From Zero to One

By the numbers, the most effective, the most deadly enemy in video games is probably the goomba.

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Specifically, this goomba here. The first goomba you face in the game. I would bet that this one goomba has slain more players than any other creature in video games. Grandma gets you a new NES for Christmas, you plug it in with the game it came with, you jump into good old Super Mario Bros., start figuring out the controls, and bam! Before you even have any sense of precision with your jumping, before you even know how to properly maneuver, you’ve got the weakest enemy in the game in your face and bearing down on you. That has happened to thousands and thousands and thousands of players over the years.

For those of us steeped in video games, veterans of the form, that goomba is a complete non-issue. Seriously, one jump, a bunch of minute mid air navigations, we’re on his head and then on our way. A whole bunch of instinctual things going on there that we don’t even think about. Even if you’ve never played Super Mario Bros. before, even if 2-D platformers are completely foreign to you, if you’re enough into video games that you made your way to this blog, you can crush that goomba no problem. Because you’ve built up the gaming skills to know what to do.

Yet, if you don’t have that experience, that first goomba is a completely different challenge. You first have to recognize it as a threat, then recognize the movement that threat is making, predict the immediate actions of the threat, determine the appropriate response, mentally map the buttons to press to execute that appropriate response, evaluate the timing of the appropriate response, move yourself into position to execute the appropriate response, then press one button to launch yourself into the air than use the pad to control your descent.

You and I would be able to do this with all the efficiency of a professional athlete in the midst of the game. Most of this won’t even enter our consciousness, we’d just act on instinct and and put our active mind beyond it. Because we have practiced every single step in that process, or at least something very similar, over and over and over and over and over to the point that it doesn’t even require a thought. Again, it’s a very different game to someone just getting into the medium.

So how do you bring someone to that point? With everything that games have to offer, from the thrill of action to the mind-bendingness of puzzles to the sense of accomplishment of success to the involvement of the narrative and beyond, games have a lot to offer. They are an art form, a very multifaceted one that has some really great experiences within it, but one with a barrier to entry. And how do you take someone over that barrier?

That’s a problem I’ve found myself posed with recently. My most frequent Player 2 is my daughter. But her gaming journey has been a very sheltered one. Usually, she’s on the couch, backseat playing for me as I dominate games like I dominate all things. In recent years, she’s taken to picking up the controller herself, in pretty limited fashion. She’ll ride on the back of my kart and chuck items ahead of me as I drive in Mario Kart: Double Dash. She’ll copy along with what I do in Cooking Mama. She’ll take the reins of my cap and fly around in Super Mario Odyssey. She’ll wander through Kirby’s Epic Yarn with me, my carrying her through the dangerous parts. She’ll have fun, but these have largely been experiences where she doesn’t have much impact on the game, and is not at any real risk of failure. She’s not going to feel the sting of failure in these rolls, and she’s not really going to have to challenge herself. She gets frustrated at losing, and so everything we’ve been doing together have been experiences that I can carry her through. It’s all been very safe for her.
She’s decided she’s done with that. She’s tried some single player fun. She can wander around and catch bugs and fish in Animal Crossing. She can jump around Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64. But she wants more. She wants to grow and expand to becoming a True Doom Murderhead like her main man Aether. She’s been wanting to get into the same type of games I do. She wants to play appropriate to her level, of course, but she still wants to get into the type of game where she needs to be overcoming conflict, facing off against enemies, and navigating strenuous situations.

And that’s where I’ve been having issues. Finding a game that I can use to introduce her to the skills needed to succeed. And it’s been a lot harder than I expected. I set her up in Kirby figuring that’d be about as simple and flexible as it comes, had her watch me play through the first level, had her practice all the controls, and she still froze up when faced with her first enemy. As simple as that game is, just playing games in the first place involves so much mental actions that even a simple mindless encounter to me is overwhelming to her.

It makes me think of my own journey through video games. I remember being exposed to them for a while through friends before I ever felt comfortable enough to pick up the controller on my own. Once I did, my learning experiences were mostly through the standard classic fare. Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Kung Fu, the first two areas of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 over and over and over. I wasn’t aware of my skill progression there, but obviously, that did build the fundamentals I needed to find success in future games, and I kept building up on that over the years and decades since, to the point where I’m the planet-shattering warbeast I am today.

But how do today’s newbies do that? Going from 0 to 1 on anything skills-based is generally one of the hardest steps. And modern games are generally a fair bit more complicated than they were when I was growing up. The skill progression would be very similar, I’d imagine. But I find myself more stumped as to how to instill that in someone, how to put them on the path to competence while still engaging them with what they’re playing on the way there. Trial and error just doesn’t seem to work anymore.

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For the time being, we’ve got ourselves going back several years to River City Ransom, and that seems to be working the best for her. Requires a lot of basic positioning skills, while still being mashy enough that she can still be a meaningful part of the game just hammering on buttons without thought, and the beat up guys/get money/go shopping gameplay really feeds into the reward structure that resonates with her. Most importantly, this is one of the few games I’ve found that, as long as I’m running interference as the other player, she only needs to focus on one or two things at a time, cutting through a lot of the mental processes that altogether can be overwhelming and lead to freezing.  So that’s working for use right now. Next steps are still to come however. Hopefully I’ll stumble onto something that works then.

The Working Player: Real Life Skills from Video Games

I don’t tell many people I game.  In meatspace, I mean.  People who know my flesh-name.  Here, on good old cyberspace, where I am the Aether, I talk about it all the time.  It’s not that I’m ashamed of my passion.  Far from it.  But there is a problem with the way a lot of people react to it, I’ve learned.  See, people who don’t play video games don’t understand videogames.  Go figure.  And people who don’t understand videogames put a lot of mental baggage on videogames, and that baggage doesn’t fit with the image of the hypercompetent supersexy professional I have to present to most of the world.

So yeah.  Most of the people in my life don’t know that I love video games.  All in the name of getting them to take me more seriously in my work.

Which, after some thinking I’ve been doing recently, seems real ironic.  As it turns out, I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten plenty of my professional skills from gaming.

I was talking with a group of clients recently, discussing the importance of doing a skills inventory on oneself.  Yes, this is boring work stuff, but hold on, we’ll be back to the fun gaming content you know and love soon.  In any case, as I often do, I just dove right into talking about myself, highlighting some of my most marketable skills.  The conversation turned to where those skills came from, and, well, while all of them I have actually spent time developing in the work place, there were some of these that, as I traced the path of where I built them up, seemed to have some definite roots in my life as a player.

And you know, that was really interesting to me.  Obviously that means it’s interesting to you, too.  So let’s take a look at some of the skills my secret superhero identity as a player has helped me with in my professional life.

Regulation/Policy Navigation

In my current job, I work in government, administering a program that ties in federal, state, and county level government actions.  And as you may well know, government loves it some red tape.

In my last job, for the record, I worked for a nonprofit, and a big chunk of it was in helping other people get through the good old bureaucracy as well.

Hell, even beyond just exterior government red tape, I’m great at both navigating and building those within the organization as well.  Building business plans, planning for contingencies, and most of all, keeping all the myriad policies and procedures in mind and calling them up at the appropriate situations, those are all things I’m quite fantastic at.

And I’m great at all of those.  Always have been, even while I was still in college and hadn’t yet entered the real world proper where you never have money or time but find yourself with a hell of a lot more responsibility.  I started my career better at this than people who’ve been working at it for years.

And that’s because it’s something I’ve been working at through gaming ever since I was a child.  Games, whether video or tabletop, are all about the rules.  Deeper games have more rules.  Many games have a lot of rules that only apply in specific situations.  Most have rules that can interplay in odd ways.  Many games, RPGs in particular, have special rules that you can impose on it yourself.

And if you’re going to get any good at these games, you’ll have to learn these rulesets.  Pokemon’s a great example of this.  17 types of Pokemon and attacks which form the foundation for success in the single player games, a deceptively complex system of stats and growth and impacts, and how many people do you know who have that all memorized?  And not just memorized, internalized, to the point they can build their critters just the way they want them and can always call up the right attack to use without even thinking about it?  It’s not just RPGs, either.  Any game, from the big brainiest puzzles to the dumbest of shootbangers have their own rulesets that understanding is absolutely vital to success.

And really, I’ve found that the parellels between understanding the ways a games rulesets work, and the ways an organization’s systems of established behaviours work, are quite strong.  You may not be able to predict the behavior of people based on gaming systems, but the behavior of entities actually go by similar metrics.  It’s all about setting bounds for people who are cooperating with you and within your authority to act within towards a desired overall goal you both share from different perspectives.  Really, from a game designer of a manager/government-crony, it’s all the same.

Perseverance

I’ve been mentioning it over her occasionally, so if you’ve been following us for a while, you know full well that I’d been looking for a new job for quite a while before I landed in my current one.  Over three years, specifically, more than most anyone you’ve ever heard of.  For a good long while, that was the main focus in my life, and I was just failing at that over and over and over and over again.

I stuck with it, however.  That’s a big problem with unemployment from an economic development perspective, that when people stay unemployed for long enough, most everyone will just give up looking for a job, and leave the workforce entirely.  Not me, however, I stuck with it, and eventually, it did work out for me.  My new job is helping people on welfare find jobs.

Yeah, the irony is not lost on me, either.  Turns out, though, I am absolutely fantastic at it.  And I attribute that all to the amount of time I spent failing at my own job search.  The three years I spent job hunting led me to see pretty much everything hirers have going on, and I am an expert of the hiring process like no other, simply because I have gained so much experience at it, through my failure.

I started gaming in an era where games hated you.  Limited tolerance for screw-ups and an abundance of cheap deaths meant if you wanted your fun, you were guaranteed to fail countless times before you made it work.  And games were not just hard, they were punishing.  You screwed up, and it was back to the beginning with you.  As the medium developed and started to become more, the punishment and cheap deaths started to fall away, while tolerance for minor screw-ups increased, but never to the point that failure is not a constant companion with games.  If games are too easy, after all, that starts to sap the fun of it.  And I’ve had a lot of practice picking myself up from my gaming failures.  You all watched me do that over and over again with my Dark Souls run.  Eating those failures, in life, at anything, learning from them, and getting up again, it’s not an easy thing.  And it’s really not an easy thing to be doing constantly.  I wonder if I would have been able to do that if I didn’t already have the years of experience from my gaming.

Also, this totally works for romance too, in case you were wondering.

Resource Management

Yeah, this one’s a relatively simple parallel.  Real world budgeting and resource management is way, way, way more complex than anything I’ve found in video games.  There is absolutely no way, no matter how good your 4X Strategy Empire is running, you can transfer that right over into managing a program budget without some additional education/experience.  But you know, it does at least give you the basic principles to use.  This is not one I’ve really mentally explored enough to explain, but I have found it kind of interesting that I take a similar approach to managing my time and my program’s resources as I do to financial management in plenty of the games I play.

Honestly, a lot of resource management is just fitting pieces of a puzzle together.  Most games that have a resource management aspect have you juggle a lot less puzzle pieces than do your given job, and the puzzles may be a lot more complex, but a lot of the foundation is still there.  Just a measure of learning the additional steps.

Stress Management

Yeah, so this may not so much be a skill as a result from gaming, but I thought I’d include it anyways.  I work in the welfare field.  I deal with people going through some of the worst times in their lives.  Burnout is a constant risk that my organization and many others are contributing a lot of time and energy to try and fight against.  And things aren’t always dandy there.  A good part of the reason my already slow rate of posting has gotten even slower is that there are some days where work has been so rough that I just get home and I cannot do anything productive anymore.

But I’ve found video games to be a great way of refreshing myself.  My clients often unload  an emotional weight on me, and I take that, because, well, that’s my job, and I’m a professional.  But that eats at you, and those emotions need to be worked out, and in a far shorter timeframe than actually solving those problems takes before they deliver harm.

And you know what, I’ve found video games to be invaluable for that.  It’s a little hokey and childish, maybe, but spending that time being absolutely immersed in something else, completely forgetting about myself and what I’m going through, that’s one of the biggest things keeping me refreshed and helping me manage the emotional burdens I find myself carrying.  Because of that, video games are just making me a better worker in general.

All told, with all those skills given, it seems like real life is just the rather disappointing sequel to your favorite video game.