The pleasures of competence

I read an article recently about social media and its effect on the growing brains of children and teenagers (look for it first on the list of Weekend Reading tomorrow). One of the minor points that stuck out to me was a line about the brain — particularly the adolescent male brain, but of course it applies more broadly — being naturally driven to accumulate competencies, and the danger of video games and their ever-more-rewarding levels replacing the real-world competencies necessary to living as a functional adult.

Now, I’m not anti-video game. I played a lot of computer games growing up, and there are a couple that I still play from time to time when the mood strikes (Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 and West of Loathing) and one that I play daily (Kingdom of Loathing). I enjoy playing them; it’s pleasant and rewarding to beat a level or solve a puzzle I’ve never been able to before, or to get faster at my runs through the game. I’ve been playing KoL on and off for more than twelve years now — longer than some of its player base has been alive — and it still provides enough interest for me to keep coming back. Video games are not inherently the problem; as with most (or perhaps all) tools and technology, it’s not the thing in itself, but how we use it.

This is equally true in the analog world, as we know. A hammer can be used to build a table or to knock down a wall. A water hose can be used to irrigate a garden or to flood a basement. A knife can be used to take a life, or in a surgeon’s hands, to save it. Like they used to say about fire, all of our tools and technologies — whether analog, digital, or some combination of both — are good servants, but bad masters.

Video games are no exception. They are amusing servants but bad masters, and the trouble with virtual achievements is threefold. First, they are too easy, which is a big part of what makes them so seductive. It doesn’t take much mental effort to progress in a video game — not zero effort, certainly, but not much compared to, I don’t know, learning to knit, or moving from algebra to calculus, or writing a technically correct sonnet, or becoming fluent in a second language. And humans are lazy. Calculus is hard; why work to master it when I can just build another virtual roller coaster or finally beat my Tetris high score? Video games offer us constant ways to measure our progress and to master our skills, hitting those dopamine centres in the brain and keeping us engaged with the game for as long as possible. The brain naturally wants to achieve competence in what it’s doing; video games provide a way to do just that, but one that I can only describe as counterfeit.

The second problem is that video game competencies are ephemeral. As I grow older I have come to value more and more the tangible labours of my mind and of my hands: real writing on a page, real dinners on the table, real yarn transformed into real blankets. I spent around two years writing a 130-page thesis for my master’s degree, and outside of parenting my children it may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It involved countless hours of research, writing, revisions, and brainstorming; as I worked I swung wildly between elation and tears depending on how the work was going and how exhausted I was (for the record, I recommend writing theses and having babies consecutively, instead of concurrently like I did). But I wrote it, and defended it, and now I can hold a library-bound copy in my hands. It was a tangible achievement, and I learned and I grew a lot in that process in ways that translate fairly directly to other areas of my life. I can’t say the same for getting more efficient at farming KoL’s in-game currency.

Finally, video game competencies are designed to encourage total mastery rather than just “good-enough-ness”. I will admit that this doesn’t sound like much of a problem — but hear me out and I will try to explain my thinking here. In my life I have achieved what I would call a basic or partial competence in a lot of different areas. I can sight-read music quite well if I’m singing, and with difficulty (but eventually) if I’m on the piano. I can put a dinner on the table that is reasonably healthy and basically tasty without too much stress. I’m not a brilliant housekeeper but I can keep things around here more or less clean. I’m competent. I’m not a master, but I’m good enough. That’s actually a surprisingly comfortable place to be.

With video games, however, competence isn’t good enough. They work more on an all-or-nothing model: if you’re not the best, then you’re not good enough, end of story. Think about a high score table: it tabulates not only the highest scores, but by implication, whether or not we are measuring up to the standard that the best players set. The goal isn’t even to have fun; the goal is to get to the top of the board, and then to defend your slot there. Competence doesn’t matter. Winning matters.

I will never completely master most of my skill areas, not by a long shot. Take cooking, for example: I do most of the cooking at home, but it’s not something I particularly relish — I cook because we need to eat, and that’s pretty much the end of the story. I don’t think “oh boy!” when the time to start dinner comes around every afternoon. I will never be a brilliant cook, having neither the passionate interest nor the culinary imagination necessary. But even though I won’t achieve mastery in cooking, or maybe even ever start looking forward to it every afternoon, I have discovered nonetheless that building my competencies in cooking is pleasant and rewarding. I like tinkering with an ingredient until I know exactly what to do with it. I like having go-to recipes under my belt, being able to make biscuits or meatballs or a basic roux from scratch without needing to look anything up. Being the best at cooking is not on the table, but that shouldn’t detract from what I am achieving in the kitchen. There are no levels or high scores here, but there is the pleasure of competent good-enough-ness.

Unlike in a video game, as well, a competency that I’ve achieved is mine forever, barring dementia or some sort of traumatic brain injury (and granting that practice may be needed to maintain it). If the fine folks at KoL pulled the plugs on all of their servers tomorrow morning, I’d be left with some memories of a game I used to play and not much more than that. But in the mean time, I know how to read a crochet pattern, test a cake for done-ness, translate French, drive a car, read a map, and remember five verses of Abide with Me. I may not be running up high scores, but nobody can take those things away from me either. I’ll take that over a virtual accomplishment any day.

Video game achievements can supplement our real-world competencies; let us just take care that they do not substitute for them instead.