I want to introduce you to a game that has changed my life. That game is Skyrim.
Here’s the premise in Skyrim. You’re some dude who’s about to be executed for something when a dragon appears and inadvertently saves you from your fate by attacking everyone. Then you run away. Dragons in this world haven’t been seen in ages, and most people think of them as just legends, but now here they are, and we’re going to have to stop them just like in the legends. Also, it turns out you’re dragonborn, which means that you’ve got some natural abilities that will make you the hero of the game as the main quest line progresses. Awesome.
None of that is what I want to talk about.
Skyrim is an RPG, a Role Playing Game. That’s a pretty broad category these days. Mostly, it means you play a character, and your character has stats, and you can improve those stats over time.
RPGs mostly trace their lineage to Dungeons & Dragons, which was originally a fantasy setting for wargaming, in which people would enact simulations of real battles using miniatures and dice. It was a really complicated board game.
D&D used similar pencil and paper mechanics, but made it an adventure story. You’re a band of adventurers fighting enemies and looting dungeons. It’s thrilling. It’s like living a fantasy novel. It’s the origin of role playing.
Now in wargaming, you’re just playing out a battle, so you start with what you start with, and the stats all predefined for you. But a character needs an arc. He needs to evolve and grow. As players, we want our characters to get stronger and learn to do awesome new things.
So D&D introduced experience points. As you complete adventures, you’re awarded XP. When you get enough, you level up, and your character gets new abilities.
I’m currently playing a game of 4th Edition D&D. I’ve got a level 1 gnome psion named Luc. He’s a little guy with crazy mind powers. He’s got one good trick up his sleeve: Mind Thrust. (Great name, right?) It’s a pretty simple ranged attack; he targets someone in range and hurts them telepathically. Doesn’t do a lot of damage, but it’s what he knows right now. To learn more neat stuff, he’ll have to fight a bunch of battles and gain enough XP to level up.
In Skyrim, things are a bit different. You’ve got 18 skills, things like One-Handed Weapons, Lockpicking, and Destruction Magic. You can use these skills from beginning of the game. You can start wielding an axe or picking locks from day one. To use a spell you’ll need to get a spellbook, but you’ll find some pretty quickly.
But on day one, guess what? You’re gonna suck.
You’ve got all these skills available to use, but you’re crap at them all. Guess how you get better at them? You use them.
The secret to success
In Skyrim, you have to do the stuff you suck at to get better at it. Sure, eventually you’ll find or make enchanted items which will give you a boost, but mostly you have to suck at stuff until you get better.
It’s how life works. You don’t get good at things by waiting. You don’t even get good at things by doing other things you’re good at. That’s where the D&D model breaks down: you do the stuff you’re good at to earn XP to get good at the stuff you suck at. In Skyrim, you have to bite the bullet and do stuff you suck at and get your ass kicked for a while. Just like real life.
Have you ever heard of the Tetris effect? Have you ever played Tetris for a really long time? Try playing Tetris for an entire afternoon. For the next day, everything will look like a shape to you. You’ll want to fit things together as snugly as possible. You won’t be able to unsee the Tetris all around you.
(On a related note, after playing Katamari for hours, please refrain from driving. Thank you.)
The games we play teach us how to think about our world. D&D teaches us that if we keep doing stuff, the DM will hand us XP so we can level up and be good at other stuff. Skyrim teaches us that to get good at anything, we have to suck at it first.
I think that’s a more valuable lesson.