Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
Last week I talked about “serious games” – games with a real-world purpose. I am a bit cynical about them. While games can teach useful lessons, a good game can also be addictive. Players escape into games because their real lives suck. They get feelings of control and success in the game world that they lack in the mundane world. Jane McGonigal suggests that we channel those positive feelings into real life accomplishments.
I have a different idea – If reality sucks, and games are more fun, change the rules! Make your life into a game, and find ways to make it a game you love to play.
Who Makes the Rules?
“Who makes the rules? Someone else.” – Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”
Most of us think of gaming as, “Someone else made the rules. We play by them.” That seems obvious and sensible. But that’s no longer the only type of game. Role-playing games have a “game master” (GM) who has special privileges. The GM can interpret and even modify the rules. The GM and all of the players are responsible for using their imaginations to create original stories that go beyond the rules.
And that leads to a strange truth about role-playing games: The rules don’t really matter!
I have seen similar campaigns based on wildly different role-playing game systems. And I’ve seen wildly different scenarios within a single game system. It is the imaginations of the GM and the players that make a good or a bad game, not the rules they use.
Of course, that’s just gaming, not real life. Or is it?
Life Is a Role-Playing Game
“Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret!” – Liza Minnelli in Cabaret
Read some personal column ads and you’ll soon find the words, “No games.” Ok, so they don’t like Monopoly. Of course, what they really mean is, “Don’t play to win in a way that makes me lose.” Most people think of games as having a winner and a loser.
Role-playing games are different. The players win or lose together. The GM sets the scene, and puts challenges in front of the players, but is not “playing against” the other players. A good GM wants the players to succeed, but for the success to be challenging, memorable, and meaningful.
A good life should also be meaningful, challenging, and memorable. Coincidence? I think not! A life lived with creativity and passion is a lot like a good role-playing game. Instead of trying to use games to make our miserable lives better, why don’t we turn our lives into games? Maybe they already are.
What is a job? That is where you earn game currency to make investments and pay your expenses.
What are taxes? They are game penalties. You need to earn more game currency to pay for them.
What is school? School is training to help you gain levels and skill points.
What are relationships? They are cooperative mode game play; you join with other players to help all of you reach your goals.
What are regular tasks such as cooking, cleaning, paying bills, and filing? They are the daily quests you perform to support your character, build your reputation, and support your friends.
What are accomplishments? They are the Achievement System of life. You work hard to achieve goals that you give yourself or get from others. Sometimes you earn Achievement Points for doing them.
Who Is To Be Master?
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Life is a game. But what kind of game is it? Is it one of those relationship “games” where someone always has to lose? Is it a game where someone else writes the rules, and we don’t like them very much, but we have to play by them? Or is it a role-playing game, where the rules don’t matter nearly as much as the creative stories we weave around them? In other words, who is to be the master?
If we treat our lives as part of a role-playing game, we can all have a lot more fun than we may have allowed ourselves in the past. We can also use some of what we know about game play to do better at playing the game of our lives. But first we have to decide who is the game master.
I’ve played in some fun role-playing campaigns where the players took turns being the game master. Each player took responsibility for a particular area. When the players moved into that area, the “owner” of that area became the game master for a few sessions. That was how Gygax, Arneson and friends played the “first fantasy campaign” that spawned Dungeons & Dragons.
Do you feel out of control in your life? Maybe you keep skipping your turn at being the game master. Or maybe you’ve put way too many “Skip a Turn” cards into your collectible life card deck. The funny thing is, most of us think that someone else decides who gets to be the game master, and who just plays. But nobody is making those decisions for us. In a role-playing game, a player gets to be the game master by saying, “I’ll be game master.” It works pretty much the same way in life.
A game master has a lot of responsibility, and it is hard work to run a game, but it is also amazingly rewarding. The GM has total freedom to create an experience for the other players. That, by the way, is the most important key to being a good GM – Your job is to help all of the players have fun. Fortunately, the GM is a player too. If you play the game right, life is better for all of you.
The rules do not make the game. They are just the context in which you define the experience of your life.
Guiding the Game
“The code is more ‘guidelines’ than what you’d call actual rules.” – Pirate Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Lori and I have some guidelines we use for every game we design. For example:
1. The players must have fun. This is our #1 “rule” for every game.
2. Make choices clear, meaningful, and interesting.
3. Creating the game must be fun – We are playing a “game” too.
4. Don’t frustrate the player with dead-ends or stupid responses.
These all apply to a good life just as much as to good game design.
Who are your players? Remember, we aren’t “playing the game of life” right now – We’re creating it and being the game master. Your players are the people around you – your friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students. When you work out the rules for your game, make sure that the people around you will have fun and a chance to earn their own achievements. Fortunately, Rule 3 says that you get to have fun too. Just don’t do it at the expense of your other “players”.
Clear, meaningful, and interesting choices keep players involved in a game. They’re even more important in life. Invest in the quality of your life by consciously making choices. Think about your goals and how you can achieve them. Make a list of things you would like to accomplish, places you’d like to go, and experiences you would like to have. You probably make lists like this for work or school. Why not take the time to plan the things that really matter to you? You can let things just happen to you, or you can decide on what you want to do and take the time and effort to make it happen.
Dead-ends, stupid responses, and frustration are part of life. You will have times when you feel that the game is rigged and that the world is actively trying to keep you from your goals. But here’s where life has a big advantage over games – With the exception of a few laws of physics, the rules aren’t fixed. If you are frustrated in one place, go somewhere else. If one approach doesn’t work, try another. Games are limited to the imagination of the designer and the time constraints on the development team. Real life has no such restrictions; you are limited only by your own imagination.
There is one category of “dead ends and stupid responses” you should definitely design out of your “game of life.” That is the set you impose upon yourself. The stupidest dead-end response you can give yourself is, “I can’t do that.” Take the phrase “I can’t” out of your vocabulary. Practice saying instead, “That may be hard, but I’ll give it a try.” If something seems impossible, think about how you can make it possible. Break the hard problem down into smaller, less difficult, tasks. Or redefine it to something that meets the spirit of the original goal, but that you can find a way to achieve. But don’t give up on anything that you really care about.
If you try, but fail, that isn’t the time to quit; do more work and preparation, then try again. Players fail a lot in World of Warcraft, but they keep going back and trying again until they succeed. Life and games are both about conflict and resolution. If you run into an obstacle, look for the solution – You could destroy it, temporarily move it, go around it, find a way over it, dig under it, or use it to redefine the problem. If you haven’t tried at least three solutions, you’re giving up too easily.
“Life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forrest Gump
Being the Game Master of your life is hard work, but that just means you are overcoming challenges. Challenges are the key to making games fun and rewarding; you get a lot more achievement points for doing hard things than easy ones. And there’s more!
As both the GM and as one of the players, you get to create the tale of life’s adventure together. That collaboration means that a well-played life is always a mystery. Until you bite into each experience, you never know how it will taste. You may just find that some of those “impossible” goals will be fulfilled in ways you could never have guessed.
When you make your life into a role-playing game, and take on the responsibility of being the GM, you turn your life into a mysterious box of chocolates. Will you taste them, or settle for someone else’s empty wrappers? The choice is up to you.