Friday, February 25, 2011

Trial and Error in Gaming: What Games Can Teach About Not Giving Up

I have been playing video games for a long time. I was around for the original Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man, Castlevania, and Bionic Commando games (pro tip: You blow up Hitler's head at the end of Bionic Commando. Go ahead. Take a look), and I am proud of my retro-gaming roots. I can say with unrestrained chest-puffedness that I am not young enough that I must search the past to "discover" great old games. I LIVED them. The only people that have a one-up on me are the people who played the Atari 2600 extensively!

And I hear that I didn't really miss anything. Except the mass burial
of a game so bad that we wanted it stricken from history.
I owned one of the original Nintendo Entertainment Systems, courtesy of my father, who no doubt went on to regret ever purchasing it for us, and I continued that legacy by owning a Super Nintendo, an N64, a Gameboy (one of the big grey ones with the yellow screen), a Gamecube, a Wii, and a gaming PC which has been updated at appropriate times throughout my years. I have borrowed (read: stole) a friend's Playstation and PS2 at various times, and rented or borrowed almost any other console you can imagine at some time or another. My point is, I've been around video games for a long time, and I've played a lot of them.

Because gaming has been a part of my life since I was 3 years-old, I realize that it colors my perceptions. I know that there are some who will read this article and think that being devoted to video games is sad when there are so many things to be gained from books, movies, music, and other media. I know this because I have heard it all before.

To everyone reading, especially those who think that video games have nothing to offer to art, beauty, or humanity, I wish to tell you one lesson that video games have instructed me in:

Video games taught me to never give up.

As I established earlier, I am a retro gamer, and if you get a collection of retro gamers together and tell them to chat about anything in particular, it'll take about 5 minutes before someone brings up the fact that games today are too easy. From there, they will discuss that subject until it's deader than a morgue with a gas leak.

And you could a fill a parent's basement with their tears.
These old games, like Ninja Gaiden, Ghosts and Goblins, and Contra (oh, HEAVENS, Contra) are punishingly difficult in a way that few people, gamer and non-gamer alike, can imagine.

A new series of games that mirrors those retro games of old, both in aesthetic sensibility and in difficulty, is the giddily energetic, blissfully composed, strikingly minimalist Bit.Trip series. Like the retro games to which they are a love-letter, the Bit.Trip series is very difficult, with the level of hand-eye coordination required to play proceeding steadily from intense to unbelievable, as it climbs the ladder toward Cthulhu-level MADNESS.

Watch it for a minute or two... Yeah. The difficulty is punishing.

One day as I sat playing Bit.Trip Runner, my wife sat down on the couch and looked at the TV. As she watched me fail over, AND over, AND OVER again, she simply observed quietly, sitting and enjoying the music. The deaths racked up, and she finally broke the silence.

"Why do you keep on trying?" She asked inquisitively. 

I paused for a moment. "Why not?"

"There's no guarantee you will beat it this time, and if you don't, you'll just end up at the beginning again."

I sat quietly for a moment and thought about what she had just said. Why was I trying so hard to achieve this? Why did I keep trying when there was no guarantee that I would do any better?

"I think I can see the satisfaction in being coordinated enough to beat a level," she added, "but I think it would drive me crazy trying. I would just turn it off."

Well, that did make sense. Being married to a behavioral science major, I had often heard: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result." Had I, sometime during the past few months, slipped into the cold, stony grip of insanity? If so, why wasn't I having more fun?

In the past six months, have I thought to myself,
"That Kanye sure is a nice, down-to-earth guy"?
I ruminated on this for a few minutes, when suddenly, the answer hit me.

All those times that I had played a game and given up as a kid, only to come back for more a day or two later, had taught me something. When I played games like Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy III, the characters never gave up. In their worlds, they were the ones who were strong when others were weak. They were the ones who stepped forward when called upon, and who made the right choice because it was the right choice. As all good people do, those characters would not give up, yield, submit, or stop. If they wouldn't, why should I?

I realize that there is a difference between the people in these stories and those in reality, but being a real-life person does not give you a monopoly on life lessons. You are not barred from teaching people something valuable just because the lesson comes from a character in a book, movie, play, story, or even a video game. 

I know this may seem overly dramatic, but thanks to my wife and her profound question, I recognized something that I had always practiced but seldom realized. Sometimes you need to fall down, get hurt, fail, or collapse. Success and failure, whether they are in games, sports, love, or life, are intimately mingled with pleasure and pain. A lifetime of experience had taught me that quitting something without trying was fruitless. With each successive failure, I was refining skills, formulating plans, and attempting to work more efficiently to avoid the same outcome the next time, and when you do that, it makes that hard-earned victory all the more joyous when it finally does come.

"Enduring" was a lesson I could use in life, and it was one that I learned with no small help from video games.



    I'm old enough to remember pong though. And that game system had you giving up after about 20 minutes. -Eric D.

  2. @Eric D.

    Thanks for commenting, man!

    Yeah, my Dad lived in the city that got the very first Pong machine in the country! He told me all about the novelty of seeing a video game for the first time...

    Apparently it was installed for a day or so before it stopped working, and when the guy who owned it came to see what happened, he opened it up and found that so many people had played it, and it was so full of quarters, that a bunch had fallen out of the catcher and onto the motherboard!


  3. One of your best articles yet. Fantastic, genuine writing, with great laughs.

    I personally always loved Frogger. That thing was so punishing, I had nightmares. NIGHTMARES.

    One of the words I'd use to describe you is enduring...five years of school and work so you don't go into debt proves that. I'm proud of you, and what you've become, even if it includes video games. :)

    A lot of people who dislike video games think of it as a toy from their past (remembering Mario or Donkey Kong), with no real value, and then they hear the media harp on a game like "Grand Theft Auto". So most who aren't gamers (or romantically involved with one :) think that video games are a toy, and a destructive or dangerous one. Often those same people think that ANY recreational time not spent reading classics or hiking while eating granola is ill-spent. But it's RECREATION, it can be "spent" any way you choose.

    /end soapbox. Love you!

  4. I think it's the feeling of accomplishment also...about 2 weeks ago, my wife and I completed DKCR 102%, all KONG letters and puzzle pieces found.

    We died many, many times...but we would keep going back, and back...and BACK.

    I decided to give a "Time Trial" a try, and after trying the same level 10+ times, the feeling of "This is IMPOSSIBLE!" crept upon me, but I kept on going!
    My wife was watching me(I think waiting for me to pass-out from sheer exhaustion of shaking the Wii Remote extremely fast trying to complete the level!), but when I FINALLY beat the Time Trial, it was crazy and I said out-loud, "Is this what it feels like to win the Olympics!?"

    To think, I was sooo excited to beat just one Time Trial...yet I have another 60+ to go! Oh the INSANITY!

    - Coffee

  5. For some of us it was simply a chance to find out what the "Pleasure Dome" was. Also for the lessons though... yeah those are important.

  6. The funny thing is, part of the old "glory days" are actually on the DS. Atari released Vol. 1 of their arcade/2600 hits (Vol. 2 actually hits this week, I believe), and there's an Intellivision collection out that it *gasp* actually playable due to the DS touchscreen.

    It's missing the 3rd party fare and the licensed titles, but it's got a few enjoyable titles to while the hours away.

    As for "Never giving up", there were nights with the NES that the sun would literally be coming up as I pounded away at a game. the worst was Ghosts 'N' Goblins and the HORRIFYING realization that there was a second quest.

    I used cheat codes after that.


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