Life does not come with a reset button. That truth struck me whenever I glimpsed the face of my Nintendo Entertainment System. Reset was always there, lurking next to Power, ready to erase both my sins and the virtual world in which they had been committed. A fresh start, another try, Reset offered them free.
Moments like that, moments where some shadow of philosophical truth peaked through the veil of this childish pastime, came often over the years. The most recent occurred while I was playing Fable II on my Xbox 360. Set in a fantasy world with swords, sorcery, and muskets, the Fable series contains many game mechanics above and beyond the traditional hack and slash quest. Among them is the ability to purchase real estate and manage rental property, which maintains a steady stream of gold for upgrading weapons and other items. As I purchased one property and saved up to invest in another and yet another, I quickly realized I was mimicking a truly productive task. Why can’t I do this in real life? Oh yeah, I don’t have any money to start.
The experience of the game inspired me to revisit methods for creating wealth and fostering upward mobility. I won’t go so far as to say Fable II changed my life. After all, I’ve yet to buy that first investment property. However, it did plant a seed which may someday germinate.
Other games have offered real life lessons in ways both subtle and overt. Here are 7 for your consideration.
7) Resident Evil – Determination > Fear
While it may be argued whether the Resident Evil series invented the survival horror genre, there exists no doubt that the original introduced frantic, low-ammo, zombie-killing to a broad audience of gamers. An early title for the first PlayStation console, Resident Evil put gamers in the shoes of S.T.A.R.S. agents Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine as they and their elite squad of law enforcers investigated strange reports of cannibalism near a mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City.
While the series has become far more action-oriented and user-friendly in recent installments, Resident Evil began with an intentionally awkward control scheme. Movement and interactions required exceptionally deliberate manipulation of the controller, making it difficult to react instinctively. Where this would be a fault in most games, it brilliantly contributed to the effectiveness of Resident Evil’s scares and payoffs. Survival required reacting with measured precision, which was not always easy while regaining composure after a terrifying creature reveal.
The high adrenalin action couched among genuinely cerebral puzzles taught players to push past their fears and focus on both survival and objectives. The game is perhaps responsible for a generation of zombie fanatics who grew up to entertain serious debate about how to handle a bio-chemical apocalypse. Granted, keep calm and slay the undead probably won’t prove the most practical skill ever developed. Nevertheless, the ability to keep it together and act appropriately in chaotic or threatening situations comes in handy, whether investigating cannibals or parenting small children.
6) Star Wars: The Old Republic – Develop the Right Skill Set
Any given massively-multiplayer online game (MMO) could convey this lesson, and many have. However, the MMO which this author has spent the most time with is Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR).
Set thousands of years before the films, SWTOR offers galaxy spanning adventure with fully voiced stories for each of eight character classes split between the titular Galactic Republic and the evil Sith Empire. As a role-playing game, SWTOR dangles the carrot of character progression in front of the player. Combat, exploration, and completed missions earn experience points which accumulate to unlock new skills and improved abilities. Leveling up means getting stronger and opening up new areas and challenges.
MMOs combine the play of a dungeon-crawling button-masher with a strategy akin to chess. Like that ancient board game, anyone can play, but it takes a particularly obsessive and brainy talent to master. Under the hood, the game relies upon numbers similar to pen-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. It just trades high-definition graphics for a twelve-sided die.
What skills the player chooses to enhance as gameplay progresses will determine how well he can perform in a given combat role. Decoding the skill tree for a particular class is a science, and entire websites are dedicated to discerning the best “build” for a given class playing a chosen role.
Although it remains possible to reset skill points under various conditions, the increasing cost of doing so encourages thoughtful decision making and commitment to a particular career path. As a player, you have to know what you would like to end up doing as a higher level character and discern the best skill set for effectively getting there. If only this process were applied to real-life choices made in early adulthood, there would be far fewer women’s studies majors in our midst.
5) Civilization – Protect What’s Yours
If you find yourself with an entire day’s worth of time to kill, and you’d prefer it fly by, check out the Civilization series by developer Fraxis and publisher 2K Games. Everything you need to know is in the name. You play as the all-powerful leader of a chosen nation, guiding it from primitive beginnings through thousands of years of development into a modern civilization.
The object of the game is to meet one of several possible victory conditions which can be achieved by different styles of play. For instance, if military superiority is your thing, you can pursue a domination victory by capturing the capitol cities of every other nation on the globe. You can achieve a cultural victory by constructing special structures and building wonders like the Pyramids or the Great Wall. You can declare a scientific victory by winning the space race, or win through diplomacy by earning influence throughout the world. On any difficulty setting above the easiest, your victory must be planned early on. Different nations offer thematic bonuses which better suit them to particular victory types. In my current game, I’m struggling to field a German military juggernaut and blitz across the continent.
Civilization proves interesting time and again because no two games play exactly alike, and you never know quite what to expect. For example, in my game playing as Germany, I took an aggressive stance early on and annexed Arab territory to my east, including their capital. As I did so, I cultivated an alliance with the Iroquois in the northeast, benefiting from trade and a public declaration of friendship. However, upon turning my naked aggression to the Songhai Africans to my northwest, I found myself betrayed by my allies at a crucial point in the war and struggled to maintain a defensive line and hold all my cities.
When first introduced to Civilization, I must admit to having conducted a naïve foreign policy. Focusing on culture and economics while ignoring military readiness, I often found myself facing a surprise invasion with no adequate means to respond. As a game, Civilization forces conflict of one kind or another. The object is not merely to exist for your own sake, but to outdo everyone else. Therefore, you quickly learn to protect what’s yours and seize what’s vulnerable. Such a dog-eat-dog lesson does not translate entirely to real-life. After all, we need not take from others to sustain ourselves. Nevertheless, the sense of weary caution, guile, and risk mitigation which Civilization fosters does prove useful in various offline situations.
4) Pac-Man – Trust Your Instincts
Only one generation will ever have grown up alongside the advent of the video game, and that’s ours. Born alongside games, we developed in sync, growing more sophisticated as they did. Nevertheless, like great silent films from the dawn of the motion picture, some magic remains in those select retro titles whose innovation was so insightful that the whole world sought quarters by the roll.
Will my four-year-old son someday enjoy Pac-Man the way I once did? Perhaps not just as I did, given the context of a more sophisticated time. But I have to imagine he will one day take to that familiar maze and wonder how something so simple could evoke such a thrill. Even today, nearly 35 years after its release, Pac-Man holds its own as a compelling casual gaming experience. Zombies, Nazis, goblins, and other fiends don’t hold a candle to the terror induced by dashing past crisscrossing ghosts in a mad scramble to gobble that final pellet.
The product of an era where the sole object of a game was achieving the highest possible score, Pac-Man offers little diversity. It’s chomp, chomp, repeat, as poltergeists Inky, Pinky, Clyde, and Sue seek to flank and kill. As the speed of both Pac-Man and his pursuers picks up, the gameplay becomes more frantic and forces risks.
The winning posture for posting high scores in Pac-Man is fast and loose. You have to get in the zone, that near-trance-like sense of relaxed concentration where every action flows from split-second instinct. While there a few points in life where sustained action must flow from such a moment to moment stream of consciousness, Pac-Man fosters an elementary sense of confidence in one’s ability to make quick decisive choices.
3) Super Mario Bros. – The Princess Is in Another Castle
Super Mario Bros. was the only video game my father ever played. He was obsessed with it. He even went out and bought that bulky NES Advanced joystick controller believing it could help him run, jump, and stomp with more precision. He tried Super Mario Bros. 2 once, declared it “not the same,” and has yet to try another game to this day.
The original was also the only game my mother ever played. She tried it once. She ran full bore into that first goomba and died.
There was something about that game that attracted everyone. It came with nearly every Nintendo Entertainment System purchased in a time when that console was the industry standard. That gave it a huge base, but cannot alone account for its lasting popularity.
Strange though it may seem, if I had to put my finger on the single factor which most drew players in, I would call it the dangling carrot of barely attainable victory. That game was hard! But it wasn’t impossibly hard. You just had to try and try again until you figured out the right path and the right timing. Then, just as you thought you had bested the dragon and rescued the damsel, you would learn that your princess was in another castle.
In retrospect, the presentation was almost cruel. You never knew on that first time through just how many castles lay ahead, and nothing indicated that the final one was indeed final. Turns out it wasn’t! After beating the game, a harder version became available. The lesson? Persistence gets the girl.
2) Grand Theft Auto – Know Your Surroundings
Yes, what the detractors say is true, Grand Theft Auto allows players to have sex with prostitutes, then kill them and recoup the money. However, lifting that unscripted moment from the game does not fairly represent its appeal. The franchise has shipped 125 million units worldwide without inciting a pandemic of prostitute murder. GTA is a crime game as The Godfather is a crime film. Yet no one would seriously sum up The Godfather as a film about putting a horse head under a guy’s sheets. The film offers more than that, wrapping violence in a narrative context. The same can be said of GTA.
As the series has progressed, its narrative elements have become more sophisticated, presenting fleshed out characters with believable motivations. No one would claim GTA as high art. Nevertheless, the experience does not prove as viscerally ultra-violent as the hooker-killing example suggests.
GTA invented the sandbox genre, games which place the player in a wide open world with a myriad of possibilities. The player chooses the object of the game, whether following the main storyline through a series of missions or running through activities like taxi driving, fire fighting, and – in more recent installments – bowling or air hockey. It’s a game made up of games, and discovering things to do takes up a large part of the experience.
Navigation reigns supreme as the skill most useful in GTA. Knowing your way around town helps you get in and out of sticky situations. While planning and executing crimes may not be a skill you want to foster, knowing generally how to reconnoiter a problem and keep calm under pressure is.
1) Final Fantasy VII – Loss Often Proceeds Victory
Over thirty or so years of gaming, a few spectacular moments stand out as transitional, points where my conception of what a video game could accomplish was advanced to a whole new level. Final Fantasy VII may be the only game I have played containing more than one such moment.
First of all, there was the sheer scope of it. As one of the first titles for the original PlayStation console, Final Fantasy VII was the first installment to introduce three-dimensional graphics and integrated video animation, giving the title a more cinematic feel than any game up to that point. Running off four CD-ROMs, the game took roughly forty hours to complete and drew the player into a planet-spanning adventure to save the world.
What truly set Final Fantasy VII apart, however, was how it invested the player’s emotions into its characters and the world they were trying to save. The quest was not merely to defeat the bad guy and be the hero, but to lead a band of friends through a daunting conflict in a desperate bid to regain what each had lost. The player’s compatriots had their own reasons for fighting, their own personal journeys which tied into the main quest. As in real-life, not everyone made it through to the end of battle, and none emerged from victory as they had began.
The Final Fantasy series lays laced with pantheistic environmental themes, and VII was no exception. Nevertheless, the more dominant theme was change. Things do not remain as they are, and acceptance of that reality fosters health and life. While, at times, change includes great loss, loss can be turned to victory. Now available as a PC download, Final Fantasy VII remains worth a play.
Lessons learned from video games need some refinement before being applied to life in the real world. Stealing cars remains a bad idea no matter how well-planned your escape. However, the same can be said of lessons discerned from any form of media. You can walk away from The Godfather with epiphanies applicable to business and family relationships without joining the mob and becoming a contract killer. Likewise, you can take away the value of aggressive confidence from a session of Civilization without endorsing militaristic expansion. Like all art, gaming shows without condoning, leaving us to take from the experience what we may.