This is the third post in a 4 part series (you can start here) designed to help geeks, gamers, and nerds to leverage the way God designed them, in order to get the Big Wins in life, and partner with God in saving the world. We’ve covered why being a geek is a very good thing in God’s eyes, and a little bit about how to leverage our design for His Glory. We also tackled the Scriptural basis for seeing yourself as a hero and a protagonist – today we’re going to take one of the geek’s deepest passions – video games – and apply them to the way we do this Heroic Life.
Link watched and waited. Crouched behind a tree out of the main path, hand on his sword.
He made a furtive glance to the clock tower – just after noon.
His eyes darted back to the tunnel across the way from his hidden perch. It would be any moment, now.
Of course, he’d been here before. Time is really messy in Termina, so he can’t say for sure when – but he knows exactly what is about to happen. And this time, he’s prepared.
After a few more minutes, he hears the footsteps. It’s time.
As the all-too-happy-looking man skips around the corner, Link stands up and tightens his grip on the blade. He is ready.
An old lady, returning to her shop on the edge of Clock Town, happens by while carrying a Bomb Bag. She knows they are dangerous and it’s a dangerous business, but it’s her livelihood – she would never think of harming anybody. She’s too kind. All she wants to do is help.
An easy target.
It all happens so fast that the lady falls over in shock – and Sakon, the notorious Clock Town thief, begins a frantic dash to the exit with the Bomb Bag slung over his shoulder.
As if by divine appointment, Link sprints in front of the thief, corners him, and deftly slices the payload out of his sticky fingers. With little more than a glare, Link offers Sakon no quarter. Though Link is only a boy, there is something fierce and powerful in his spirit. Even Sakon notices. It’s over – there’s no point in anything but running away now.
Link politely helps the old woman to her feet. He assesses her injuries and assures her – with a caring hand on a withered shoulder, he offers to carry the bombs back to her shop for her. She has had a hard day.
On the way, the old lady reaches into a hidden pocket, tucked away on the side of the bag, and rifles through its contents. This isn’t haphazard – she’s looking for something very specific.
As her hand returns to her side, she holds out a special mask, offering it to Link as a reward.
He graciously accepts the mask with thanks, of course – but something else is on his mind as he walks away.
All he wants to do is help people. He knows that he’s here in Termina for a reason – he knows that he’s been given a great opportunity and skills to handle immense challenges. Every day that he succeeds in making life better for those around him, he has succeeded in his calling.
It doesn’t matter if everyone forgets all he’s done in a few short days – again, time in Termina is messy.
He could do without the mask – it’s nice, but he didn’t know it existed before this ordeal.
Nobody cares if he’s there on divine appointment, or if he’s just “lucky” to be in the right place at the right time.
All they know is that he’s some stranger who blew in from out of town, and he’s only been here a few days. He could die and almost nobody would bat an eye.
It doesn’t matter to Link.
He’s here for deeper reasons.
His day has been full of events just like this.
At sundown, he readjusts his bag, folds together his map, and makes for the town exit.
He has no place to lay his head – but years of adventure have helped him to be content whether in plenty or in want. He does not grow weary of doing good.
He’s well acquainted with the feel of grass between his fingers… he nets them behind his head and dozes off to sleep.
He will need it.
As the sun begins to rise, the first signs of coming rain creep into the forest. Link awakens at the sound of a thunderclap. He groggily gathers himself, hoists his sword and shield and begins the trek back into town. More to do. More people to help. So begins a new day.
Games As Spiritual Heroism Training
I love video games.
I played my first at less than a year old, beat my first at 3, made my first at 10, and sold my first at 12.
So I recognize that, even though I love all other kinds of creative media, this is going to come across as intensely biased:
My favorite heroes are in video games.
Not the best stories, necessarily.
Not the most compelling character development.
Certainly, real life heroes matter a great deal more in the grand scheme of things.
But I still think that the BEST heroes are in video games.
I have a million reasons for feeling this way, but Link himself represents the best reasons I have.
Link is the embodiment of raw heroism. Link is not merely brave; he is pure courage, embarking on intense quests, helping those in need no matter how small the task, and showing his kind-hearted soul to everyone he meets.
Link does all these things – receiving little more of a reward than the occasional “thank you” (or a bomb mask).
But what makes Link truly special, to me…
Is that when I play a Zelda game, I get to be him.
I am the brave warrior combating the forces of evil to save the world.
That’s me relentlessly cutting down Iron Knuckles and Gibdos. That’s me who gets goosebumps when I change the course of the world for good with one final stroke of my sword.
As a gamer, this is a wonderful feeling. You’ve been training your whole life to be the hero. You know what it’s like to imagine yourself in heroic situations. In a very real sense, you have been given a model for how to do everything on the Hero’s Journey, to serve and love others, to accomplish grand things, and to do so in the most effective way possible. You’ve literally trained for it.
Even the difficult, thankless work takes on new meaning. Because the truth is that we don’t want merely an easy life, or a pleasing one – like Link, we want a fulfilling one. And we already know how to make it happen. Probably more than you might imagine.
Think about it: games are designed to:
- Push us into action – and guide us to the next right step.
- Inspire us – and act out inspiring things.
- Build in an expectation that we’ll win – as long as we don’t give up.
They give us all the tools to get the job done and constant feedback, never letting us lose sight of how we’re doing.
They make us feel like we can succeed at anything the game throws at us!
They breed perseverance, and grit, and determination. Dare I say, they can even help to boost discipline.
And they make it all fun!
You do whatever it takes to win in games.
You aren’t afraid of failure.
The ending, the goal, that point B – it’s so compelling that you can’t stop yourself from running to it, nevermind the setbacks.
99 failures can’t keep you from feeling like you’ll get it right on lucky number 100 – getting better with each iteration.
And the journey, the process, the practice, the ”work” – THAT’S the fun part.
This is why game heroes are so compelling – because reading about a hero just isn’t as compelling as being them, even if it’s not real.
What if real life were the same way?
3 Gameful Mindsents for an EPIC Life
I’m going to pick just 3 things we can take from video games – 3 mindsets that will help us to live the Heroic Life we’ve been called to as effectively as possible, using our years of training.
- Systems Thinking
- Reframing Failure
- Tracking what Actually Matters
Let’s dive right in.
A Winning System
What’s the difference between a goal and a system?
This isn’t a riddle or a head game. It’s a real question.
Goals are obvious – it’s a destination, a state of being to attain or a finish line to cross. It’s something in the future that you haven’t yet accomplished, which you’d like to.
Then what the heck is a system?
Systems are simple, clearly defined, repeatable processes which, implemented consistently, will accomplish the goal.
To put it more bluntly, systems are your only hope of reliably achieving goals.
It sounds like a petty distinction. Until you look at everyday life.
We hear the phrase “goal-oriented” and think that’s a good thing. But is it really?
- If you focus on your goals, you are… at best, never where you want to be. Always behind, always frazzled, surrounded by things that are due in… 3 days ago.
- You don’t know how well you’re doing compared to last week. You can’t account for getting sick or being out of town.
- You don’t know how your new strategy is going compared to what you were doing before. There’s nothing to track.
- You just hold out hope that someday you’ll get to your goal and it’ll make everything better.
Pretty bleak, no?
This is where games come in.
Games utilize systems to get you to build the habits and the skills necessary to fight through hardships, accept occasional losses, and eventually save the world. So let’s take a closer look at systems!
If goal-orientation is so bleak – what does systems-orientation look like?
- Every day that you check off the right tasks and maintain the right mindset, you’re successful. In fact, you are as successful as you’ll ever be!
- You get to enjoy the act of succeeding just as much as the results of succeeding. You enjoy going to the gym just as much as losing weight.
- You never get too far off course. You’re able to quickly identify what went wrong, change your system to account for it, and keep moving forward.
- You’re able to figure out what works and do more of it – without breaking momentum, crushing motivation, or wasting time.
- Your ability to succeed accelerates. The very act of doing brings in more information and hones your system.
- You build rock-solid habits. Consistency is one of the most important ingredients in building a habit, and systems give you that consistency. If you set out just a few easy steps to start with, you can break your inertia and get started without using much willpower – and eventually, you’ll build not only the habit of getting started, but the habit of doing the right things.
Do you see how powerful this is?
It’s fine to have goals. But winners have systems.
It’s like going from Level 1 to Level 99 in the game of life, over your entire life.
Could you imagine the pressure of just wishing you were at Level 99 already? Levels 1-98 would be the one thing they should never be: a chore.
Taking the Sting Out of Failure
There’s a reason the “Unexpected Math Test” is one of the most universally experienced nightmares.
We are terrified of failure.
Get the math test right or you FAIL, and you’ll NEVER GET ANOTHER CHANCE.
Did you get the semester started off on the right foot?
That’s great! But with every failure your grades go down, and down, and down from there.
You start to feel like there’s a trend that you can never turn around.
It’s intensely demotivating – almost soul-crushing.
The really scary part is that most of us treat our real lives this way, even decades removed from our school experience. And we don’t just do it for things that are obvious sins, either – but even the small, human mistakes we make seem to carry life-changing significance.
Too many Christians make this mistake of conflating the idea of sin and failure. They’re not the same.
- A mistake is simply a failure to do something absolutely perfectly.
- A sin, however, is anything done or not done that is displeasing to God.
Missing the winning hit in a fighting game is a mistake. Cursing at your opponent when you lose is a sin.
But when we make a simple mistake, how often do we run ourselves through the internal monologue where we tear ourselves apart and call ourselves names? Even with our sins – how often do we wallow in the guilt so long that we never accept forgiveness and get out of the pit? Entire destructive habits are built that way!
Our mistakes are not morally charged, and can often be overcome with time and discipline. And, of course, God Himself has blotted out our sins forever, and He chooses not to remember them. He has paid the price permanently – we can’t make ourselves pay again.
Games give us a model for really living this way, and that’s by reframing failure.
In a video game, you very rarely fail permanently – you’re given a chance to iterate, to get it right by learning on the job, before the stakes are raised.
This is a big deal to me – we are human beings. We are BOUND to fail, because though we are designed amazingly, not one of us is perfect. Though we are blood-bought saints, we have been broken by the Fall.
Expecting that failures are going to happen and planning ahead to avoid them, while pointedly de-stigmatizing them when you slip up puts you in the best position to minimize and deal with failures in the future.
You don’t feel guilty for falling down a pit in a Mario Bros. game – you recognize the exact mistake you made, you know how to plan for it, and you feel like you’ll get it right the next time. You don’t feel guilty for losing to a boss in a Final Fantasy game – they’re supposed to be tough! You’re supposed to fail by learning on the job – and then use that learning to win next time. In fact, the failing makes the succeeding all the sweeter!
You are given a chance to take action, to test your assumptions, and improve your mental model – without breaking down all of your progress.
Sins are a little different. While you should never deliberately sin, thank God that your whole identity isn’t staked to your sins, because your sins have been ripped from you and nailed to the Cross.
Your sins don’t define you, because Jesus took upon himself your guilt and shame, so that you could be clothed in His pure white righteousness.
Keeping these in mind when you sin helps you to avoid the trap of tearing yourself down – and thinking of life like a video game equips you to get back up when you fall.
The Game Over screen is the worst case scenario in a video game – but there is always an option to Continue.
You never fail permanently.
You can always learn something to avoid future failures.
The fact that you’re growing and getting better is what matters.
“The righteous man stumbles 7 times, but rises up again…” (Prov. 24:16)
With mistakes, the more we are given permission to learn by failing, the better we will get. We’ll make braver decisions, choose to innovate more, and get creative – because we are given the opportunity to experiment and fail.
It’s not failure – it’s iteration.
With sins, recognizing that God has given us “unlimited continues” is extremely liberating – and helps us to remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Tracking What Really Matters
Imagine if your real life had a HUD which told you, at a glance, everything that you really needed to know right now, in order to do your job best.
In Zelda games, you have your health, your magic, and your rupees, along with some pictures of the stuff equipped to you. For what Link is doing, all of this information is crucially important.
Total session time? Not important.
A detailed map of the entire world and all dungeons, on screen at all times? Not helpful.
How many Pieces of Heart you currently have? Important, but doesn’t need to be tracked.
But with the things that really matter, you are never allowed to lose sight of how you’re doing.
This is a beautiful thing called automated focus.
Who doesn’t want to automatically be able to focus on the stuff that actually matters?
Who doesn’t want to keep a constant, vigilant track of the things that should be kept track of?
What if you never missed a single Family Devotions time, ever again?
What if you worked out, right on schedule, 4 times a week, like clockwork, for the rest of the year?
What if you went on a date with your spouse every week for the entire year? That’s 52 unforgettable memories!
Automated. Placed at the forefront of your mind. Never leaving your sight.
So many problems in our Christian lives are about misplaced focus.
Peter focused on his fear instead of the One calling him to walk out onto the water.
How many people were there when Jesus pleaded that they focus on God’s Kingdom first, instead of their material needs?
How many men have focused on their careers and lost their family?
How many times in the past week have you sat down to work – and instead focused on Facebook for 3 hours?
Most importantly: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world… but loses his soul?
Focus is crucially important.
Games never let you lose focus.
The main tool in the developer’s arsenal for cultivating focus is simplicity.
They could bombard you with all of the information that the game is processing at any given time. They could show you the current frame rate, the region of the disc, the internal temperature of the CPU, the machine’s date of production, and the stock of the company that made it at any given moment.
None of that would be relevant to the game. None of it is actionable. It’s more distracting than helpful.
And even if you could block it out, nothing would ever get done — because you’d pause or turn the game off to nurse a splitting headache.
Instead, you focus on the critical few things.
There’s just one problem: in real life, we have no idea how the heck to focus!
And why should we surprised that our efforts at focusing fail because we’re focusing on the wrong thing?
If I were to fill your entire screen with an image of a pink elephant and told you to “focus” on it, do you think that would be difficult?
But if I were to share it on Facebook, with a webinar playing in the background, and 4 chat windows open… would it be harder?
Focus is almost exclusively about limiting options, not summoning willpower.
That’s why successful video game HUDs are brutally simple. Paring your focus down to the 2 or 3 things that actually matter requires cutting away the 30 things that don’t.
Likewise, focusing just on the most important things in life – your relationship with God, with your family, and with the people you serve professionally – helps you to narrow down to what’s really important.
And never lose sight.
Life In Abundance
I’ve had conversations with a lot of well-meaning Christians who don’t share my love of video games.
I offer the best advice I can, which of course is rooted in Scripture.
But I often find myself wishing “it would be great if this person played games – because they’d already understand how to do this”.
Because the lessons I’ve learned from video games have been invaluable in applying what I’ve learned from God’s Word.
The Christian’s life… their task; it’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy.
The abundant life that Jesus wants for us primarily revolves around “growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) This teaches us that the abundant life is a continual process of learning, practicing, and maturing.
As well as failing, recovering, adjusting, enduring, and overcoming.
In other words – it’s found in “doing life” effectively, as God’s child, bought by Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who empowers all of this work in the first place.
And when a person comes to a point where they are moving past their failures, rather than imprisoning themselves in them… when they have learned to habitually obey and never stop trying… and when they are so committed to what really matters that they are willing to cut away the unnecessary distractions, the Christian life is found thriving.