In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
– Isaac Watts
When I was twelve, I met a guy who’d gotten a perfect score on his math SATs, and was flabbergasted to learn he was studying writing. Without consciously entertaining the alternative, I had adopted the view that we were to identify our strengths and push them as far as we were able. In college, I had the option to take a class outside my major pass/fail, an option that was afforded to us precisely to help break us of our focus on maximizing performance in our areas of greatest skill and encourage us to explore alternatives in which we were interested, but not confident.
I harbor the suspicion that many gamers approach the hobby similarly, with the intent to play the games at which they show the most promise at the highest level they are able. It is difficult to escape the effect of a culture that so prizes industriousness, even in our scarce leisure (and perhaps all the more when that leisure is not so scarce as we feel it ought to be). Similarly, respect for the virtue of thrift seems to push us to get the most out of our games–to play every level, gain every achievement, find every hidden area, master every method we are able.
I have come to find these influences corrosive to the breadth of my enjoyment. The lone shred of decency I find among griefers is their acceptance of responsibility for their goals, rather than adoption of whatever goals the game encourages. Few of us can tolerate repeated failure without improvement or progress. But we can attempt something other than to play at the highest available level, and in so choosing we are free to enjoy opportunities the game affords, but does not explicitly suggest.
Civilization V provides a marvelous example. It’s quite a complex game, and requires very close attention to its many interacting systems to succeed on the higher difficulty levels. Personally, I find the micromanagement of cities boring, so I don’t do it. At all. For me, the game may as well simply lack the option to maximize city efficiency. As a result, I play on a lower difficulty setting than I otherwise would choose. I am extraordinarily fond of the game I end up playing, though I understand I am failing to take advantage of all the game offers.
This topic came to mind recently as a result of early reports that Mass Effect 3 was substantially more fun to play with the Kinect simply because it was possible to give squadmates orders by voice, which felt natural and avoided the breaks in the action required by Mass Effect 2’s menu-driven order system. This fixed something which I hadn’t even realized had bothered me about that game–though I loved it, I never felt as though the differences between the characters were terribly important in combat. In retrospect, I realize that I had almost never used their powers, precisely because I didn’t like bothering to use that interface. Faced with the choice of breaking up the experience of combat with frequent reminders that I was playing a game or playing as immersive a game as could be had, I chose to maintain the flow of the experience and accept that I was not being all I could be.
Imagine taking a class in which your goal is to get a C, even though you could get an A. Imagine having the responsibility of evaluating whether a particular assignment was valuable or interesting enough to even bother with–rather than feeling like you had to half-ass something in order to get some credit, you just decided to sacrifice the ten or fifteen percent of your grade which came from some particularly poorly-designed assignment or topic of no interest to you, and maintain your focus on those parts of the class you found engaging. This would be a terrible way to approach a prerequisite or highly coherent course, but would do wonders for your ability to stay excited about a topic you pursued purely out of interest. Moreover, it would help to develop the habit of critically engaging with the predominant goals of one’s context, and either genuinely accepting them and internalizing them as your own, or serving as the sort of check on pernicious groupthink so sadly absent among our financiers in the run-up to the fiscal catastrophe, which touched off the recent recession. It would give you greater authorship of your actions.
Try new things (perhaps buy them once they’re deeply discounted or borrow them from friends, lest the duty of thrift weigh upon you). Do things at which you might embarrass yourself. Skip the elements of play that feel like work. I do not believe that greater virtue stands with Isaac Watts than with Lewis Carroll. Play matters.