7 Important Life Lessons Learned Only From Playing Games

This post is based upon the research on the importance of “play.” Check out my other posts which make scientific research on the human mind understandable.


Modern theories on play suggests that it is an integral process of development for all animals, including humans. Play allows for experimentation: a sort of laboratory for life. Dogs play, for example, in order to explore fighting in a controlled environment and to become socialized. Researchers have even shown that play in dogs leads to an exploration of morality.


Playing games in humans serves much the same purpose, especially video games. Contrary to what the media might have us believe, the benefits of playing video games are numerous. I know that I learned several life lessons in playing games while growing up; some of these lessons could not have been learned elsewhere.

What is unique about a video game is that it allows us to experience an “entire lifecycle.” To play a game is to make decisions and live with the consequences all the way to the ultimate conclusion… and then start over again, and make different decisions.

To play video games is to live a series of “mini lives,” and in the process of doing so to learn valuable life lessons. Our individual play styles can teach us about our psychology (1); mastering games teaches the value of practice (2); loosing a video game demonstrates the value of failure (3); creating avatars leads to a less egotistical representation of self (4); escapism allows for playing out cultural beliefs (5); testing rules leads to progress (6)… and ultimately the results do not matter (7).


1. Everybody Has a Playstyle

Some people like fast paced, aggressive shooting games like Call of Duty. Others prefer slow methodical strategy games like Sid Myer’s Civilization. Even within a single game, players have a tendency to specialize their mode of play to their own preferences.

Recently I played a few different games during the course of one day and noticed a pattern. In Starcraft, I’m a defensive base-builder. In Diablo II, I’m a ranged class which provides support. In Civilization V, I’m a resource and trading heavy commander.


Choosing a leader in Civ5

Initially, it would appear as though I am risk-adverse, yet this is not the case (video games tend to reward intelligent risk taking). My play style is simply not aggressive. I don’t like being at the front of the fight; I’d prefer to pull the strings and manage many different layers from the back, building up resources and resulting in a more “technical” win.

In watching friends play, people who have an outgoing personality exhibit an aggressive play style. The Bartle Test in game design indicates that there are 4 types of players: killers, achievers, socializers and explorers. Each of them are looking for something different out of the game due to the nature of their psychology.


Gameplay Styles

Whenever I start a new game, I now monitor my decisions more closely, and notice how my personality effects my gameplay. When I am in meetings or making life decisions, I notice how my choices mimic those I’d make in a game.


2. “Expertise” is Just “Practice”

Culturally, researchers have shown that the United States (and, to a lesser degree, the West in general) is very fixated upon the idea of “natural talent.” While there is something to be said about talent, it is much more accurate to say that mastery comes from a lot of deliberate practice.

Nowhere is this more evident than in games. Upon starting a new game, players have certain a-priori knowledge if they have played the same type of game before. Starcraft, Sim City, and Civilization V all fall into the empire-building strategy game genre, and thus it is possible to transfer a certain amount of skill between them. In first-person shooters, the controls and hand-eye coordination required will always be similar despite game-specific differences. This pre-existing knowledge serves the same function as talent: a foundation upon which to build.


A Starcraft2 Leaderboard

Yet what makes games fun is exactly the fact that they can be mastered by anybody. The winners of video game competitions come from all walks of life, with many different backgrounds. The same basic mindset applies to sports and games in general, though a player’s ability to reach the highest echelons of physical sports may be hindered by the limitations of his body (while video games do not have any such restrictions).


3. Losing is a Learning Experience

The only way to really get better is to play someone who is better than you. Intelligent sports coaches know this and will schedule games against difficult rivals in order to push their teams further. Plus, this has the added advantage of keeping the players humble.

Video game players know that fun can only be found in making things hard. After beating the game on easy difficulty setting, gamers will frequently push the difficulty one notch higher and start all over again. The content is essentially the same but the fun has been renewed because the challenge has increased.


Difficulty Levels in DOOM

What’s most surprising about this is just how hard gamers want the game to be. The M.I.N.D. lab in Helsinki actually found that players prefer to spend large amounts of time failing (some say 80% of the time). They found that a positive feedback system within games led to a sense of optimism, fueled by that most human emotion: hope. [Jane McGonigal has a wonderful chapter in her book Reality is Broken explores all of the reasoning and implications behind this propensity towards failure].

Resilience to failure is an extraordinarily important life skill. Aside from optimism, it also leads to greater success because it causes us to grow and adapt faster. In The Upside to Down: Why Failing is Key to Success, it is argued that failure is the laboratory where success is born.


4. A Sense of Self is Malleable

Each time a gamer begins playing a new game, a typical first step is to customize his avatar. In Role Playing Games, this even goes so far as to involve choosing the appearance of a character.

Gamers identify with these avatars, taking them on as digital representations of themselves. Massively Multiplayer games, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, make this especially evident. In these communities, players are known for the persona they have taken on rather than their real world identity.

We are surprisingly able to remap our own minds to change our perception of self. One study even showed how a simple doll avatar can be used to fool us into treating this inanimate object as if it were our own body. Other studies have demonstrated the ability of the brain to remap itself to include tools as “part of the body” (these ideas are explored in the book Beyond Boundaries by neuroscience researcher Miguel Nicolelis). This explains why a gamer will feel as though the game controls are an extension of himself, much like a sports player will feel his equipment (such as a hockey stick) is an extension of himself.

Moreover, video game avatars often provide an objective assessment of skill. Consider this screenshot from Ultima Online, a game I played for countless hours in my youth:


Skills in Ultima Online

What this simple representation taught me is that I could change my skills whenever I chose to do so. There was a cost, of course: learning a new skill was hard, requiring many many hours of investment. Plus, no one player could have more than 700% total skill.

Some skills were easier, some harder. Some worked well in a supporting capacity, but had no active function (meditation, for example, increased mana regeneration, a supporting skill to assist with skill in magic).

The best players of the game were always tweaking their skills, trying out new “templates.” The lesson, then, is that your skills are not you. They are just a template which can be changed, given enough time and effort.

5. The Value of Escapism

It may seem that taking on different personas is escapist, a word which often carries a negative connotation, yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. Escapism has value which science is just beginning to quantify.

Games allow players to experiment without real-world consequences. While violence in multimedia has gained attention by the press, a steady stream of research has indicated that even violent video games are not detrimental (and perhaps even beneficial) to development. In the book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, it is argued that children require this form of play for healthy development.

It is important to draw a distinction between this theory of development and the “hydraulic theory” (known colloquially as blowing off steam). Punching a wall or exhibiting anger is not an effective anger management tool. Rather, the catharsis that video game escapism allows is the transference of cultural values through a different medium.


Morality in Infamous2

It is one thing to be told how to live a good life. It is another thing entirely to go through the hero’s journey, slaying monsters along the way and perhaps experiencing an emotional connection with the other players and ultimately defeating the boss and saving the world. In essence, video games provide a way to let players live out the values of a culture.

Critics of DOOM might have taken issue with the fact that the game was ground-breakingly gory, yet there was little acknowledgement that the story was that of survival and heroism. Largely male audiences may come to certain games for the gore, but they stay for the sense of self-worth obtained in living out the experience of being a hero.


6. Rules Exist to Be Tested

Even escapist worlds have rules: games would be no fun without them. Much of the game designer’s job is to create a set of rules just different enough to be new and unique, but just familiar enough to be easy to comprehend. Incidentally, this is why creative/technological “leaps” are often poorly received: culture is much more receptive to incremental change.

The most basic tension in any game is that of the player attempting to maximize performance through exploiting the rules. The best strategies and most interesting aspects of any game are the emergent properties of the game. A game designer cannot and should not try to design every possible outcome for every possible match.

The fun of the game lies in the player using a limited set of rules in order to accomplish new things. Even in a game as complex as chess, the rules are strikingly simple. There are a relatively small number of pieces which each have one rule concerning the way in which they can move, and from there, all strategy emerges from the interplay of these rules.


Rules in Chess

In the pursuit of “the best,” players constantly test the rules in order to find new ways of combining them. Even players of shooting games will try new flanking maneuvers, new hideouts, and new weapons. Just like how players seek to increase the difficulty of games and lose more, they seek to test the rules because they know that growth lies in this probing at the edges of reality.



7. What You Want is Always Just Beyond Reach

Finishing a video game is profoundly… disappointing.

Hour after hour the player strives toward the end of the game, yet when she gets there, well… the game is over and thus the fun is over. People who really love a particular game will frequently go back and try to obtain all the accomplishments, beat their previous times, or otherwise do seemingly mundane tasks to prolong the life of the game.

What’s going on here? 

Video games motivate players by dangling proverbial carrots: new rewards, plot points, and other items which the gamer desires to obtain. During the course of playing a game the player is motivated to chase after these ultimately meaningless trophies. When she reaches the end the trophies don’t mean much because the game is over, yet their endless parade was all-consuming in the moment.

Does this sound familiar?

It should. It’s a perfect metaphor for life. Level after level or day after day, we’re beset by an onslaught of ultimately insignificant distractions. In the end, we won’t even remember most of these activities. What will stay with us is the experience itself. As soon as we obtain something, we adjust what we want. Studies on happiness show that increasing wealth beyond what is needed to live just leads to desiring even more rather than to satisfaction, and video games demonstrate to players this effect of happiness.

When asked what they regretted most, people at the end of their lives consistently wish they had experienced more instead of living the rat race of pursuing meaningless goals. The need to pursue things is built into human psychology and is responsible for our sense of motivation, yet which things we choose to pursue is up to us.

The most important thing video games can teach us about life is this: go ahead and chase goals, but make sure you enjoy doing so… otherwise, pick a different game, because the goals don’t matter.

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