At some point in their lives, most gamers have had to defend their pastime from those who fail to see its value. One of the usual arguments against games is that they have no intellectual or educational merit, sucking the brains from poor, innocent children and spitting the rest out as a drooling husk.
This is the worst kind of generalization. By their interactive nature, games are well suited to teaching us some important things about life – more so than many other forms of media. We learn so much on the school playground by testing boundaries and running our own subconscious experiments, so it seems obvious to me that a virtual playground is a similarly fertile source for our intellectual well-being.
Or maybe I'm just looking for an excuse to stay inside and avoid human contact. Regardless of my intentions, here are some important life lessons we can learn from our favourite pastime.
CatchGames have given me a better sense of spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination than anything in real life ever has. I'm not particularly brilliant at anything practical or physical, and I spent many a frustrating hour at school trying to understand the mind-boggling instructions of P.E. teachers. If the task was to catch a ball, I was the kid who asked, "How?"
I certainly noticed that as physics-based puzzlers got more advanced, my chances of catching stuff with my hand instead of my face increased in real life. It has a lot to do with the nature of modern puzzle games like Portal 2: In a controlled environment with a goal, you are left to experiment with the path to reach it. You get to practice several times over without anyone mocking or insulting you. Apart from a psychotic robot.
Not nearly as unsettling as my P.E. teacher.
Portal 2 challenges us to think well beyond the known laws of physics, but you won't get far without understanding the basics. Success often hinges on your ability to judge when to jump and catch a moving object, and you can practice this fundamental skill of the school playing field in the comfort of your living room. Anyone who got this achievement the hard way certainly honed their reflexes. Action and reaction, velocity and acceleration are cornerstones of gameplay, and the more we play, the more we subconsciously absorb all that Newtonian stuff that I slept through in the classroom. Just don't base your world view on Goat Simulator physics.
If In Doubt, Use Everything With EverythingI grew up on a steady diet of classic Lucasarts point-and-clicks, which means I have a slightly warped approach to problem-solving. Finally realising that using a monkey with a water-pump will turn the monkey into a monkey wrench after hours of sailing aimlessly across the Caribbean snaps something very deep in the logic centre of one's brain.
This comes up a lot in therapy.
Thanks to that upbringing, I often find I'll just give everything a go in order to get past an obstacle or just to see what happens, in real life and in games. Many results are average at best, and a few are terrible – but you'd be surprised how often it works out pretty well.
Combining things unexpectedly can often lead to creative marvels, especially in the kitchen. I'm sure that all of these wild-eyed experimental TV chefs learned all of their erratic creativity from the true masters like Guybrush Threepwood and George Stobbart. Just avoid putting genuinely inedible items in the soup, unless you're trying to get to Monkey Island.
5. Look Before You LeapEver since the early days of gaming, we've endured a tough lesson: A misjudged leap forward often ends in punishment, by water, lava, spike or simple gravity. The joy of a game like Sonic The Hedgehog might be blasting through the level without a care in the world, but you're not going to survive long if you don't have a clue where the little blue maniac is actually heading. It's been a lesson we've been trying and failing to learn ever since while crossing the open worlds of modern games, especially when that ramp off the free-way looks so inviting.
I'm starting to think that wasn't a Unique Stunt ramp after all.
Game developers know that the best way to impart knowledge is to repeatedly murder our precious digital avatars with it. I'd wager all gamers approach life's leaps, figurative or literal, with a little more caution than everyone else. Games add a useful caveat to the adage as well: Simply looking ahead before you leap isn't actually enough, if some other problem fouls your jump before you even start. Buggy control systems and random glitches can easily send you off in the wrong direction or spiralling to your doom; not just in games, but in life. Especially if you have been drinking.
Life is like Assassin's Creed rooftop traversal. You look at the window, you jump at the window, you knee a guard in the face instead.
4. Choose Your Words CarefullyNo textbook can prepare us for this important lesson. In real life, the only way you can truly learn that your words can have unforeseen consequences is through trial and error. When we're conversing with our fellow humans, especially in the middle of an argument, there's often a massive disconnect between what you think, what you intend to say, what you actually say and what the recipient hears. By the time you've really worked out the subtleties of framing your words and empathising with your listener, you may well have burned a few bridges.
Video games are slowly getting to the point where we can simulate these scenarios and avoid irreparable damage. We certainly learned extremely fast that what Mass Effect considers a 'Renegade' option can range wildly from simply asserting your point with a terse word, or headbutting someone in the face. With the average dialogue wheel we are often faced with an abbreviated and dangerously ambiguous set of options. With one click, our hero is spouting something outrageously different to the comment you intended, or the recipient reacts totally unexpectedly because of some facet in their personality we failed to appreciate. The consequences can be mind-boggling – your misunderstood words can start wars, condemn civilisations and slam the door on opportunities to get freaky with beautiful aliens. Just like in real life!
What are you upset about? Surely not the time I chose to eradicate a sentient species. I can't do anything right!
3. Have You Tried It In Co-Op?Often in life we might find ourselves facing horrendous odds, or a daunting grind towards our eventual goal. Sometimes we are too proud, or simply too single-mindedly focused, to consider the possibility that two heads are better than one. Not only could we make that gargantuan task a little easier to tackle, but we could make friends and have fun on the way.
Nothing makes the point more clearly to me than a video game with a co-op option on the campaign. Achievement hunters who like to play solo will often sweat, grind and rage-quit their way to the end, and then knock out the obligatory "play a game in co-op" achievement as an afterthought. I've done it myself. Sure, you might get some additional sense of achievement out of the Lone Wolf approach, but don't forget that some things in life are actually designed to be experienced cooperatively. By stubbornly continuing alone, you could be missing the point completely.
The clue was in the title with this one.
Co-op shooter campaigns like Halo or Army of Two spring to mind, not least because I am terrible at shooting. I've ground my way through solo campaigns in the past, or given up entirely, only to jump into a friend's session and finish the whole thing in an evening. I enjoyed myself a lot more and discovered nuances of the experience that it would have been impossible to appreciate alone.
It's something to remember next time you proudly insist on putting that IKEA flat-pack together in Lone Wolf mode - not only are you liable to kill yourself in amusing fashion, but you might actually enjoy the experience for once if you have someone on hand to hold the shelf in place or repeatedly criticise your accuracy with the spirit level.
2. There's Always Another WayGames inspire us to tackle our problems creatively. As the technology improves, the game worlds we inhabit become more diverse and intricate, and the choices we can make become almost infinite. It's a rare game nowadays in which one person's method is exactly the same as the other. Take a look at any achievement on this site with multiple solutions, and you'll see what I mean. Even the best method for hitting a guard with a broom can be up for debate.
The average open-world RPG offers up this sentiment right at the start, when you can select from a wide variety of options that will shape your current playthrough. Games like Skyrim will offer you multiple opportunities throughout to adjust your character's skillset and thus the way you approach your next quest. A series like Assassin's Creed or Metal Gear might champion the stealthy approach, but even within that there are alternative approaches. Do you methodically take out all the guards, or race silently through the gaps in their patrols? Do you hit the target fast and hard, or try something subtle?
The persistent and sometimes overwhelming volume of choice available in the modern game helps us adjust to a similarly terrifying start to adult life. Beyond the institutionalisation of our school days, sometimes it seems there are so many options to choose from in order to be successful or happy that it feels impossible to make a start. Our experience in games reminds us that the way forward is through experimentation. Try out an approach, and see what happens. There's nothing stopping you from going back and trying something else.
Job interview went south? Consider re-rolling as a Mage!
1. Accepting FailureThe most important life lesson gaming is uniquely tailored to deliver is that failure can't be avoided. In fact, it's something we should embrace, so we can use it to learn all the other lessons life has in store for us. Educational institutions have a frightening tendency to encourage kids to settle for lesser goals rather than face the shame of failure. For those of us affected by depression or anxiety, it's all too easy to listen to the voice saying that you failed because you're somehow fundamentally not cut out for the task, rather than a lack of preparation or simply bad luck.
We're sometimes told that our gaming habits aren't helping. The argument runs that, by using games as escapism, you turn your face away from 'real world' problems. I think that sentiment is way off the mark. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, games provide us with a controlled yet interactive environment, in which we can experiment with the available options. It's in this space that we can learn to fail, and learn to recover.
Why do we fall, Bruce?
Famously, the average gamer doesn't exactly handle failure well. We invented the rage-quit. But that very fact reveals the true power of the video game. Anyone who has gotten into games as a serious hobby has had to learn how to resist the temptation to give up. If you can't deal with failure, you can't carry on with almost any game on the market. You won't get far in life either. J.K. Rowling captured the point perfectly in a speech to Harvard graduates:
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.Scaling difficulty helps cushion the blow in a way real life does not – in games, we may learn from our small mistakes before facing our larger ones. Recent open-world titles and RPGs reflect life a little more accurately, giving us the freedom to naively tackle the big obstacles early... and fail spectacularly. Once we have dusted ourselves off, we find ourselves remembering our other lessons. Was my timing off? Can I do it in co-op? Is there another way to go about this entirely?
Have you considered using the monkey?
By inviting us to fail and try again, games can build our resilience to those moments in real life in which we feel we've hit the end of the road. It's not game over: you reload your last save, restock your ammo and potions, and push forward once more.
Games are a great escape from life's problems, but that doesn't mean they can't teach us a thing or two. Their interactivity allows for true and direct lessons to be learned, while the repetitions in their structure ensure the message is hammered home. Most uniquely, they give us the space to fail the test, while encouraging us to try again. What life lessons have you taken away?