From Shogi to Shinobi: Games as Models for Reality


I’m fascinated by the addictive quality of games. Some may say that a regular ‘hobby’ that revolves around escapism is unhealthy, but what does it tell us about human psychology that this kind of escapism is so popular. What are we (or rather, those of us who play games regularly) getting from games that we, seemingly, can’t find in reality? As for full disclosure, I currently own no gaming consoles, besides an iPod touch for small/casual games, but like many born of the 1980’s I’ve logged thousands of hours playing games. So when I play games nowadays, it’s mostly for nostalgia (another form of escapism).

It dawned on me a few months back, upon revisiting some of the old games from my childhood, there is a complete lack of ego inside the games themselves. And perhaps, like a drug, that is a huge part of the appeal (at least for me). When you enter a village in a Role Playing Game, you can start a conversation with one of the townsfolk by tapping the A button. That’s it. Just tap a button. Think of how many men and women agonize over this simple act on a daily basis–not only starting a conversation with a stranger or colleague, but dissecting every nuance of the conversation thereafter. The ‘egolessness’ I speak of is the lack of neuroses associated with ‘socialization’.

Now the flip side, imagine how bizzare (and unpopular) video games would be if the heroes in the games had huge egos. You could barely move the joystick, your character would start crying, and piss himself.. and need to take some ‘courage’ pills every 20 minutes. You would go into a dungeon and the hero would be paralyzed with fear. Imagine if you went into a town and instead of going around the town talking to the village people, you had to build up your courage (in-game alcohol would be a necessity, not a great message for young kids). Now that your hero is a little tipsy, his response time during battle is slow, judgement is greatly reduced, and your character is killed in battle 5 minutes into the game. Not exactly ‘Legendary’; Nintendo would be lucky to sell twenty copies.

Months ago I saw a great TED talk where researchers noticed the brain was extremely effective at games (and found it intensely stimulating) when the goals were clearly laid out. In games, goals and objectives are clearly defined. Goals and objectives in day to day life (eg. Reality), it would seem, is not so clear.

  • Should I be popular, knowing that it will hurt my schoolwork?
  • Should I be rich, knowing it may put off some of my friends?
  • Should I eat healthy foods and stop drinking, knowing it will hurt my social life? 

The challenge is moving from the digital models for life, to actual life itself. Let’s examine one of the earliest games that used this motif: Legend of Zelda. I love this example because of course, the limited computing power available to developers in the mid 80’s meant the graphics of the original Zelda games were so rudimentary, it forced them to develop interesting and fun gameplay (like a poet constrained by rhyme schemes, or a comedian constrained by a 140 character limit on Twitter). There is something so blessedly ingenious about creating a living breathing world, with such basic colours and capabilities. And with Zelda, creator Shigeru Miyamoto recreated the wonders of his childhood exploration:

It was the game’s ideas, rather than its technical achievements, however, that made Zelda such an enduring classic. For these, Miyamoto drew heavily on his childhood memories of the Kyoto countryside. He wanted to reproduce in videogame form the same sense of awe and excitement he felt when he explored the forests and caves as a youth– to introduce the pleasure of discovering things, or the anxiety of becoming lost in a maze.

All those sensations were crystalised in a simple story – a young boy, Link, attempting to rescue a princess, Zelda (whose name was inspired by the wife of writer F Scott Fitzgerald), from an evil prince, Ganon. In his quest, Link makes the journey from boy to man, retrieves the eight fragments of the powerful Triforce of Wisdom, confronts Ganon in his lair on Death Mountain, and ultimately restores peace to the land of Hyrule. (Source).

Did you noticed that bit in there about the journey ‘from boy to man’. There is something so universally appealing (note: over 50 million Zelda games have been sold to date) about this theme: getting bigger and stronger, getting experience, and becoming an adult. What is clear about Zelda? You have a fixed number of dungeons, and within each dungeon you have one item and one boss and if you kill the boss, you win one heart (making you stronger). This is brilliantly simple model for reality.

Just one problem. As we’ve discussed, reality is not that simple. Often we see the hardest working students being picked on in class. The teachers might even needle them a bit for being too one-dimensional. Some students goof off in class, and still manage to breeze through school with a C-average, and then get into a half decent college. What is the lesson here? It’s complicated. This haze of unanswered questions leads to, frankly, deliberate simplification. Notice the recent popularity in Minimalist living. These are people that, like researchers, are stripping their lives of all unnecessary components, to determine exactly what they must to do be motivated, happy, and healthy every day.

What then, is the role of Games, and how can they be used to support reality (rather than supplant it)? Easy. Games are Models for Reality.

Model(n): Def: A schematic description of a system, theory, or phenomenon that accounts for its known or inferred properties and may be used for further study of its characteristics

Games like chess (and its Japanese equivalent), famously, were developed as educational tools to demonstrate Military strategy, and sharpen the mind. It’s a matter of chance, or dumb luck, that these games were ever associated with ‘fun’. The mind is a masterful machine: it craves puzzles, whether it’s figuring out the social relationships at a party, or solving the riddle of where you last put your keys. Games of strategy like Chess and Poker aren’t so much ‘fun’ as they are ‘titillating’ to the mind. Without a challenge, you’re bored easily. If something is too hard, the mind gives up.

And so Video Games can be truly useful as long as the players use them as models for reality, not as reality itself. If you don’t learn the lessons from Video Games, but instead, stay in the video game world forever, you’re missing the point. When a 35 year old middle manager comes home to play video games, on one hand we should applaud him for the ‘stimulation’ his mind is getting, but on the other hand, his urge to seek a simple model for success in video games, might be somewhat unhealthy (inasmuch as it reveals he hasn’t found the key to success in reality, still, after all these years). It is all too common for grown adults to continue to use ‘medication’ (like alcohol, food, sex and video games) that simulate the real stimulations of progress and achievement. But we can move past this. As models go (whether they be in video games or economics lectures), the point is not to obsess about the model, or even iterating on the model, but using the model to make decisions in reality. If life is much more complicated than a video game (and it should be), here are three complementary strategies to make this transition.

Step One. Simplify.

If the problem with real life is that it’s too nuanced, simplify the hell out of it. Reduce your obligations, reduce your number of hobbies, reduce everything so that you’re focusing on just a handful of things you really care about. Some people, some work will have to be removed totally from your life, because you are constrained by 24 hours per day.

Step Two. Prioritize.

The handful of hobbies, people, jobs, activities that remain should be prioritized. Want to know what you should do when pressed for time? That’s easy. You always go for the #1 priority job/activity/hobby/date, etc. Yes prioritizing is hard, but it’s a tool that you are insane if you don’t use. Properly done, it can quickly and easily resolve any conflict. First priority trumps second priority, and so on. Want to be popular and smart in high school? Which is a higher priority? Go for it, and don’t look back.

Step Three. Concise and Clear goals, Zelda-style.

See if you can answer the following questions. Open a Word .doc and see if you can answer the following in simple clear sentences. These should not be ‘hard’ to do, but extremely simple. If you’re stumped, you have some soul searching to do, but all you need to do is go for a walk and think about the question. Don’t worry about having a perfect answer, just a pretty good one.

How to “Win” at Life, in one concise clear specific sentence  ____________________________________________

What tools will I need to buy/find along the way? ____________________________________________

What people/partners will I need to help me do this? ____________________________________________

How to Get More Experience Every day:____________________________________________

How to Stop Over-thinking and Take Action Every day: ____________________________________________

How to Get Physically Stronger each year:____________________________________________

How to Make Money each year, simply and easily:____________________________________________

Build your schedule for next week, and next month and next year around racking up experience, money and health using this Model. Hopefully in a few months time, you can proudly say that you find reality more addictive than Angry Birds.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, hit me up on Twitter.