Sunday, May 4, 2014

Fifteen Lessons Video Games Have Taught Me

A while back some folks started posting the top 15 games from their lifetime. For some, it was the most influential or the most memorable; for others, just the most fun. For me, I’m going to take a little bit of my own twist: the lesson that video game taught me about life.

It’s not that my parents didn’t raise me or have any influence on my life, but I was an extremely independent child, doing a lot of my own raising and growing up. I can say that video games were a positive influence and helped shape who I am today: a successful, confident person who knows where he wants to go in life, and has the skillset to do it. So let’s get to it. The top 15 lessons video games taught me.

Stupid dog.
Duck Hunt
1. Getting laughed at is infuriating.
2. If you don’t like the rules, change them.
Along with Super Mario Bros. this was the first game I played way back on the NES. Anybody who has ever played the game Duck Hunt remembers that damnable dog, who’d laugh at you each time you missed a bird. And trust me, you missed birds a lot. At the tender age of 6 years old I learned that getting laughed at when you failed sucked. I’m clearly not the only one, because how many people out there wished you could shoot the dog and not just the ducks?

This game was special, too, in the fact that while the intention was clearly for you to sit 5 feet away from the television and aim and shoot down the ducks, my enterprising little mind deduced that if I sat right up at the TV screen, I’d almost never miss. It wasn’t my fault that the equipment didn’t prevent me from doing that. And despite warnings from my parents that it would ruin my eyes, it never did. So chalk that up to a lesson, too.

Seriously, best character ever.
Super Mario 2
3. It’s okay to be a lady in a video game, because sometimes they got the best powers.
It’s funny, because I look at gaming culture today and kind of shake my head at the crazy cultural struggle going on around sexism, because it wasn’t always the case. My sister and I played a lot of Tetris (and while it almost made this list, the lesson learned was awfully similar to this one), and she was pretty good at it.

Super Mario 2 gave you the ability to play as one of four characters: Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach. Peach had the best power of them all: the ability to float in mid-air for a brief period of time. It made all of the dodging and platforming elements far simpler. Once I figured out her power, she was the only character for me. Mario didn’t have anything for crying out loud, who’d ever play as him? Luigi’s jump was too unwieldy, and Toad’s ability required a finesse that I just did not possess. But Princess Peach was awesome.

Turns out Peach was great in all the Mario Kart games, too.

Grind those slimes!
Dragon Warrior
4. If you can’t win yet, go work on it a bit and try again later.
My first RPG wasn’t Final Fantasy, but Dragon Warrior. I remember the cool box art, and the awesome manual that came with it. From the very first slime I defeated, I was hooked. It was to the point where I could traverse the first dungeon without ever using a torch because I had it memorized (and therefore was just walking around in the dark). Being an RPG, you could grind out gold and levels in it. Time became a proxy for character skill, because to be honest, there wasn’t that much strategy involved in the original game; it was mostly just about numbers and when to use your healing spells.

While this lesson is slightly inaccurate in the grand scheme of things—because time isn’t really a proxy for personal skill since most people still have a skill cap—it’s still largely applicable in many situations due to the idea that practice makes perfect. That entire thing about doing 10,000 hours before you can be an expert and all that jazz.

The beginning of a venerated franchise.
5. Sometimes, you just get unlucky.
Ah, Civ. I spent so many hours at my friend’s house and his family playing this on their computer, long before my own family had a PC or could even afford one (it wouldn’t be another couple years before we got ours). We’d play this for the entire day and my friend’s dad would have to kick us out on occasion—not that we minded, the trailer park we lived in had a ton of parks to play in.

But while the game taught me a lot about crappy DRM (where’d that manual go?), a little bit of history around technologies and wonders, and the idea of strategy, at the end of the day when your Battleship or Armor got pulverized by a mere Phalanx on a hill behind some walls, you learned that, well, sometimes the dice just don’t fall in your favor. Infuriating, but random is random. Just bring more Battleships next time.

Now I want to go play this again...
Super Mario World
6. People like to watch video games as much as they like to play them.
7. Patience is a skill not everyone has, and takes time to learn.
I remember when we got the Super NES. It was Christmas, and my brothers and I were ecstatic. And oh my god, it came with Super Mario World? YES! We set it up immediately, and all began to take turns. It was colorful in a way that the Nintendo never accomplished, the experience was smooth, the music awesome, and Yoshi was brilliant, up until you accidentally dropped him in a bottomless pit because you hit dismount in mid-air instead of the attack button.

A few months after we got the game, it became clear that I was immensely good at the game. So good that I could actually beat it from start to finish without dying. And being the smart, manipulative eldest child I was, I conned my youngest brother into combining our turns and play two-player. Thing is, if you didn’t die, the other player didn’t get a turn. So I’d go beating stage after stage, and he would just watch me. In the rare occasion his turn came about, he’d die pretty quickly, being only four years old and all. But he was content with this relationship; he honestly liked watching me play, he didn’t really care. My mother finally caught on to what was going on and banned me from playing with him, and frankly he was more upset than I was. But in hindsight it was still unfair of me.

On the other side of the coin, my other brother, a middle child, had no patience for the game. To the point where he’d throw controllers when he was frustrated. I don’t think he ever broke one, but it was a little scary. But between myself, and my brothers, it really drove home the concept of patience as a skill and not everyone had that same skill at the same level.

ATMA Weapon. The creature of dreams, since it dropped an awesome weapon of the same name.
Final Fantasy III
8. Do the right thing.
A ragtag band of heroes saving the world from Evil with a capital E. Not exactly the most original of stories, but Final Fantasy III (now more appropriately known as Final Fantasy VI) really sucked me in and taught me the message of doing the right thing, even when everyone around you is telling you something else. Locke, a treasure-hunter, gets involved despite his self-interests; same with Setzer, a gambler and free-spirit. Celes is the ultimate example, being a General in the opposing army and deciding to break free once she saw the tyranny that existed there. Cid, as well. It would have been easier for Edgar to just go along with the Empire and save his people the trouble, but he knew the road it would lead down.

So many characters, each with their own motivations. But it all boiled down to one thing: do the right thing, regardless of how difficult that road may be. I can say pretty solidly and proudly that JRPGs are responsible for my strong moral fiber. Sure, I’m a lot less idealistic now that I’m over 30. But for my teens and twenties, it was a strong self-driving factor.

Culex was a beast of an optional boss.
Super Mario RPG
9. Doing something just for the challenge can be immensely satisfying.
Super Mario RPG is really two things to me. The first is, besides being an awesome game, it was the only game my sister beat before I did. Granted, she monopolized the time with the SNES all weekend to do it (and I could hardly begrudge her that fact, given she didn’t play many other games otherwise), but it’s something to this day she’s pretty proud of.

The second thing, though, is a bonus boss named Culex. This boss was extremely difficult compared to pretty well every other fight in the game. He did drop an awesome item though. I think the first time I beat him, I was pretty close to max level. The second time I played through the game, however, I decided to go for it at a much earlier level. Where I beat him at level 27 the first time, the second time it was at level 16. It took me over 30 minutes to do it, but I managed it. And boy, was I ever proud of that fact. It was difficult, it was awesome, and it was totally worth it. To this day that fight is something special to me.

The JENOVA theme song is still one of my favorite tunes to this day.
Final Fantasy VII
10. Not everything is black or white. People can think they’re doing the right thing, but still come into conflict.
Where Final Fantasy III taught me to pursue the right thing, Final Fantasy VII taught me about shades of gray. Sephiroth, insane as he was, thought he was doing right by his “mother”. Barret and Tifa thought they were doing the right thing with AVALANCHE, but clearly regretted those actions later as they brought the death of many innocent people, despite fighting against an evil force. Cloud himself was driven by false memories and mental illness, and even when he did sort that out, he defined himself by who he was not, and let that be his motivating factor.

The game doesn’t really hold up well to modern scrutiny, but at the time it was amazing. And another story that I dove head first into and came out with some great memories and lessons. Doing the right thing is important, but sometimes people’s motivations aren’t pure either.

While the game wasn't terribly complex, the execution of a graphical MUD was brand new and really cool.
The Realm Online
11. People online can be wonderful, and making friends online was awesome.
My parents didn’t really like the idea of interacting with people online. They bought into the fiction that everyone was shady and out to get me. In fact, they were so bought into it that even in 2004 (at 21 years of age) if I had met a person online they thought I was crazy and putting myself in immense danger—despite the fact that I had been meeting people online then in real life for well over 3 years at that point, and yes, taking precautions like meeting in public first. I wasn’t stupid. Their concern, while natural and understandable in hindsight, was extremely vexatious at the time.

But the Realm Online was fascinating. It was the second graphical MMO to ever exist (Meridian 59 being the first), and I was hooked. I remember in particular someone I had shortened to Tundra (I want to say his full alias was ArcticTundra, but my memory is fuzzy) who had helped me level on a few occasions, and even gave me some sweet items. He asked for nothing in return, he was just helping a newbie (back before it was shortened to “noob,” or Zeus forbid, “nub” *shudder*). The Realm Online was my gateway into the wonderful world that was the Internet.

Don't be fooled by the screenshot. I played multiplayer a couple weeks back, and the game looks like complete mud in split screen.
Goldeneye 64
12. You won’t get better unless you challenge yourself.
I have this thing where I’m a natural at games. I have an extremely short learning curve, but I tend to peak pretty quickly, and that frustrates me. So usually the first few times I play a game with someone else, I’ll wipe the floor with them, but after that, I find it difficult to win.

With my group of friends, we had this thing where we’d play Goldeneye 64, split-screen 4 player, but with One-Shot Kills, Pistols, Auto-Aim off, and 3 vs. 1. If you were the one, you’d stay the one until you beat the other team, at which point whoever had the fewest kills that game would be the next one. Needless to say, there were days where I spent the entire gaming session being the one. It was frustrating, but man, did I ever get good eventually. You had to, really. A little bit of Darwinism, I suppose, but it was still a lot of fun.

One of the only turn-based Final Fantasies. The HD remake has been pretty fun so far, too.
Final Fantasy X
13. Question everything. Someone’s viewpoint might be biased or stagnant.
There are other games which teach this lesson as well, such as Tales of Destiny, and Final Fantasy Tactics, but I think Final Fantasy X’s was the purest and most powerful form of that lesson. Heck, it was the entire underpinning of the plot.

The populace had a religion and tradition for a thousand years, unchanging. With no outside point of view, they never considered bucking the trend, even if it would cost them their lives. That is, until someone came along and questioned their basic tenets and motives, which changed everything.

To this day, I even sometimes question my own motives. Why did I do what I did? Why did I react a certain way? Why do I believe what I do? And while many people detest having their motives challenged, sometimes it is necessary.

Oh man, I had dreams/nightmares that consisted of nothing but arrows scrolling past my vision.
Dance Dance Revolution
14. People like a spectacle, and I liked being in the spotlight for being really good at something.
I was a hardcore DDR junkie in University. I learned to play thanks to my new friend in the dorms, who I think we bonded by me seeing him playing StarCraft or something like that while he had his dorm room door open. Strange in hindsight, dorms have an interesting culture all to their own with people leaving doors open to the hallway so folks can just drop in and out as they wished.

Anyways, he taught me how to play, and being musically inclined I took to it really fast. I’d go to the campus arcade and watch the super good players with awe, wanting to be as awesome as they were. I spent far too much money on the game over those four years, but given how it was my primary form of physical exertion at the time, I think it’s what kept me fit. By the time I got to my second year at Uni and my friend and I started rooming together, I had become a pro. Not quite as good as the folks I looked up to, but good enough for others to look up to me. I could beat a few 10 footer songs (the hardest ones).

I’d end up at a local movie theatre (Eau Claire for you Calgarians out there), throw on a difficult, flashy song like “Rhythm and Police,” and just go. And then there’d be a huge crowd behind me applauding at the end. While I’d blush, I was also crazy happy about it. Perhaps I just crave validation in everything I do, but that was a great way to get mass validation. I don’t really play much DDR anymore, but Karaoke is more what I do for that these days.

Oh wow, I didn't know I still had screenshots this old...
World of Warcraft
15. Time is finite. Spend it on what is fun and what is important.
I played WoW starting in Vanilla, back when the game was a grindy Everquest clone with more actual Quests. My mage was Arcane, and yes, I had to stop and drink every battle. I also had tried a Hunter on a PvP server (and got constantly ganked, no thank you). The furthest I got was level 48 on said mage. Blasphemy, right? I love WoW, but I actually quit it back in Vanilla because of time constraints. Leveling wasn’t that much fun for the amount of time I was putting in, and with full-time school and a full-time job, I couldn’t afford to put any more time into the game.

I was fascinated with raiding culture, read a lot about it, and heard a lot about it in-game, but never quite got there. In fact, I wouldn’t return until the tail-end of The Burning Crusade. By then I was pretty scornful of raiding and those elitists, but my then-boyfriend convinced me to give it a try, and I’ll be honest: it was fun. I wouldn’t really divest myself of the “those elitists” attitude until Icecrown Citadel, but it was a super fun romp and totally worth the time, especially since leveling had been made just easy enough that it didn’t take six hours to go from 47 to 48. And I’ve been playing non-stop since.

But between quitting because I wasn’t having fun and didn’t have the time, to rejoining and actually enjoying the new activities, I really learned to ration my time and ensure what I was doing was enjoyable. There’s only so much time in the day, and while as a teenager I could while away hours on a mundane task like grinding in a JRPG, that wasn’t the case once I was in my early twenties.


So that’s 15 lessons across 13 games. I have more games that were just as influential but didn’t make the list (i.e.: Tetris, Pok√©mon, Zelda), but these were the more interesting and biggest during my developmental years that I can still remember to this day.
When people tell me video games are for kids, or are useless entertainment, I can correct them. I clearly learned a lot of valuable lessons from the games I’ve played, and hopefully will continue to do so.

#Nostalgia, #Top15Games