Real Life Gaming

This is a guest post by Robert, who lives in Calgary and works as a financial adviser retired at 34. He is married, has three kids.  Robert and his wife then plan to return to school and become teachers, eventually living and working overseas.

I only played video games occasionally as a teenager, which may be why I still enjoy the simplest games now. For example, my kids recently discovered Plants vs. Zombies, so I played a few rounds to figure out what it was about. Guilty confession: I played for well over an hour. That reminded me how much I enjoyed playing real-time strategy games in university, specifically Warcraft and Starcraft.

What is so fun about these games? Fundamentally, they’re very simple. They have two functions that a player needs to choose between. One function is spending money. In each of these games, spending money means building defences (or offences) against invaders. If you don’t spend money, you get over-run. The second function is increasing capacity. In Plants vs. Zombies, it means generating more sunshine to be able to plant more plants. In Warcraft, it was mining more gold and chopping more wood, to be able to build buildings and warriors. The strategy comes from balancing spending, to avoid being defeated, with increasing capacity, to have enough strength to win.

I also enjoyed programming, a hobby I haven’t devoted time to for years. So I wrote a simple trading game, much like Drug Wars, for the Palm OS. When Palm Pilots were popular, I offered to a colleague, who was at least 10 years older than me, that I would give him a copy of my game. I wanted to impress him with what I was able to create. I explained that you start with a large debt and you try to pay it all back in a certain number of turns. I was surprised that he wasn’t the least bit interested. “That sounds much too much like my real life,” he said.

If games are fun when they’re like real life, could real life be fun if it’s seen as a game? Instead of playing games to build capacity and spend, I viewed life a little like a game. Each month, I got a paycheque. Each month, I had to spend at least a minimum on supporting my family. Each month, I could choose to indulge on extras (like snacks, gadgets or vacations), or I could invest (in stocks, mostly). Investing in stocks has the potential to build capital and income. But, like a game, the outcome is partly random. Unlike a game, however, I have only one life; I’m not even tempted to underspend. Also, although it’s possible to start over, I want to avoid at all costs having my investment account go to zero.

How do I know when I’ve won? With a game, it’s obvious; either all the zombies are defeated or the Orc village is razed and the game ends. But real life keeps on going. There’s always more points to score, and there’s always someone who’s far ahead. The major difference is that only I can decide when I’m finished playing and I’m satisfied with my score. A side benefit is that (almost) no one is impressed by a high score in Plants vs. Zombies, but people are impressed by a large bank account. (I admit, money isn’t the only way to keep score.)

Is life a fun game for you? Are you getting closer to winning?

3 thoughts on “Real Life Gaming”

  1. Sounds like you should give “Reality is Broken” by McGonigal a read. Focuses on why games are so attractive, and how we can use those psychological “hooks” to make “real life” more “fun” — with examples of how it’s being successfully used in a number of areas like business, social consciousness and education.

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll definitely give it a look. Just to clarify, I think games can be useful to model real-world decision making where the penalty for failure is minimal. They also allow us to try a number of different strategies, sped up.
    The draw back is that people may spend their time in games instead of real life, or the model might be broken (not well representative of reality).
    I wrote this blog post just for fun; it’s not a complete treatise on the usefulness and dangers of gaming in developing approaches to real life.

  3. Life to me is the greatest of all games. The danger lies in treating it as a trivial game, a game to be taken lightly, and a game in which the rules don’t matter much. The rules matter a great deal. The game has to be played fairly or it is no game at all. And even to win the game is not the chief end. The chief end is to win it honourably and splendidly.

Comments are closed.