(Almost) Everything I Know, I Learned from Video Games

My family didn't have a television until I was 14 years old, and while I begrudgingly understand my parents' reasons (and have since thanked them for their gift), I did miss out on some prime movie-watching and video game-playing time in my youth. My wife Kristin would likely say that I've more than made up for it over the last two decades, and I would likely agree.

The debates about video game violence and the more recent arguments about our addiction to electronics and the corresponding erosion of social skills make the topic of video games an interesting one. In this post, I would like to set those debates, though certainly worthy of discussion, aside to talk about the many things I've learned while in front of the TV and other devices. 

Note: You don't have to have played video games even once in your life to get something out of this post. Like so many things, video games can be used as a framework to understand and implement important lessons in our lives. Second Note: When you play with a positive goal, games can become self-expansive - making us better, helping us learn, etc. This is NOT a pro video game PSA. I just wanted my readers to know that, when I started looking at games through that lens, I was able to learn quite a few lessons that I've taken with me in my work and life.

My thoughts on the topic stem from a trip I took with colleagues at a previous job to meet Jane McGonigal, author of Super Better and founder of The Institute for the Future (the coolest name for an institute ever). To massively oversimplify Jane's story, after being laid up by a terrible accident, she became depressed for the first time in her life, and as a researcher, sought to figure out why that might be. She landed on the power of games, and how they affect our minds, and I have to tell you, I have rarely been more riveted by a discussion (to learn more about Jane's work on video games and depression, check out this Slate article).

To use just one example, she spoke about a study on how playing video games with another person affects both players' brains. The study showed that, regardless of whether the players were playing against each other or aiming for the same objective, their brains began to sync up as they played. According to McGonigal, the areas that lit up in both players' brains were the same as those that activate when people walk and talk together. Even more incredibly, the players began to subconsciously mirror each others' movements and facial expressions. All of this to say that video games can affect our brains in interesting ways (and like anything, there are certainly those on both sides of the debate as to whether the impacts are net positive or negative).

As Jane puts it, the activity of playing engages us in a state called flow, where we’re so engaged and absorbed in the activity that we feel in perfect control of our lives. I love this concept because so many things can and do seem out of our control - it is a welcome change to feel like you can make an impact and be the hero of your own story.

Jane also believes that whether or not playing video games can improve your life is based on why you play them in the first place. This also rang so true with me because, while I simply enjoy the total escapism that comes with playing games, I play them for other reasons as well. Among other things, I love seeing the amount of work and detail put into each game, including the impact of the player’s choices on a variety of rich and divergent stories. 

Thus, I wanted to share with you a few other things I've learned about myself in the hopes that you too can find something that makes you feel and think in the same way.

Raccoon City, Rapture and the Power of Curiosity

On a surface level, no wonder these cities are so dangerous - there are bullets, guns, grenade rounds and supernatural powers lying in basically every trash pile and plant in town. That said, games like Resident Evil and Bioshock, in addition to periodically scaring your pants off, reward curiosity above nearly all else. You can play these games in a completely linear fashion, accomplishing only the high-level objectives you need to reach the next level, but you are always rewarded for checking the locker in the far back of the room, going in a trapdoor that is far off the beaten path or listening to a conversation at the far end of the beach.

 Leon Kennedy, about to have a bad day in the Racoon City Police Station (Source: Gamespot).

Leon Kennedy, about to have a bad day in the Racoon City Police Station (Source: Gamespot).

I've found that my curiosity has been similarly rewarded in life. Yes, I'm an objective-based person, and always want and need to have the horizon line of my greatest goals readily available, but I also try to live like I'm exploring the floating city of Columbia or the Raccoon City police station. In trying to look at everything as an adventure, it makes me feel like there is no limit to the interesting things I can find. As long as we are still learning, we are always moving forward. Or, as William Arthur Ward so eloquently put it, "Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning."

Ocarina of Time, Assassin's Creed: Origins and the Balance Between Objectives and Side Quests

This has been a theme of some of my past posts as well, but the best video games also reinforce the lesson that winning is not everything. As mentioned, you can certainly "win" any game by following the primary steps from start to finish, but that often provides just one possible ending. The objective for all players is the same, but the path you take can be drastically different, and that provides an interesting lesson for life, especially in the ultra-competitive, ultra-comparative world that we live in.

My favorite examples of this balance come from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Assassin's Creed: Origins. The worlds created by the designers of these games are meant to be explored, and the Easter eggs (secrets in video game terminology) are difficult enough to find and, in some cases, even more difficult to crack, that a player can easily spend more time on these quests than on the primary game. In the latter, I enjoyed riding aimlessly around the desert and searching in out-of-the-way caves and tombs more than I did the primary gameplay. 

 Virtually sliding down a pyramid is as fun as it seems, and is also surprisingly therapeutic. Another excellent surprise from Origins is the rich history of Egypt included in the primary campaign (Source: Gamespot).

Virtually sliding down a pyramid is as fun as it seems, and is also surprisingly therapeutic. Another excellent surprise from Origins is the rich history of Egypt included in the primary campaign (Source: Gamespot).

I think the lesson here is that it's OK to focus more on what's interesting to you than on beating the game in the fastest time possible or being on the leaderboard in one capacity or another. Video games and games in general often give players more than one ending and many more than one way to "win," and that's something we can all take with us as we work our way through our lives.

My Wishes For You

There are so many other things I could write about in this post, but as it's already long, I wanted to leave you with my wishes for you, using the lens of the many games that have helped me see the world in a different way:

  • May you read between the lines enough to find the path to the proverbial custom magnum parts - things are not always as they seem
  • May you be curious enough to search every, barrel, hedge, trash can and provision crate - who knows what you may find?
  • May you have the fortitude to stick to your most important objectives, as well as the determination to go fishing in that goddamned pond until you hook the Silver Scale
 Visual representation of the best 64-bit feeling of accomplishment ever (Source: Gamespot).

Visual representation of the best 64-bit feeling of accomplishment ever (Source: Gamespot).

  • May you get mad enough when you stumble to plan your revenge, and be smart enough to know when to quit
  • May you understand that, even if the finish line is set, there are often many different ways to get there
  • May you realize that winning in the right way is more important than winning outright
  • May you never give up - even if you feel like you've fallen behind, life may give you a spiked shell or two (for all of you MarioKart-ers)
  • May you seek to understand not just whether you can do something, but whether you should do it (and vice versa)

[Quick Aside: It's like running over defenseless civilians in Assassin's Creed - sure, it's really easy to do, but is it the right thing to do? Modern games like Wolfenstein II have done a wonderful job of giving the user these choices and creating separate paths to complete the game based on the choices made. Frankly, since I saw the first set of films, one of my greatest fears in life has always been that I will become Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker was a talented guy with a bright future, and he made some pretty poor choices, and got his legs cut off by his best friend. Now, many games are designed to make you experience the consequences of your choices, which I think is truly amazing.]

And with all of these in mind, may you go forth and change the world!