I used to play a ton of video games. Not like “a lot”of video games, I’m talking a shit ton of video games. Most of the times I played RPGs, (role-playing games, or games where you level up your character and otherwise make choices about their “development”) some, but not many, RTS’s (real time strategy, games where everything happens in real time and actions have to be constantly inputted and strategies revised on the fly. Command and Conquer anyone?) and a handful of just action/adventure games.
Note: This post is divided into two sections, first my story regarding video games and then what I learned from them, feel free to skip.
First I want to break some misconceptions about video games and gamers in general. For one they aren’t all fat, nerdy and awkward. In fact some of the coolest, chillest people I know play video games. A lot of them just do it to relax and escape, others just love to pour hours upon hours watching their characters advance. Some are “achievement whores” or gamers that spend all their time chasing numbers. Some are min-maxers, or people who through excel spreadsheets, repetitive testing and brainstorming determine what the “most effective” way to play the game is (something usually the developers only know unless they divulge a lot of information). Regardless in all these sub types I’ve met tons of people who are genuinely cool, laid-back individuals.
In almost all games I’ve played of every genre I’ve met people interested in different facets of the game. Some people like to focus more on the economy of the game and the ways the markets work. Some spend hours trying to make their character perfect, detailing every relevant piece of information and plugging it into various spreadsheets. Some focus almost solely on player-versus-player aspects and spend their time practicing in teams in order to outcompete. There is something for everybody.
I have been a part of almost every aspect in a variety of video games. When I first started pouring hours into video games I was mostly just a guy who would walk around, read some strategy guides and opinions on forums and max out my character without much experimenting or further brainstorming. I didn’t take video games seriously, I just kind of didn’t care. Then I switched games to an online game that was very economy heavy. Knowing how to play the market and choosing the right strategies was unequivocally important to your success in the game. It was this game were I would play hours into setting up complex system, developing the right skills and managing people. In fact I still remember my dad’s response after I explained to him what I was doing in the game; “Okay son, so you are running a business?”. Even though none of it was actually enjoyable per se, it was really rewarding to see myself beat people who had been playing twice as long as me by simply having thought of a better strategy and watching my accomplishments.
Slowly though my friends stopped playing. They had never put in as much time as me and were never as committed. they stopped playing and moved on to other games, and after a while of long nights playing alone and hearing about my friends playing other games I moved on. This new game was all about character development and killing stuff. The market and economy aspect was there, but it was much less important. Again I proceeded to spend hours researching, learning and playing. I quickly beat my friends and proceeded to take on the toughest challenges the game had to offer.
At first I wasn’t that good, and in fact I quit for a while and then came back a couple of months later. This time I was doing much better. One of my friends I put hours into the game. Staying up all night, grinding rewards, finding like-minded people, testing different approaches etc. Again even though none of this was necessarily enjoyable, I still remember pulling long night trying to reach some goal in the game and how amazing it was to accomplish them.
The problem was these games, the ones that were mostly about combat and slaying, were too fickle. Rewards came and went, nothing seemed permanent and what you did almost never left a mark. One day you were the best and the next an update would make all your achievements more accessible. It didn’t seem fair, so I stopped playing after a couple of cycles because I realized I liked it when my achievements mattered and couldn’t be so easily watered down.
I moved on to a game where all that mattered was how good you and your team were against others. There was no economy or long-term min-maxing. No one needed to put a massive amount of time to be able to compete at your level. They just needed the right approach and a little bit of experience to start playing at a high level. These games had by far the toughest challenges. It was no longer how much time you could put in, how much research your did, or what new gimmick you found. When it came down to it the best were just better: better reflexes, better strategies, better decision making etc. These people had ingrained within themselves the various aspects of the game through vast experience, knowledge, and brainstorming with other top players.
For a while me and some friends managed to be pretty damn good. Somewhere around top 3-5%. Around this time I stopped pouring in as much time as I used to into video games. While in the past I would have easily spent 60 hours+ a week playing, the most I would put in would be around 20-30hours depending on how busy I was. In this type of game though, a game where its you against everybody else, and just about everyone gets better with every single game, it was almost impossible to be at the top unless one poured at least 40 hours+ into being good. It was no longer me against some unchanging or easy to deconstruct and analyze challenge. Nothing was straightforward, everything was dynamic. For every hour you didn’t play, for every hour your didn’t practice a strategy, someone else did, and every time you got better, you would be paired with even better people. It was never-ending.
Ultimately these ended up being by far the most fun games. They were fast-paced, required one to constantly be in the zone, and were insanely dynamic. Every circumstance was different, no situation was alike. Yet through constant experience, learning and testing one began to see the matrix and time started to slow down. Your progress was very visible—not in numbers or other nonsense—but instead in how the decisions you made become both better and more tightly executed. Even though I was having a blast, after a couple of weeks of not improving I decided to quit. I found out that unless I put more time into becoming amazing at the game, I would never reach a level that would satisfy me. The competition was just too intense.
After that I played some games here and there, mostly console games at my own leisure, and some flash games, but never spending more than 15 hours~ a week on games. I just had so many other stuff I wanted to do.
Then I decided to quit. Video games where by far my biggest time sink and were the only thing I did that was 100% unproductive. I made a list of everything I could be doing other than playing video games. I literally wrote everything: learning a language, socializing, reading, meditating, learning an instrument, learning programming, poker, working, exercising, watching good movies and that was that. I pretty much quit cold turkey, sometimes I’d relapse, but my overall time playing was almost never more than 5-10 hours a week unless it was gaming in a social environment. These days my total gaming time a week is probably less than 1 hour on average. Most of it being temple run or some puzzle games on my phone when I’m bored, and even then I’m trying to change that to flash cards or reading.
Occasionally I ask myself should I have quit sooner? But instead of spending useless amounts of time thinking about the negative I chose to think about the positive: what did I learn from video games? For a while I have been thinking about how the habits I learned from video games have helped succeed in other parts of life so here it is: the three things I learned from video games.
1. Strategy favors the long-term winner and in the end it trumps all.
I learned this from my first video game experience where I pretty much ran an in-game business and beat out people who had many, many more hours put into the game than me. Everyday a friend and I spent hours researching, deconstructing, analyzing and brainstorming different approaches.
After a while we heard about this amazing strategy: spend 60 hours+ a month to become qualified (for gamers: grind levels) and then use those qualifications to make more money than everyone else. Furthermore use the money you earn to invest on assets and then spend time focusing on things that didn’t cost much until you needed money. Once that time came, you would liquidate your assets focus on the things that did require money and live happily ever after. Pretty impressive for being a 7th grader.
To make a long story short. We were behind our peers for 2 months and then we were tied for another 2 months, and then we were way ahead for months after. Even after I quit I was ahead of my friends for a solid 6 months. In the end even though our strategy didn’t pay off until after 3 months, the advantage it gave us was so immense and “snowball” in nature that, cumulatively it became impossible to ignore.
2. Its not about “working smart not hard”, its about choosing smart and working hard. Once you chose the strategy, the amount of time and effort you put in will decide whether your come out on top.
This is something I learned in every game I played. While I wasn’t perfect and sometimes picked sub-optimal strategy (I made this mistake on my second major game and also when I first started learning Japanese), I refused to be successful to lack of effort. This reminds me of a really good blog post on Sebastian’s blog (probably my favorite blog around). The gist of the story is If you want to be on top stop slacking, cut the crap and get to work. Put in the hours, put in the mental focus.
One thing I loved about video games is that I usually played them on full screen and changing tabs or windows was always a hassle with a huge delay. This usually meant that when I played I meant business. Even though at the begging of my second game I had the wrong strategy, because I hustled so hard I managed to be somewhat competitive. Then I quit the game and just like Japanese it became obvious that taking a different approach might be more effective. I came back, this time armed with a new paradigm and mindset, hustled just as hard, if not harder than before, and managed to be very good.
Just as hours can be spent by following a wrong strategy, an amazing strategy can be put to waste by lack of action.
3. Having a partner in crime makes things substantially easier or at the very least, more enjoyable.
I didn’t notice this before, but looking back now I realize that every time I achieved massive success or had those “level up” moments were I bridged a plateau it was through brainstorming, thinking, practicing and talking it over with other passionate friends.
I saw it happen over and over and over again. I would start playing a new game with a moderately passionate friend and me and him would put spend hours learning the nuances of the game, testing what was good and what wasn’t, and sharing random information we found online. Then one of us would stop, either we would move on to another game, or not be as passionate as the other. The majority of the time that person wasn’t me, albeit once in a while, especially in the last game I played were I just didn’t have the time, it was me. At this point it was very hard for me to bridge the plateau. There was no one to bounce ideas off or test assumptions with or run A/B tests in real time
Then after a couple of weeks of just grinding and spending time practicing I would finally meet someone who had the same aspirations as me and was putting in similar amounts of time if not more. The process would then begin again. We would test new things and ideas, put in more time and brainstorm ideas. We would refine our strategy and bridge the plateau collaboratively.
If you’ve ever been extremely passionate about something you’ve been in this situation where the person who you started doing things with just kind of fell through and then you started connecting with those who were just as passionate as you if not more. Then whenever your old friends would try to get in on it again it was difficult: they just weren’t on the same level as the other friends In your group when it came to what you were passionate about.
The best way to put it is 1+1=3 as long as everyone is extremely passionate and looking at the long-term.
Overall I had an extremely fun time playing video games and even though I sometimes think I should’ve done something more productive with that time, the hours spent learning the nuances of each new game, mastering new strategies and playing just one more game or trying just one more time are some of my fondest memories.