Sometimes when I’m writing these posts I feel like the dad in Calvin and Hobbes:
I think it’s healthy to play. It’s important take time for yourself every once in a while to do something, anything really, just for the pure joy of it and not as a means toward any sort of practical benefit. Great! Then let’s make a New Year’s Resolution to “Play More.”
…But there’s a problem. You bump up against a paradox pretty quick here – for example, just reread that first sentence:
“I think it’s healthy to play…”
That sounds like a practical benefit to me.
The fundamental problem with creating a goal around playing is that to play is to have no goal. When you’re playing you’re not trying to do anything, that’s the whole point. So what’s a spreadsheet-building, goal-tracking self-help guy like me supposed to do?
I decided to start by looking back on my own experiences, hoping to remember what exactly “playing” meant to me. After all, I’ve definitely played before as a kid. I’ve just forgotten how.
I didn’t play outside much, like Calvin in the comic. I played some sports, but even those ended up being pretty goal-oriented the more I progressed. What did I do?
I found the answer a few weeks ago as I was cleaning my condo:
Ah, now I remember – video games. This was my playground.
- I learned how to read by studying the instruction manual for Super Mario Bros. 3.
- In high school I attended, and hosted, LAN parties for everything from Command and Conquer to Halo (hyperlink included for those of you who were too popular in high school to know what a LAN party is)
- I’ve played Mario Superstar Baseball every year, with the same guy, for the past 14 years.
I could go on, but my point is this: I know how to play. At least, I used to.
So how did I do it?
That’s what I’m hoping to articulate in this post. For those of you who’ve forgotten how to play, think of this as an Instruction Manual.
It’s simple really: trying to play is like trying to fall asleep.
If you try too hard to fall sleep, you’re never going to get anywhere. Sleep isn’t something you do, it’s something you let happen. It isn’t about grabbing hold of unconsciousness, it’s about letting go of consciousness. The only thing you can do is try to create an environment conducive to sleep, and hope for the best.
So take a look back, and try to remember what playing looked like for you as a kid. Then just do your best to create an environment where that can happen again.
My New Year’s Resolution is this:
In 2019, I’m going to play some video games.
And this month I’m going to write about them, too.
Ambitious? Perhaps not. But in this season of my life where I’m so focused on making the best use of my time, carving out a few hours to just play video games has actually been a challenge. But I’m trying. It took me several weeks to even pick up a video game once I came up with this idea, and even then things got off to a rocky start.
I was on a flight to Philadelphia for my buddy’s bachelor party. A few of my friends were on the same flight; we had burgers and beers before boarding, but we weren’t sitting together on the plane.
I wedged myself into the narrow seat between two strangers and looked out the window at the lazy, overcast sky and the empty runway. My eyes started to feel heavy. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I knew if I did I’d wake up cranky, a disservice to my comrades and to the bachelor. What was I to do? I’d just finished reading a book and didn’t feel like starting another one. I could write I guess, but I’ve never had great experiences with writing after drinking.
I took off my backpack and tried to shove it under the seat in front of me. It was bulkier than usual, and that’s when I remembered: I’d been carrying a handheld game console in my backpack ever since I thought of this New Year’s Resolution, waiting for the right time to play.
If not now, when? I fumbled around to find the power button. I pressed it, and sunk into my chair beneath the glow of the warm, familiar red light. Power On.
I started playing, but my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about how stupid an idea it was to write about this, and how this wasn’t even technically playing if the underlying goal was to use it as content for a blog post. I felt like I was wasting my time.
It was an old game (Chrono Trigger, 1995). The graphics were showing their age, the dialogue seemed predictable. I didn’t view the game with the sense of wonder I might have had as a child, but as a man in is thirties who was caught up in nostalgia, grabbing at straws trying to relive the past. I began to feel disenchanted, a little depressed.
And then I felt… frustrated.
Because I’d reached a mini-game set in a fairground involving a “high striker” that wasn’t cooperating.
For those who don’t know what a high striker is (I had to Google the name myself), it’s the game where you hit a lever with a mallet as hard as you can, sending a puck up a tower to ring a bell at the top. Normally a test of strength, in the video game it was a test of timing. You had to tap “A” when the puck was at the very top, and I kept missing it.
And I was getting really frustrated. Now I was not only wasting time playing an outdated video game, I was wasting time within the game, unable to progress past this stupid mini-game. And then it happened.
I got a “silver point” for my troubles. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it felt nice. I explored more of the fairgrounds and came upon another game, one which actually cost 10 “silver points” to play. I rolled my eyes, and returned to the high striker, determined to win 9 more times for the entrance fee. It was easier the second time, then the third, then…
Ding! Ding! Ding!
I’d gotten in a rhythm, and thought to myself, “Why stop? There’s bound to be other things I can buy with these silver points, might as well keep playing this while I’ve got the timing down.”
I entered a flow state where nothing mattered in the world except hitting that bell. It was a dance, watching the bell on the screen approaching the top, my thumb naturally hitting the button just slightly before it got there to account for a delay I’d picked up on, the familiar Ding! of the bell…
A woman cleared her throat.
I turned; it was the lady next to me. She was standing up in her seat, scowling. I popped my headphones out and looked around. I saw the empty seats in front of me, the line of people in the aisle behind me.
The plane had landed. Half the passengers had already deboarded. I hadn’t even noticed.
I mumbled an apology, yanked my bag out from under the seat and rushed down the aisle to join my companions at the gate. I was smiling.
I was back on the playground.