I know what you’re thinking “Sheesh – another article about video game violence…”. Nope, that’s not it at all – after all, this is The Bob Angle…
Back in the 1980s, I used to play a lot of video games on the Commodore 64 and on game consoles. One of my favourites was a platform game called Super Mario Brothers. A “platform game” is a geeky term for a computer game with a two-dimensional perspective, and one in which the main character (Mario) travels horizontally across the screen. As you progress through the levels in the Super Mario world, you collect coins and vanquish cute little enemies. There are hidden coins, “power ups”, extra lives and secret passageways along the route, which you may or may not find right away.
This is what a typical level looks like:
I remember playing this game over and over, and even if I had reached the end of a level, I would not allow myself to start the next level until I was certain that I had found all of the hidden coins, “power ups”, extra lives and secret passageways. Once I had played the level as well as I could (i.e. perfectly) then I could move on.
I found this game very appealing because I’m very detail-oriented, and can be a bit of a perfectionist. This game beckoned me, it seemed to understand how I think, and then it drew me into its world. In fact, this game and the way I played it, soon became a metaphor for my life.
If I didn’t play a Super Mario level to my satisfaction, then I would play it over and over again until I had mastered it. This sounds harmless enough, and in some cases – for example, practising a musical instrument – this type of discipline is even admirable. However, this approach soon started to seep into other areas of my life. If I made a mistake, or a poor decision, then I would always get the urge to do it over. Of course this was usually impossible, and that bothered me.
For me, a good example is examining historical stock data. Try this little exercise: select a stock from your portfolio and look up its price graph for the past three years (or from the time that you bought it). Whenever I do this, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach (even if I made money), and my response is unwavering “Shoot – if only I had bought it on this date… it would be worth xx% more than it is now. Why didn’t I see that?”. Obviously, there is no way to predict accurately, the future performance of stocks, so that thought should never have entered my mind. Yet it did, and I believe that my countless hours of playing video games may have played a role in this reaction.
But how large a role? We are told constantly that we have only one life, and therefore we should live it to the fullest. I agree completely, and I suspect that the recent popularity of “the bucket list” grew out of this carpe diem philosophy of life. However, there is a significant difference between accomplishing everything you want in life, and doing everything flawlessly.
Here’s the Bob Angle: I think that video games like Super Mario Brothers can be hazardous to the perfectionists among us. Repeated play teaches us that there is one ideal path through each level, and we are encouraged to try again and again until we find it. Since accomplishing various goals and progressing through the levels can easily be a metaphor for life, I believe that this type of video game encourages us to believe that there is one perfect way to live one’s life, by making correct decisions all the time, and by detecting and pouncing upon opportunities that may not always be visible.
Now before you start making plans to picket outside your local EB Games store, I must point out that these comments apply only to Super Mario Brothers (released in 1985) and to other similarly-structured games. Today’s computer and console games are radically different: they no longer use points to quantify your success; they are non-linear, offering users a variety of ways to progress through the game with no one “correct” path, and they are becoming increasingly social. Modern video games are no longer a solitary “player vs. machine” pursuit – they typically require team-building and co-operation among players in order to achieve the game’s objectives.
Obviously, life isn’t at all like a Super Mario Brothers video game; we don’t get multiple lives, and we don’t get to repeat portions of the one life we do have. When I look back at the path I’ve travelled in life thus far, I can identify a multitude of mistakes and missed opportunities; there were things I did that I shouldn’t have done, and things that I should have done but chose not to. From time to time, the choices and mistakes I’ve made in life bother me more than they should, because I haven’t played my life the way I played Super Mario Brothers. I often wish that I could “replay” certain episodes of my life – but this time, armed with the knowledge and experience that I possess now. If I could accomplish that, I know that I would be much happier, richer, or more successful.
I realize that I’m going out on a limb here, but on the off-chance that you’re like me – if you look back on your life’s less-than-stellar choices with more disappointment than they actually merit, or if you feel that you should be living your life more efficiently – then I would like to offer the following thoughts:
- Realize that there is no one perfect way to live life.
- Accept that there is far more happening in your environment than you can process or even observe.
- Understand that it’s OK to fail, and that everyone makes wrong decisions.
Looking back to my Nintendo days, what seemed to be beyond my perception years ago is now obvious. Of course I’m not going to play a video game perfectly the first time. When I played a new level of Super Mario Brothers, I knew nothing about it – how large it was, what the obstacles were, or even what was around the corner – and my character often wouldn’t survive long enough to complete it. Similarly, when we are born, we know almost nothing about our world, and mistakes are inevitable.
I’m sure that none of us is completely happy with our life’s choices, or perhaps even with the way our life is unfolding presently, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt and we must play it as best we can.
Recently, I attended a lecture by Chuck Hillig, the author of several books on enlightenment, and he also commented on the desire we all have to “get it right the first time”. If we try something and fail, we will often feel like a loser. Hillig has a decidedly different philosophy of life: “Life is not mapped out for us, and therefore we are free to travel anywhere we like. Don’t look upon your experience as a failure, just think to yourself ‘I decided to go over here for a while, and now I’m back‘ “.
And finally, consider the following quotes:
“Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.” – Gustave Flaubert
“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” – Michael J. Fox
OK, you may now resume playing your video games…