Life – The Ultimate Game

December 1st, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

When designing a game, a good game designer will present the player with a solid collection of compelling choices.  As long as the choices remain compelling, the game has a chance of being fun.  But if the choices are boring, confusing, pointless, or broken, it’s unlikely a fun game will emerge… although you could still end up with a Zune;)

Consider classic games like poker, chess, and go.  Compelling choices abound.  Now consider tic tac toe.  When you’re a child, the choices may seem compelling, and the game can even be fun.  But as you mature, the choices become boring and obvious, and the game quickly loses its appeal.

Even skill-based games like golf or Quake involve compelling choices.  There are tactical choices as well as training choices.  What skills will you seek to develop and when?  How much time are you willing to invest?  How will you leverage your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses?

In a game you may also have resources, a currency you can spend.  Maybe it’s gold, mana, or energy.  Resources add new choices:  How will you generate income?  How much will you generate?  How will you spend your income?  How will you balance your time between production vs. production capacity (i.e. generating income vs. increasing your earnings potential)?

Having been a game designer myself, I found it easy to start seeing life as a game filled with compelling choices.  For starters, real life includes all the properties previously mentioned.  We’re presented with a wide variety of choices for skill building, resource acquisition, relationships, and more.  As we age our decisions tend to become more complex, since childhood priorities no longer hold the same appeal.

What’s the purpose of a game?  The purpose of a game is to enjoy the experience – to have fun.  Another reason for playing games is to grow, since games can be wonderful teachers.  Having fun and growing sounds like a nice way to spend real life, doesn’t it?

What makes for a good game player?  To answer this question, you’ll probably imagine someone who’s a good sport, who makes an effort to play his/her best while respecting that all players need an opportunity to enjoy the experience, including would-be competitors.  A good player takes time to develop his/her skills.  S/he takes the play of the game seriously, but not so seriously as to become overly attached to outcomes.  A person who’s overly attached to outcomes is what we call a sore loser or sore winner.

If life is a game, how good a player are you?

Do you play full-out for the enjoyment of the experience?  Do you care about your performance and take time to hone your skills?  Are you a good sport?  Do you embrace the whole game, or resist some part of it?

Isn’t it silly that so many of us get caught up in the subgames of life and totally lose sight of the larger game?  Have you ever built a level 50 character in some fictional world, overflowing with wealth and radiant superpowers, while your real life character wallows around level 5, apathetic, out of shape, and barely able to pay the bills?  Lots of us have fallen into this trap at one time or another.

What other subgames have you mistaken for the complete game of life?  The education game?  The career game?  The financial security game?  The family game?  The physical fitness game?  The spirituality game?  There are endless subgames that can divert our attention from making progress in the far more expansive game of life itself.  These subgames are interesting and valuable in their own right, but they’re only pieces of the larger puzzle.

What do you think of a world-class actor who turns to drugs and alcohol?  What about a world leader whose own spouse despises her?  How about a massage therapist who never learns to manage his/her finances?

No virtual reality can compete with the compelling decisions that real life offers every single day.  The choices before us are infinite, and the consequences are interesting enough to motivate us to choose carefully.  The game of life has a very strong design.

Despite being presented with the most wonderful game imaginable, most of us decline to play.  We sit on the sidelines, worrying about the complexities of the world instead of embracing them.  We only dabble in parts of the game.  Very few ever consciously commit to mastering the whole game.

Why?

Your current level of engagement with life depends on how you evaluate yourself relative to the game of life.  Are you bigger than the game, or is the game bigger than you?

When you play a game that’s bigger than you, you feel overwhelmed.  It’s too much to handle, and you soon give up.  I remember when I tried to play chess when I was only 7 years old.  I got frustrated because I couldn’t understand it.  The game seemed bigger than me.  So I never wanted to play.  Chess was someone else’s game.  If you think life is bigger than you, you probably don’t want to play either.  The game becomes one giant inconvenience.

On the other hand, when you play a game that’s smaller than you, you remain in control.  If the game is too much smaller, however, it becomes boring, like tic tac toe.  Games that are too small have little appeal because the challenge isn’t there.  There just aren’t enough compelling choices.  Some people have fallen into this pattern, mastering the game’s novice setting and never realized there are other difficulty levels to experience, including intermediate, advanced, and master.

The sweet spot is when the game is nearly equal to you.  It’s the perfect match for who you are.  You learn the rules, you take time to understand the gameplay, but you know that mastery will be a lifetime process.  Online role-playing games try to maintain this sweet spot, so their players will keep renewing month after month.  They have to make the game easy enough for beginners while continuing to challenge the expert players.  Social attachments play a key role as well.

When you feel that you and real life are equally matched, you’ll experience the sweet spot of human life.  This is where the game is the most fun and rewarding.  You become fully engaged, and life events are valued for the juice of the experience.  You might describe this state as being in flow, the zone, wonder, or fascination.

What happens in a game when you experience a setback?  If you’re a good sport, you’ll see it as added challenge.  Good players don’t whine when the chips are down.  When the game gets tough, good players rise to the challenge.

I perform at my best when I maintain the perspective that life is the ultimate game, filled with compelling choices and interesting consequences.  Instead of resisting seemingly negative events, I treat them as an added challenges.  For example, if I experience a financial setback, it’s not a big deal because money is nothing but a game world resource.  It’s just game gold, something that can always be replenished with hard work and creativity.  And figuring out how to earn more gold is a fun challenge, full of compelling choices.

Good players don’t rest on their laurels when everything goes their way either.  What happens when the game becomes too easy, when the choices start to seem dull and uninteresting?  Then it’s time to ramp up the challenge again by venturing into new territory.  For example, financially things have gotten pretty easy for me, and I’m earning far more gold than I need for my family.  Sure it’s nice to have some reserves, but spending the rest of my life stockpiling gold would be boring beyond belief, not to mention a waste of an interesting resource that could be put to good use.  The fun thing about having gold is that you can buy upgrades and thereby take on bigger challenges.  And that’s exactly what Erin and I are planning to do — use our resources to build a larger team and take on bigger challenges.  Find ways to provide even more value.  Take the game to the next level.

It’s unfortunate that people so easily forget that life is supposed to be interesting, challenging, and fun.  If your life is filled with compelling choices, consider yourself blessed.  Make some decisions, experience the consequences, and grow from there.  It’s all good.

The only way to lose the game of life is not to play.  When you actively play the game, you gain skill and experience (and hopefully gold as well).  Keep playing, and you’ll eventually build yourself a level 10, level 20, level 30 character.  Just make sure that when you hit level 30, you aren’t still fighting level 10 monsters.

What would an experienced player say to a character who sits on the sidelines, complaining incessantly about how hard it is to earn gold, how evil the monsters are, how unfairly experience points are doled out, how nobody is a good teammate, etc?  I imagine the response would be something like, “Nooooooooooobbbbb!  Quit whining and go play!”

If you find yourself in a human body, you came here to play the game of human life.  Don’t sit on the sidelines whining like a noob.  The truth is that if you lose all your gold, if your teammates dump you, or if your character gets infected by the plague, it’s all part of the game.  Every setback initiates another round of compelling choices.  The game isn’t supposed to be fair — it’s supposed to be fun and interesting.  Whether or not you have a fun and interesting experience largely depends on what kind of player you are.

Did you think you were supposed to succeed in every attempt to battle monsters, secure gold, or find good teammates?  Of course not.  That isn’t how the game works.  On plenty of occasions, you’ll charge onto the battlefield filled with motivation and positive intentions, and you’ll get slammed.  That’s supposed to happen.  It’s part of the game.  The game is supposed to be challenging.

How boring life would be if all of your attempts succeeded the first time… and instantly!  A game that includes setbacks, delays, and randomness is a lot more fun.  It keeps you playing longer and with greater motivation.  Thank goodness our desires don’t manifest immediately, or we’d be bored to tears.  It’s the effort and uncertainty that makes life so rewarding because the ultimate reward is the experience of playing, not the gold we collect.

The game of human life may eventually end when you die, but in the meantime enjoy yourself while you’re here.  Life is supposed to be fun.  Get out there and go play!  Tackle some of those compelling choices you’ve been avoiding, accept the consequences, and grow from there.


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