I’ve been playing role playing games most of my life, and have written too many articles with intros that begin with some variation on that statement. What can I say, it’s my favorite genre. I’ll just leave it at that this time. The more I’ve thought about why that is and what it is about the combination of mathematics and unfettered imagination that defines the role-playing experience, I’ve come to realize that the lessons you learn from playing these kinds of games are the same things that are vital to making yourself happy in life.
So being in a rare self-help kind of mood today, I’m going to proselytize the educational virtues of the nerdiest of gaming genres and iterate how we can use the lessons learned from spending a hundred hours doing the same things over and over while searching for rare item drops and trying to get strong enough to take on the big bad and save the world to level up in the real world too.
Never Be Afraid to Try New Things.
RPGs are all about advancement. As you learn new skills and get new equipment, you sometimes have to discard the old faithfuls. Your favorite firebrand sword that sets enemies on fire will eventually stop being the best thing in your arsenal and your new spell hotness may one day become old and busted. It won’t avail you to cling to the outdated as your foes become stronger and more resilient. You’re going to have to get with the program and say goodbye.
That’s how it is in RPGs and that’s how it is in life: out with the old and in with the new. Our base instinct is usually to stick with what we know -even when we know that it’s not working for us- and fear change. Yet Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We all know this, yet we are usually unwilling to alter our ingrained habits, even when they are working against are best interests.
Some attacks work against some enemies and some don’t. To determine what to do in a given situation, it’s best to experiment and find what works for you. Even if you find something that works, it’s still good idea to continue experimenting because there’s always room for improvement. Life is the same way. The more things you try, the better you’ll know what works and what doesn’t and be prepared to handle whatever is thrown at you next. That’s the benefit of an open mind.
Clinging to ideas that don’t work for us anymore but are comfortable can hinder us enormously, like cool-looking armour that has a crap defense rating. It may have been adequate for the level you found it in, but it has since become obsolete; yet we are averse to letting it go. For example, remember when gaming was for boys and dolls were for girls? Well, that ain’t the way anymore and resisting the progress of gaming as a universal entertainment medium is doing nobody any favors. Time to upgrade your mental gear, bros.
Learn to Love the Grind.
While some of us may like doing the same shit over and over again, others are just as single-mindedly stuck on diversity. We don’t want to murder endless waves of enemies, we want a bunch of deep minigames and interactive story elements and endless wardrobe options and customization and secrets and endless options. What ADHD kid wants to sit there and grind levels? Anyone out there have a job? Pretty boring right? Same thing. But it’s a dull means to an end and there’s no rule that you can’t make even unwelcome repetition fun for yourself.
Shonen Knife once sang that you can’t find any more, but you can find a new way, and you know what? They’re right. Sometimes in always looking for something new when so very few things in the world are genuinely original, we miss finding reasons to appreciate the familiar. Being open to something new is always a good thing, but demanding that every single thing you experience be for the very first time will lead you to unhappiness just as surely.
In enjoying an experience repeatedly, you can sometimes find new ways to appreciate it for what it is and increase your ability to recognize and value something fresh and new that much more when it comes along. Whether or not that thing is boring is more of a personal mental label than an objective reality, meaning it’s all in the way you chose to look at it.
Old school style RPGs love to make you sit and fight the same enemies over and over trying to level up to make you better able to take on the enemies in the next area or farm item drops to get the coolest gear. This can seem boring if that’s your attitude about it, but on the other hand it’s also a great opportunity to experiment and try out different configurations and attacks to improve your overall game knowledge. Plus, anything that makes you stronger is something to be excited about, but we’ll get to that later.
Similarly, our IRL jobs may be 8-12 hours of mind-numbing drudgery, but that’s because we make it that way in our own minds. We can use that time to make friends with coworkers, come up with new ideas for what we’re going to do once you get home, or just focus on being the best there is at what we do, like Wolverine….but without all the dismemberment.
Explore, Explore, Explore.
A great RPG is one that has endless places to go and handsomely rewards those who are willing to go off the beaten path. What good is an adventure if there isn’t something to discover around every corner? I remember playing Final Fantasy IV on my SNES back when it was FFII and having my mind blown by optional dungeons containing some of the nastiest challenges and most rewarding results. If I’d just gone where I was told to go, I’d have missed getting the best summons or finding out about the fates of some of my favorite characters.
That spirit is still alive and well today. Elder Scrolls games are best known for insane explorability and having so much for the player to do that the main story is at best a footnote to anybody’s game (if they even bother with it at all) and that’s how life should be. It’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Single-mindedly striving towards a single goal at all times takes all of the flavor and joy out of life. You’ll end up like a businessman with billions of dollars who can’t think of anything to do with his life but try and get more billions. What’s the point, man? Getting more of what you’ve already got too much of? Be
Thoughtful repetition is one thing, but getting stuck in a rut of thoughtless routine in the antithesis of creativity. And without creativity, we’re just a bunch of barely-evolved apes fulfilling base needs. Going new places, doing new things, and meeting new kinds of people is what keeps life fresh and interesting. In role playing games it gets you the coolest rewards and the excitement of anticipating those rewards and in real life it broadens your mind with the same kind of anticipation of finding out what’s around the next corner.
Experience is Everything.
In role playing games, your character progress and ability to battle stronger opponents is perfectly quantified in levels gained by earning experience points. You may not be able to pull up a status screen to see them, but real life has experience points too. Each and every individual is made up not only by their base stats rolled at birth but primarily by the experience they earn every second of their lives.
Some of us choose to level up our pop culture knowledge, our gaming skills, or our sports knowledge or abilities, and some of us choose to focus on finances, sociability, or craftsmanship, but on some level we have all accumulated a ton of experience, skills, and knowledge at something.
It’s worth keeping in mind that every single thing we do is giving experience points towards some skill, so the way we spend our time is extremely important to our builds, even in the real world. Do you want to be a geek? Play games, watch cartoons, read comics, shun social contact. Want to be popular? Talk to people, go to social gatherings, learn the etiquette dos and don’ts. Want to be an architect? Research architecture, take classes, and network appropriately in that community.
Immersing yourself in the knowledge and skills of anything will make you that thing, so learn to grindclass appropriate skills to maximize the abilities you take pride in. If you enjoy playing politics and arguing with people on the internet, consider researching your topic of interest in earnest rather than relying on other peoples’ tweets and blogs. Real reading may seem boring if that’s your frame of mind (as we’ve already covered), but objective knowledge in life is what separates the pros from the noobs; the max levelers from the scrubs still stuck in tutorial mode. If it was to get an advantage over your fellow dungeon crawlers in a video game, you wouldn’t neglect grinding, would you? Why do any less in life?
If It’s Too Hard, Get Better.
We’ve all run up against an obstacle that’s kicked our ass. It may bea boss in a video game, or a boss at work, or something completely non-boss related. Shitty things happen to good people all the time, just like in Dark Souls, but there are plenty of inspiring clichés about how to handle such a situation; ones including clever wordplay about tough goings-on and getting going and such. Games are usually meant to be a challenge so it can’t be too much of a surprise when you meet one, and this is when you’ve got to pull it together and use everything you’ve learned.
There are usually three ways people respond to insurmountable challenges: they tap out like a loser, they continuously and stubbornly beat themselves against the challenge, or they wise up and try different things until they succeed. In role-playing games skill, strategy, tactics, experience levels, and equipment are all determining factors in whether or not you get your ass kicked. Just like life.
There are always innumerable and ever-changing factors that can be altered by your own design. The best way to achieve your goals is to arrange those factors to your advantage by learning everything you can, manipulating the system using whatever skills you have, and giving yourself the tools you need to succeed. Just like in an RPG, proper use of buffs and debuffs, weaknesses and affinities, optimized gear, and strong, diverse party members can make the difference between getting wiped or accomplishing your quest and acquiring the spoils of victory.
And just like in a video game, sometimes you’ll still get your ass kicked. Higher level enemies will have to wait until you are strong enough and just like in Persona 3, sometimes your party members do something really stupid beyond your control and you have to pay the price. Happens to the best of us. But after every “game over” screen, there’s always the option to reload, get better, and retry. Every time you fail for any reason, it’s a chance to get back in the game to try a better way or become so strong that nothing can stand in your way. And if the rewards no longer justify the time investment in your mind, you can always find another game more to your liking and start all over.