The Next Level of the Game

The coach tells the high-school star athlete, you’ve got to take your game to the next level to compete in college. The executive coach tells the young hotshot, at the next level, EQ matters more than IQ. What does this mean? The metaphor of levels is pervasive but obscure. It illuminates many things — sports, education, careers, personal-life stages — but very few things illuminate the metaphor itself. In fact I can think of only one: a certain class of video/computer games. Games that are somewhere between the elemental, abstract ones like Tetris and over-engineered MMPORGs. A great example, that I’ll use, is the neoclassical vertical shooter, LaserAge (think ‘modernized Space Invaders). Here is a screen shot of Wave 1, Level 1.

Ingava LaserAge, Level 1

Ingava LaserAge, Level 1

What makes this game just right to illuminate the “levels” metaphor is that it is in a Golidlocks sweet spot. Unlike, say, Tetris, you don’t get sucked into a realm of mathematical abstraction. But neither do you get sucked into complicated mythologies and narratives that obscure the mappings to real life. Playing a lot of Tetris or World of Warcraft makes you better at Tetris or World of Warcraft. Playing LaserAge makes you better at life.

LaserAge is a game with a classic premise. You use your mouse to control that spaceship at the bottom, to shoot down wave after wave of alien spaceships of dozens of different types. As you progress through the levels, you also shoot down the occasional powerpack that floats across the screen, thereby gaining more powerful weapons. You go from 1 to 5 machine guns to a sort of fireball throwing thing, to what looks like a purple sonic boom weapon to, finally, a laser beam. There are 4 levels in the games, of 25 waves each. There are the usual stylistic conventions of the genre, like the single huge, “big boss” alien spaceship at the end of a level, which is very hard to kill (this is one element of gameplay that doesn’t seem to translate reliably to real life; I’ve never met a hard-to-kill big alien).

Here is a view of a later level, with more weapons for me, and three types of aliens:

Ingava LaserAge, Mid Level

Ingava LaserAge, Mid Level

I got to about 87 waves — about the middle of the last level — and got fairly good, before I got bored and gave up. So what are some life lessons you can draw from games like this? Here are four. I have to admit, I am not a very avid gamer (never really got into gaming, besides this one), so more experienced gamers, your insights are welcome.

  1. Every day begins with brushing your teeth: If you are the kind that likes to “save” progress in a game, and it is all about “finishing” the game for you, you will miss the point. LaserAge requires you to start every game at Level 1. Just because you made the C-suite doesn’t mean you can stop brushing your teeth. You need all the skills you learned at every previous level. Even CEOs have to craft good emails, and manage airtime at meetings. A careless word can kill a C-suite career just as easily as it can kill an entry-level career. I like that classic aid to perspective: remembering that even the President of the United States puts on his pants one leg at a time in the morning.
  2. Skills at one level can become liabilities at the next: Effective methods for killing one sort of alien became liabilities when you face aliens at higher levels. As an example, it takes just 2 bullets to kill the red aliens in the first screen shot. They move moderately slowly and shoot at you at a very slow rate. You can easily pick them off and dodge their fire. By Wave 13, you’ve encountered at least 6 different types of aliens, each of which requires a different tactic. Tactics that work for stupider aliens are exactly the ones that get you killed quickly with the smarter ones. Life lesson: people who survive with you to go to the next level mostly know all the tricks used at the previous one. Unlearning and relearning are the only constants.
  3. If you know of only one way to do something, you are in trouble: Getting to a level you haven’t seen before is exhilarating. You see new aliens, and get the endorphin rush of figuring out a new tactic. Clearing a new level for the first time is usually a case of working out a specific script that works. For example, you may start in the left side of the screen and pick off the aliens in a particular order, using a particular movement pattern. But this kind of brittle dependence on a particular prepared trick/script leaves you vulnerable. To consistently navigate levels, you need to be able to improvise and deal with any situation, scripted or not. This is one reason the more modern games aren’t as much fun for me. They are often engineered to have only one successful script (say a hidden golden key that opens a door — too Rube Goldbergish for my tastes). I’ve known people in real life who can only deal with emails using formulaic responses. If one of their canned email models doesn’t fit a situation, they panic. These people won’t go far until they figure out the “email” level of the career game.
  4. There is no point reaching higher levels if you haven’t collected the weapons along the way: This is a critical feature of most such games. You may accidentally get to Wave 24, missing half the powerpacks. But there is no way you are going to kill the Big Boss of Level 1 without the laser weapon. Not only that, you cannot afford to lose too many weapons (in LaserAge, weapons also double as lives. If you get hit by an alien shot, you lose a weapon). The first time I crossed into Level 2 (wave 26), the bruising battle with the big boss in wave 25 had left me with Wave 1 weapons. I was annihilated in seconds in Level 2. The warning here for real life is all about playing the game at every level well enough to get through it everyday without being too damaged to continue the game. The other lesson is that the rewards of winning aren’t just for fun — they are what you need to operate at the next level. If they gave you a blackberry, it is probably because you need one where you are going. The point about this is that there are no shortcuts, though you can certainly move fast if you like (which may explain why teen pop stars who get catapulted into very high levels, skipping developmental stages, often can’t cope and go all Brittney Spears).

There is a lot more. I suspect what makes games like LaserAge so useful for introspection is the very explicit nature of the lessons. If you play ping-pong, you know that at some point you make a subtle level change and go from consciously worrying about how to chop or topspin, to worrying about shot selection. To get there, your ability to execute the shots has to be reliable enough that you can stop worrying. But this is still too subtle. In LaserAge, similar psychological changes are explicitly signaled with things like new weapons.

Real life is the hardest of all of course. I am surprised by the number of people I run into who seem completely oblivious of the level they are in. They don’t notice the game changing around them.

p.s. I was traveling all last week, with a packed agenda, which explains why I had no posts. I’ll have more travel and a heavy work schedule coming up in August, which means you’ll see me flushing out some of these more whimsical posts I’ve filed away as drafts. More serious posts will make a comeback in September. Think of it as a Ribbonfarm vacation.

Also, I’ll be in the Bay Area August 18th – 28th. If anybody would like to meet up, drop me a line and maybe we can pull something together.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter