stacks with long combos in mind. 

This holds quite true whether you are pitting your skills against another player in Tetris Battle or going for the fastest time in a game of 40 lines or Sprint. It doesn’t matter whether you place your gap at the right side, the left side, or even in the center as some players do and whether you prefer Tetrises or the more stylish T-spins. What is really important is that you have a good plan of action and that you execute this plan effectively.

In real life, if you don't set your goals ahead of time and plan ahead, you will often find your past mistakes catching up with you just as that gap that you failed to recover from earlier will eventually catch up with you when you play Tetris.

Recognition is Shallow

Have you ever failed at something – anything at all in life and you just knew that you deserved the consequences of your failure because you simply did not do enough? On the flip-side, what is more common is this feeling that you just got robbed just like how Manny Pacquiao must have felt against Timothy Bradley when he lost his Welterweight Title Belt to a man who (he must have thought) he clearly defeated. 

If you have ever played Tetris Arena on the Tetris Friends network, you would recognize right away just how this lesson fits squarely into the realm of video games. In Tetris Arena, you are “recognized” for your win/loss ratio against different opponents in games using Battle Tetris rules that can consist of up to six players at a time. Depending on how many times you have lost/won, you will get ranked as a Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum player using an rpg-style level-up/level-down system. 

Once you have spent a little time on the network however, you will soon clearly realize that these ranks are quite meaningless. The truth is that a highly skilled Bronze, level 1 Ranked Player can easily wipe the floor against a mediocre Level 14 Gold Ranked player in a one on one battle. In fact, it happens all the time. This is because once the battle begins, the only thing that really matters is skill. Your Gold or Platinum Rank won’t help you much if all you’ve been doing is cherry-picking in rooms with players that you can handily defeat, in a level playing field, if your skills are inferior to your Level 1 opponent, you will definitely lose.

This is a lesson that holds quite true in real life as well. In any field of endeavor, it doesn’t matter if one person is a Harvard Graduate in that field and the other guy is a graduate of UI-Phinma. When it comes to actually performing the task at hand, skill and experience will always be the more accurate measures of competence rather than a shiny Master’s or Doctorate Degree.

Life Goes On

This is a very important lesson about life that becomes all the more apparent in games such as Zuma and Tumblebugs. The object of these types of games is to get rid of all the balls in your playing field by hitting them with the same colored balls and forming groups of 3 or more. For this example, let’s go with Zuma – since it’s simpler, but also much more challenging when compared to the combo-friendly and power-up loaded Tumblebugs. 

The theme that “life goes on” is so apparent in the game of Zuma that it makes me wonder if the developers actually had it in mind when they created this little gem. It becomes much more apparent when you watch someone else playing it – in my case, my mother. My mother only uses the computer to surf Facebook and she wouldn’t even have had an FB account if she didn’t need it for her graduate school studies. I suppose some of you might be interested as to how FB might be connected to graduate school studies, but I digress. In any case, she got hooked on the game after she saw my niece playing around with it and she tried it out and was instantly hooked as soon as I explained the simple mouse-based controls as well as the basics of the game to her.

At first, as you might expect, my mother was not very good at the game and would often yell out in frustration when she placed a ball in the wrong area or if the game didn’t seem to give her the right-colored ball to end a particular level. After a few weeks of getting acclimated to some of the more advanced intricacies of the game however, she began to understand some of the finer points of game and it is these points which drive home the lesson that “life goes on.”

Mistakes are quite common in Zuma. When you make a mistake, especially a costly one, you can choose to rage about it and even slam the mouse at times, but the fact of the matter is that this will not help you in any way whatsoever. The little Zuma balls will simply keep moving forward and slowly but surely inch their way towards the hole – as if they were trying to mock you. They won’t stop moving just because you yell out in frustration over a costly mistake. As you continue to play the game, it soon becomes quite apparent that your only real choice is to calm down and try to recover gracefully whenever you make a mistake – otherwise, you’ll simply be stuck in the same level forever. 

Doesn’t that sound familiar? It's very similar to real life. We often encounter a huge setback, a harsh failure, a major inconvenience or sometimes, simply a mild annoyance that might test the limits of our patience. When we encounter adversity, we can choose to shout, get angry and blame others for our frustrations, but the reality is that life goes on whether we like it or not – the wheel of fate won’t stop turning simply because you are angry at the cards that life has dealt you with. 

Similarly, in Zuma, you will not always get the balls that you actually need to get yourself out of a sticky situation. Sometimes, the game’s algorithms are sadistic enough to provide you with two red colored balls just when you can’t use them because the long combo of red balls have been obscured from your line of sight by a haze of different-colored balls giving you no choice but to quickly place one of your red balls somewhere else and adjust to the situation accordingly.
Games such as Zuma don’t always play fair and sometimes, life doesn’t either, and when this happens, you can either quit playing and be a failure forever, or simply try again until you finally succeed. By the way, my Mother is at Stage 12 now and if you play Zuma, you’d know that this is quite an accomplishment whether you are a gamer or not.

Real Life Is Just A Stupid Game

If my ramblings haven’t bored you yet, I would just like to conclude by saying that these insights that I’ve shared with you about video games are nothing new and I’m sure that you might have a few of them to share yourself. The last real-life lesson that I have learned from video games and that I’d like to share with you, is best illustrated in Hatsune Miku’s RPG Maker-Esque PV and song, Real-Life Stupid Game. For the lazy/vocaloid paranoid individuals out there, the last few lines of the song go:

“This world is full of stupid specifications
With lots of depressing events
But if you get discouraged and roll-up in a corner
You’ll never move ahead.
My life is a stupid specification
It won’t go how I want it to
But I’ll keep on going until
I reach my happy end.”

*Note: I am not affiliated with the uploader of this video nor any of its original creators and I am simply using the said video to better illustrate the point of this article. Credits to the uploader/translator and the original creators of the video for making one of the best vocaloid PVs in existence.

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