Lose Until You Get Better: Life Lessons From Gaming

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“Because I know this game far better than you do,” Nick told me, “I’m probably going to beat you at it all night.  Don’t expect to win.”
Why the hell was he telling me this?  Weren’t we both gamers?  Yes, this was a new game I didn’t know.  Yes, I would lose repeatedly until I figured out what the hell I was doing.  Yes, knowing I was probably doomed regardless, I would still play with all my meager skill until I gleaned enough strategy to eke out a win or two.  That’s the way it works.
Then I realized: normal people need to hear that shit.  For most folks, “losing” is such a negative experience that they get angry and stop playing, or stop thinking about strategy because hey, it’s just a game.
I’m too immersed in Magic: the Gathering culture to feel bad about losing.
It still weirds me out to realize there’s a “pro” circuit for Magic, where people do nothing but play full-time in an attempt to snag this week’s $10,000 prize.  It’s a pretty rough life, as Magic’s a very luck-based game – unlike Chess, where the pieces are always in the same position at the beginning of the game and no moves are randomly determined, you can be the best player in the world and still get mana-screwed.
So Magic players expect to lose.  A lot.  When they’re creating a new deck, they play-test it against the best decks around… And most of the decks they make aren’t very good.  So they lose.  Then, when they find a deck that seems promising, they swap in new cards to see if that improves their odds – and then they lose too, but this time they lose less because they know how to play this deck, and they have a handle on the weak points in their opponent’s deck.  Then they keep refining the deck until they know it’s a winner.
The real pros do not like losing, but they recognize that even the best players will still lose three out of ten games.  To quote Tomi Walamies, a former pro:
“The games you lose are a way better learning experience than the ones you win. Positive results in life in general tend to make you blind to improvement. Not only does the winner of a match think they played it great, but they tend to dismiss the loser’s strategy. Needless to say, this kind of shortsightedness is deadly.”
So everyone in professional Magic comes from the same background: when they started playing, they lost.  A lot.  Rather than getting upset by this, they asked, “Hey, what mistakes did I make that contributed to my loss?”  And they analyzed their game, losing until they got better.
Which, I think, is a useful approach to life.  I see my daughter, and she hates new things because she’s so frustrated at being bad.  She’s embarrassed and flustered because other people are doing things better than she is, and she feels foolish for not knowing this stuff already, and often she quits because the emotional overload of feeling lost is too much for her.
I counsel her with the gaming strategy: When you start out at anything, you’ll be terrible at it.  That’s no reflection on you – it’s just that when you try something new, you’re the worst you will ever be at it.  And what you need to do is accept that you’re going to lose a lot before you get better – and that you’ll get better a lot quicker if instead of getting angry at each mistake, you instead analyze it to figure out what you could have done better.
I’m not a great writer.  Yet.  I mean, Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman at the age of 26.  I’m 43, and still struggling to get my first novel published.  And if I was easily frustrated by losing, I’d probably get discouraged by all the wonderful writers who were more talented than I was, and how hard I have to work just to get one story published when others can pen award-winning novels on first drafts, and then I’d give up.
Instead, I go downstairs, and I write some more.  This draft will probably not be very good.  That’s fine.  I’m not playing to win, I’m playing to get better, and if I lose then I’ll learn from it.
Everything I do is either a win or a learning experience.  It’s a nice thought that keeps me going.

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