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Role playing games taught me about life

By Rachneet Randhawa, May 13 2020—

Mayday, mayday! We have a life-threatening virus emergency for a bunch of young adults stranded in lockdown thanks to a zombie apocalyptic doomsday — they’re also bored out of their minds. How can we possibly rescue them from this distressing dilemma? How about RPGs?! Defined, role-playing video games (RPGs) are an electronic video game genre in which players advance through a story quest and many side quests for which their character or party of characters gain experience that improves their various attributes and abilities.

RPGs taught me more about life, at times in an even more in-depth and meaningful way than university lectures. I have been thinking lately about what benefits, if any, I received from majoring in anthropology. Upon reflection, part of the reason I was attracted to this discipline had to do with learning about different cultures and human behaviour and societies from around the world both past and present — this can be related to the world of video game characters, gameplay and story. I am not old enough to feel saddened by the nostalgia of past memories, but I am starting to feel sentimental. For instance, I still remember my summer breaks from grade school years, looking forward to what any kid does — riding bikes with random neighborhood kids, eating freezies and slurpees galore, playing street hockey but failing anyways. Young and free. However, the summer was not complete without video games and whatever latest console was popular. Summer was not truly summer without having bested some dingy dungeon or conquered some boss on a side quest or at least beat up another virtual WWE wrestler. Gaming nowadays is not the same as it was in the 80’s and 90’s — so I’m told — there’s a more diversified range to choose from, beyond Donkey Kong and Pac Man.

Although video games get a bad reputation for being a mind-numbing pastime, I am going to play devil’s advocate here and counter that claim. Not all video games are a waste of time. Many RPGs have the ability to teach valuable life skills and cultivate values, attitudes, interests and behaviours. Given that you balance other personal activities and self-care routines, gaming can be a well-invested return on your free time. I have to admit, it was sad that I knew more Pokémon bird species growing up than I did our earthly ones, having barely done birdwatching at a backyard feeder. If not for that gaming experience, I would not have delved into being fascinated by real feathered creatures, their origins and how they evolved. Needing to know that birds are dinosaurs or flying reptiles is the gist of things in the game, so I, like many others, learned about our natural world in a virtual format. But, not all of us are fond of having a Nintendog labrador retriever for a pet. Although, admittedly, after having both the real-life and virtual version — yes, I had a Neopet — both have their positive attributes. For starters, a virtual dog won’t mistakenly eat your mermaid Barbie as a leftover fish dinner. 

The key to getting satisfaction from video games is to discover which genre of gaming suits you best — for me, it’s RPGs. RPGs — and gaming itself — has become a part of our generation’s popular culture. Some of the biggest YouTubers started their careers by giving commentary on different gaming genres. Gone are the days in which RPGs like Dungeons and Dragon, full of elves, dwarfs and goblins, are considered solely for those geeking out on the fringes. As the adage holds, you have to find what works best for you.

Resilience:

The number one thing playing RPGs taught me was how to deal with adversity. With the plethora of political, social and environmental issues we face and the detrimental consequences of many a politician’s choices, is it any wonder that even video games are lecturing us to become more responsible citizens? Years ago, it was a video game called Eternal Sonata that taught me about the opioid epidemic and the War on Drugs. The story’s plot is based around a substance called “mineral powder,” an additive and mutagenic substance that although can be beneficial for humans, but if it is taken in excess it can be harmful to one’s mental health. The user will at first feel an initial high and obtain magical powers, but prolonged use as one becomes addicted to mineral powder leads to the irreversible side effect of insanity and, eventually, death. Those who have given in to mineral powder’s seduction have mutated physiologically into “Maledictors” — beings that have lost human consciousness and are now a possible battle in the game-play. It also taught me about Big Pharma and flawed government policies that we face — in the game, mineral powder has almost entirely replaced traditional medicine due to the mandate of it being the only item sold free of taxes. Sound eerily familiar and also ironic? Clearly the game developers are mimicking the dysfunction of the real world. 

Another example is Radiant Historia, not only a cult classic, but also an RPG that teaches the overarching lessons of climate change and global warming. The plot outlines the story of a soldier named Stocke who gains the power to travel through time exploring the impact of different choices as he aims to prevent the end of the world — Butterfly Effect, anyone? As a visual novel, the theme of the game examines the idea of the world turning to sand by desertification — the Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “the process by which natural or human causes reduce the biological productivity of drylands as a result of deforestation, overgrazing, political instability, and unsustainable irrigation practices.” Your goal as the player is to prevent this disastrous fate. With global warming being the most epic battle of our generation, this game is a good visual aid for the reality of climate change and the repercussions that follow.

Creativity: 

I find others commit to the slippery slope argument that all forms of multimedia consumption are bad — watching TV has led to an increase in obesity among youth or watching action movies has led to violence. And now, lo and behold, video games are the crux of it all because they lead to both. This argument is not only biased, but misleading. If done in moderation, RPGs have the capability to be far more beneficial than Netflix because they exercise your imagination and improve storytelling skills. Having to interact with so many minute and detailed features of the game from what items to equip, what weapons to use, which side quests to make, how to utilize different action techniques in a combination during and battle and lastly, how much to train and level-up based on the strengths and weakness of your chosen character is all a creative endeavor. If that’s not resourcefulness I don’t know what is.

Navigation: 

I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten lost when trying to find a destination. I consider myself directionally-impaired. But, spending all those hours constantly flipping to the map screen while navigating a random dungeon has actually paid off. Now, future-me is better able to not only navigate the play-by-play of Google Maps, but I am also better able to understand and not get intimidated by one of those old-school pocket brochure maps. It proved it’s worth during my student exchange these past summers when I was navigating new cities. Of course, it is still daunting surviving without any GPS tracking in this day and age and many decry youth as technology dependent. But, when handling different routes during gameplay, one is exposed to different scenarios like how one door connects to another or one corridor yields to another or how moving one mobile stone block will result in another clue. You must be adept at solving riddles because many virtual quests are designed as a maze and a puzzle all in one. You definitely have to have your wits about you too, because while figuring out how the hell to get to the next floor because you are being harassed by a demon boar and other vicious monsters.

Problem-solving skills:

Improving your problem-solving skill is one of the best outcomes you can achieve by playing RPGs. In the games, you learn critical thinking, multiple perspectives and conflict resolution. One of the key reasons we attend college is to gain critical thinking skills. Of course, that is easier said than done. The style and delivery of most college lectures is mundane and passive nowadays compared to how this new generation’s brains are wired to learn.

RPGs enable you to become adaptable and resourceful by utilizing multiple ways of accomplishing a task. RPGs are a far cry from Tetris — they’re a full-blown world in which you are assuming the role of the character(s) in a fictional setting. You are taking on the responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative and, throughout the process, weigh costs and benefits and make the optimal decision based on the information you are given. Oftentimes, you are on the hero’s journey. Through your character’s development and story progression, red flags are raised as to what eventually turns out to be a slippery slope or red herring argument. Ironically, real-time gameplay is more akin to what problems the real world will throw at you in a test before the lesson. Rather than being given a lesson and studying like crazy before you are given the test — the approach students are familiar with — RPGs diversify your perspectives and strengthen them. Again, they address many issues from the unfortunate and unforeseen outcomes of drug addictions to fighting an evil dictator to climate change. With virtual reality (VR) making a comeback, I see future classrooms incorporating some RPG aspects not only as a cool feature but an inevitability. 

During those breaks from school as a kid growing up, I also recall using a strategy guide religiously at times for whatever gaming expedition I was facing. A strategy guide is a play-by-play that provides examples and strategies to use during the gameplay and a wealth of related resources to help sharpen instruction — basically, conflict resolution RPG-style for dummies. Nowadays with online forums, they are inessential. But, at the time, I didn’t realize it was contributing to me actively exercising my intellect and moulding my mind to become solution-oriented and comfortable with uncertainty. This is something our grade school education standard curriculum will never teach kids, because we are taught until the end of post-secondary to desire the safety and security of routine and unsurprisingly a 9-to-5 job. Unfortunately, the standard education system breeds the mediocrity sought out by seemingly everyone. To reiterate, playing RPGs and gaming in general is not necessarily a wasted effort, but you must be diligent about how it is approached. 

Delayed gratification:

The concept of delayed gratification is defined as the act of resisting an impulse to take an immediately available reward in the hope of obtaining a more valued reward in the future. Generally, the longer you put off trying to acquire something, the better off you will be in the long run. The stakes depend highly on patience. For instance, those who decide to defer entering the labour market upon graduation in order to complete a four-year college degree reap the benefits in the future in terms of higher-quality job prospects and rewards for increased salary and compensation. The same idea holds for finances. For instance, those who save and invest their funds receive a compounding return on interest substantially increasing the original amount. RPGs taught me this lesson though budgeting. When you are trying to defeat mystical beasts all the while upgrading your weapons, customizing your wardrobe and buying healing potions galore for the next side trip in the countryside, you need to know how to manage that cash flow. Funnily, I only realized this into my early adult years that playing these games somehow shaped my financial savviness.

Fosters teamwork and cooperation:

One of the biggest attributes employers look for on a resume is not your GPA or the exciting exchange you went on that one semester but how well you play in the sandbox, that is to say your participation as part of a group dynamic. Likewise, I am pretty sure most of us can say that group projects in university are a pain in the arse. Oddly enough, RPGs, especially those you play with others, have the polar opposite effect. You actually want to participate. I don’t know if it’s the smooth graphics or streamlined interaction over the virtual web but somehow it seems fun. I think it is also the fantasy of playing out a personalized avatar and an infinite version of yourself which makes the gameplay with other people so engaging.

Growth mindset:

Growth mindset is a popularized term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. The idea is that an individual with a growth mindset holds the innate belief that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Overall, having positive thinking and grit can lead to tremendous results in one’s personal growth. Some unfortunately don’t grow out of a victimhood mentality and continue to victimize themselves and blame the world for all of their problems without taking responsibility. I mean, it can be difficult not to throw a pity party for yourself once in a while. But, what I realized after playing RPGs is that we, just  like default Player 1, pigeonhole ourselves by our own doubts day in and day out. We create old and destructive narratives without realizing we are the ones to blame by limiting our capabilities. I find it fascinating that through the make-belief character in a video game, we can choose to fight malevolence with our own attitudes and behaviours all the while maintaining our dignity. If not for this the hero’s journey will never meet its end.

The hero’s journey is a common narrative archetype classified into three key stages. Firstly, there’s the “departure” in which the hero is called to adventure and leaves the familiar world behind. Secondly, “initiation” in which the hero learns how to navigate the unfamiliar world in which he or she must face a series of tasks until the climax of the story is reached, and lastly, “return” back to the familiar and going back home to the ordinary in which personal transformation is fully executed and the realization of how the adventure changed them sets in.

In my experience, the hero’s journey plot in so many RPGs has lessened my susceptibility in adopting a victim mentality. Somehow, enjoying the trials of the gameplay and story have made me more empowered. RPGs foster resiliency and drive home the idea that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant — it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.

Music:

I could write an entire article or even thesis as to why the original soundtrack on RPGs gives profound life to the gaming experience. If it weren’t for the amazing, studio-recorded and at times, Hollywood-level quality for the score of the sound tracks these games would be sapped of life. Although instrumental for the most part, you cannot underestimate how much vitality even songs without words contribute to the gameplay. You receive both melodious good company and overall motivation while you are battling it out with a demon or lost in some cave. With modern day RPGs, everything from cut scenes to individual characters get their own unique score. The sheer level of detail and thoughtfulness invested into these tracks of varying lengths is mind boggling. Plus they make awesome study tunes minus all the distracting lyrics. I also honed my appreciation of instrumental music after having played RPGs growing up and I now realize that sometimes no words and simply holding a beat is bliss.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet‘s editorial board.


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