t's my last article of the year, so I've decided to write something a little different than normal for my farewell article of 2013. You see, earlier this year, I was giving some advice to a friend and I realized it was something applicable to all of you because it has to do with living one's life and being a gamer. Since all of you (or possibly just most of you—maybe there's a few non-gamers reading my column. Hi Mom!) fit into both categories, life-livers and gamers, I thought this article might hit a chord.
In short, I want to give you a piece of advice about how to make your life better. The advice of this article is a very simple one. So simple, in fact, that I put it into the title. Being a gamer is an awesome thing. It gives you great life skills. What I've discovered, though, is that many gamers don't apply all the awesome gaming skills they've acquired to their lives. The point of this article is to say, "Stop doing that. You have awesome game skills. If you apply them to your life, I think you might be happier."
Temple of Mystery | Art by Noah Bradley
My article today is going to walk through many of the lessons of gaming and explain how you can directly apply them to your life. If this doesn't sound interesting to you, stop reading now and I apologize for ending the year with an article not for you. If you are at all intrigued, let's start.
The Game's the Thing
What follows are a bunch of things you pick up as a gamer about how to play games. My advice is a simple one. Use them in your life. If you already do, great. Reading them might give you some introspection on perhaps how you can use them more. If you don't, well here's a thought to chew on.
"There's a Solution"
I've talked at length about what games need. (The most condensed version is here.) First and foremost, games need to provide the players with a goal, because the point of a game is for the players to reach the goal. In order to do this, gamers quickly learn that to accomplish the goal they have to just accept that there is an answer to reaching the goal. When presented with the goal, gamers always start with the attitude of, "How am I going to accomplish that goal?" and not, "Can I accomplish that goal?"
Imagine starting chess with an attitude of, "Is it even possible for me to capture my opponent's king?" That sounds crazy, yet it's how many people face challenges in real life. Rather than assuming there's a way to accomplish the goal, they start by trying to identify why they can't accomplish it. Gamers don't start games by identifying why they can't win. They put their energy to figuring out how to win.
My favorite scene from Apollo 13 is the one where the scientists from ground control have to figure out how to make a square filter fit into a round hole. They dump a box that contains everything the astronauts have on the command module. They then are given a deadline to solve the problem or else the astronauts will die. The reason that's my favorite scene is because I realized that it's what I do every time I sit down to play a game. I'm given resources and a challenge and I have to make it work.
Bring that attitude to your life. If every problem is treated as solvable, guess what? You'll start solving more problems. The key is just starting with the right attitude.
"Try Something Else"
This is actually the first piece of advice that I gave my friend that led to the idea of this article. She was sharing with me how something she had wanted didn't go the way she had hoped and how it was depressing her. My response was, "So the first attempt didn't work. Figure out a new plan of attack."
Temple of Triumph | Art by Jason Felix
I then brought up that when she plays games, what does she do when something doesn't work? She tries something else. Some of my best Magic games have been ones where my initial solution failed and I had to scramble to find a new way to save myself. You see, the gamer mindset is "it's not over until it's over." If the game hasn't ended yet, then you still have time to try and find another solution.
The key to applying this to real life is accepting that failure is going to happen. Not every plan proves successful, but gamers know that the key to solving a problem is to not stop looking for solutions. Yes, it can be disheartening when something you've worked very hard on doesn't pan out, but if the goal is important, that just means you have to re-examine how you're attempting to reach it.
"Losing Is an Opportunity to Learn"
No one wins every game. No matter how good you are, at some point you will lose. Gamers learn quickly, though, that losing can be an opportunity. For starters, losing is a chance to learn what you are doing wrong. Why did you lose the game? What actions did you take that led to the loss? What could you have done differently that might have kept you from losing?
Every year or so, there is a Magic strategy article that makes the following point: If you want to get better at playing Magic, you have to start taking ownership of your losses. If you believe each loss is the result of something outside of your control, you will never have the opportunity to improve. But if you assume that your actions led to the loss, it will allow you the opportunity to learn and thus get better.
Life is no different. When you fail, don't blame the factors outside your control. Assume that your actions had an impact. Take the time to figure out what you did that led to the outcome you are not happy with. This will increase the chances that in the future you don't make the same mistakes. It also will give you a sense of power, because you will see that you can directly impact what happens to you.
"Identify What Matters Most"
One Thanksgiving Day, my wife and I were tucking our kids into bed when the fire alarm in our house went off. We quickly ran downstairs to see that the candle in our Thanksgiving decorations had burned low enough that it had caught the decoration on fire. The flames of the now-burning decoration were reaching four feet in the air.
I quickly ran to the sink and started filling up a pitcher. While the water was on full blast, it took about thirty seconds to fill the pitcher up. Those thirty seconds felt like it took forever. All the while the fire alarm was still loudly bleating. Once the pitcher was full, I ran over to the decorations and poured the water on it mostly dousing the flames.
Afterwards, my wife was commenting on how she didn't understand how I could so calmly stand at the sink for thirty seconds while the water was filling up the pitcher. I explained my thought process to her: I knew the danger was the flames reaching the ceiling. The best way to stop the flames was water. My course of action was the most likely way to solve the problem at hand. Standing still for thirty seconds to get the water didn't phase me because I knew I was doing the thing I needed to be doing. Yes, there were other issues at hand, such as shutting off the alarm (it was freaking the kids out), but it was a lower priority than stopping the fire.
Magma Jet | Art by Maciej Juciara
The lesson here is something gamers all know. The key to solving a problem quickly is learning to identify what matters most. There are many distractions, so you have to learn to focus. Note that this applies not just to life-and-death moments such as stopping a fire, but even mundane tasks. What is the actual key to the problem you're facing? If you understand where to focus, you're already halfway to solving your problem.
Let's take the last lesson to the next step. Once you have identified the most important aspect of your problem, start breaking down the other components. This is something gamers do when gaming all the time. The key to winning a game is to figure out a priority for the things you have to do. The priority is important because it allows you to better allocate your resources (more on this one in a second).
I often find that when gamers shift to their real life that they sometimes turn off the critical eye they use when gaming. Life's problems are no different than those in a game. The difference is the consequences. In other words, when you are playing a game, you feel safe to experiment because the threat of failure is low. What's the worst that can happen? You lose the game. But in real life, the consequences are larger. Making a mistake has repercussions.
The interesting thing, though, is that the mindset used during gaming leads to better results. Understanding your priorities is simply a means to learn when and where you need to focus. If your real-world problems have bigger consequences, it seems you would even more want to use methods that increase your chances for success.
"Use Resource Management"
Every year, I travel to San Diego Comic-Con. I'm there for four days, which is a pretty short trip. One year, I decided to treat my packing like a game. My goal was a simple one: What is the least amount I could bring with me? I wasn't trying to see what I could do without but rather was trying a way to streamline what I was bringing.
Along the way, I made an interesting realization. I have a very large tee shirt collection (you can see some of it here and here), much of which is geeky and pop-culture related. One of the best places to buy these shirts is at San Diego Comic-Con. In fact, every year, I buy a bunch of tee shirts there. Hmm. Normally I pack tee shirts to wear at the convention, but I always purchase new ones there. There was a chance to minimize my packing—stop packing tee shirts, as I can wear the ones that I buy.
Gamers are trained to recognize when things are management resource issues and react accordingly. What resources do you need to accomplish your task? How much do you need? This second question is crucial because an important lesson of gaming is that too little or too much of a resource can cause problems. For example, in Magic, you need land, but putting too much land in a deck is just as problematic as not putting enough in.
This lesson is simple. Think about the problems in your life with the same resource-management eye that you would when playing a game. Ask yourself the questions you would ask if the items you are dealing with were in a game. Which resources matter most? Which matter least? How much is enough and how much is too much? You will find, once you use the same mindset, that there is a lot of value to be had.
"The Value of Things Can Change"
This next rule is a corollary of the last rule. One of my favorite Magic expressions is this: "If you end the game at anything over 1 life, you've wasted a resource." It's a very different way to look at life in Magic not as an indicator of how close you are to losing but rather as a resource to be maximized. Gamers, in general, tend to look at their resources as tools. They are something you need to use to get to your goal.
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx | Art by Jung Park
The offshoot of this is that gamers learn to accept that, sometimes, something they value has to be sacrificed for the greater good. Often, the key to getting to where you need to be is being willing to let go of something that got you to where you are now but is no longer needed.
In life, what this means is that you have to be willing to reevaluate what matters to you. Just because something once was important doesn't mean it's still important today. Often, the key to moving forward to the future is being willing to let something go from the past.
This is an especially hard lesson to apply in real life because people are emotional pack rats. They feel a need to hold onto things that once made them feel positive (happy, loved, safe, etc.) even if it no longer has that impact. The key is to do emotional inventory from time to time to understand the value of the things in your life and judge them as they are now, rather than as how they once were.
"Trust the Math"
One of the things you learn in gaming is that there's a lot of math involved. A big use of math is predicting percentage outcomes. How likely is something going to happen? When making decisions where math is applicable, gamers learn to trust the math when gaming. If the numbers say to stand on a thirteen when the dealer has a two showing, you stand, even if the last three times this situation happened, you lost. You stand even if you're gut tells you that, this time, you're going to beat the odds.
In short, what gamers learn is that sometimes you trust your instincts and sometimes you trust the math. When the issue at hand is a matter of numbers, you trust the math. Fifty-one percent does, in fact, trump forty-nine percent. Gamers learn that your emotions will always have an opinion, but you have to know when and where to listen to it.
This problem is directly applicable to real life. When tangible stakes are on the line, people get nervous and, when they do, they tend to listen to their emotions more. That's fine when the issue at hand is an emotional one, but when it boils down to math, you have to let your gamer instincts prevail. Your gut will never change percentages, no matter how much it wants to convince you that it can.
"Find Value in Others"
There are many different types of games. One of them is what we call a political game. A political game involves players having interactions where the personal dynamic between the players impacts the outcome of the game. In Magic, most multiplayer games (defined as games with three or more players) have a political component.
Anax and Cymede | Art by Willian Murai
One of the things gamers learn quickly is to recognize when games have a political component. The key to doing well in political games is understanding that your game is dependent on the other players. You need to recognize that each player has value and you have to learn what that value is. The fastest way to lose is to not respect what the other players have to offer.
Real life is as political a game as they come and this lesson carries over pretty smoothly. Everyone has value and has the ability to impact your life. Don't dismiss people, understand their value. The worst thing you can do in a political game is to play by yourself without any allies. Life is no different.
"Let People Do You Favors"
One of the things you learn in political games is that the key to doing well is creating a bond with other players. When push comes to shove, you want players to be allies and not enemies. What is one of the best ways to create allies? Allow others to do favors for you. At first blush, that might sound backwards. Wouldn't doing favors for others encourage their loyalty better?
Here's what's going on. First, humans, as a species, enjoy doing favors. It makes them feel good about themselves. It gives them a sense of purpose. Second, because there's an expectation of payback, there's this sense that you want to stay around people you've given favors to.
The lesson here is another one easily applicable to real life. Don't be stingy allowing people to help you. It makes them feel good, it helps create bonds, and—you know what?—sometimes you can use the help.
Play to Win
Like I said when I began, this article is a little different from my normal ones, but I hope it might serve as some food for thought. Gaming is a great hobby and creates valuable skills that can extend into your real life. The point of my article today is to encourage you all to use these skills not just to win games but to live better lives. Even those of you who already do much of what I pointed out, please be aware that there are always opportunities to do a little more.
This is my last article for this year. Next week will be a Magic Online Week and then we'll have two Best-Of Weeks, where I will run what I consider to be my two best articles of the year (one, the best design article, and the other, my best overall article).
As today's article was a bit different, I am even more curious than normal for your feedback. Write me an email, respond to the thread for this column, or talk to me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+).
Finally, I want to wish all of you the most happy of holiday seasons. See you when I return next year.
Until then, may today's article help you in the game of life.
"Drive to Work #76 – 1994"
Today's first podcast is the second in my "Twenty Years in Twenty Podcasts" mega-series. Today, I talk about Magic's second year of life.
"Drive to Work #77 – Creativity"
My second podcast today has me looking back at an article I wrote about creativity called "Connect the Dots." I talk about not just what I believe creativity is but also how anyone can become more creative.
Working for Magic R&D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.