Life is an “Infinite Game”

Posted on Feb 14, 2012 in Life of a Medical Student, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 0 comments

I’m reading a book that I was directed to by a friend who is using this book as a template to change her life. I’m not one for self-help books, and this book is not that at all. It’s called Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. And I haven’t been this inspired by a book in years, maybe ever. As a long-time gamer, I love to consider my life a perpetual game – a series of quests and missions that I take on, sometimes for no good reason. And this book refines that notion, makes it something real, and encourages us as a society to take a gaming approach to our interactions with the world.

This weekend I embarked on a mission of sorts – to fly to England for a birthday party (which was really a covert excuse to hold a family reunion) on Saturday and to return 48 hours later to make it for an 8:30am class today. It required going to a meeting at noon on Friday and then booking it to the airport for an afternoon flight, survival of a one hour connection in Toronto, landing in England on Saturday morning, being party-ready by 5pm that day, recovering from a hangover on Sunday, and making a flight on Monday to get me back to the US of A Monday evening. Mission accomplished.

I lead an exciting life. But it’s not that my life is by necessity exciting. Perhaps the logical thing to do would have been to refuse to go to this party and spend a relaxing weekend in Pittsburgh doing whatever it is I do. But instead, I decided to take on this unnecessary obstacle because it was an adventure, with the reward of seeing family members I haven’t seen in as many as 10 years.

And this is one of the definitions of gaming that Jane McGonigal presents to us – “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Undertaking challenges voluntarily is what makes games so rewarding. The satisfaction of having completed your goals, the notion that you worked hard, tried something despite risk of failure, and then completed your task. It’s the ultimate satisfaction.

It’s like downing a boss for the first time in World of Warcraft. You work and you work, you fail, you die, you spend lots of money on magic potions and gear. And then one day, he’s dead. The little achievement bar pops up that says “Jany has defeated Evil-Monster-Thing.” And then there’s another boss to kill, next on your to do list a new goal, one that you are now qualified to attempt with what you have learned and gained from the previous boss.

And this is what life is. In my life, one of my goals is really daunting. That’s to be a doctor. And there’s a series of “quests” I have to complete to get there. First I had to graduate high school. Been there done that. Then there was my undergraduate degree – every test, every class I saw as a step in the completion of this quest. The exhilarating notion that there is something bigger ahead, but with constant feedback along the way that yes, this is really possible. Now I’ve leveled up, actually in medical school, and working test by test towards a medical degree. I’ve lost a little bit of the thrill and the work has become more arduous and in some ways less rewarding, and it’s a feeling I strive to bring back into my daily life.

Jane McGonigal presents four defining characteristics of games – goals, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.

So in my life:
1. Goal = become a doctor
2. Rules = You have to take the tests, do the work, meet the requirements. There’s a process everyone has to follow to get to be a doctor, and I follow it, too. It gives it structure and allows for a feedback system.
3. Feedback = every test I pass, every patient encounter, a high school diploma, a college degree, all give me feedback affirming the fact that I am getting closer and letting me know how well I’m doing.
4. Voluntary Participation = I chose to do this. I could have been an accountant, or a nurse, computer scientist (all of which are worthy goals as well). But this is the obstacle I wanted to take on. And you can always drop out of school.

Or in my trip to England:
1. Goal = go to a party and make it back in time to not miss class
2. Rules = a constrained time period
3. Feedback = making it to England, and making it back again is success.
4. Voluntary participation = I could have said no!

So game on. I’m only one chapter in, so I’m excited to learn more :-)

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