Did your parents ever encourage you to play less video games while growing up? Ours too. Doubtlessly, they thought it was a waste of time that could be better spent playing and learning outdoors. After all, what can jumping on Goombas and firing hadoukens possibly teach you about the real world?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Here are the real-life skills and lessons we've picked up during a lifetime of gaming: from telling left from right to understanding the importance of imagination.
Photo: Paul Caggegi
Mark Serrels, Kotaku editor
The Wild Bunch (age 7): How to play poker
The Wild Bunch was a weird old text adventure about a Cowboy framed for murder trying to clear his name. It's such a weird one. I found it buried in a bunch of pirated Spectrum games and I've yet to meet another person who has actually played it.
I loved it.
It was terrible. Truly terrible. It didn't make any sense and it was too complex for my shriveled up brain to comprehend at that young age. But the game allowed you to play Poker, which I did. All the time. It took me a while to understand what the hell was going on, but eventually I got it. I understand the hands, how to play, when to play, what hands were best, etc.
Truly and legitimately this obscure old video game taught me how to play Poker.
Street Fighter II (age 10): How to fight
As an adult I'm short and weigh 67 kilograms. Hardly the type to strike fear into the hearts of my enemies.
But when I was ten years old I had the other kids shook. I was thought of as the toughest kid in my class, and no-one ever messed with me. Why? I have no idea, but I think it comes back to the moment when I got into a rare fight with another kid my age. I didn't know how to fight, so I just started bouncing on my toes in a fighting stance that resembled Ken from Street Fighter II. I was obsessed with Street Fighter II, so I just started trying to move like him. I threw a few punches and landed some good offence before a teacher inevitably ran out and split us up.
I remember afterwards everyone was like, WHOA DO YOU KNOW KARATE?
I didn't know shit. I just sort of managed to look cool doing these weird moves.
No-one ever messed with me after that.
Trials Evolution (age 31): Nothing is impossible
When people say 'nothing is impossible' I usually call bullshit. So many things are impossible.
But sometimes things that initially seem impossible actually become possible with slow, incremental increases in skill or technique. Sometimes persistence creates this weird compounded cycle of progress. Sometimes you defy yourself and what initially seemed impossible becomes possible.
That sounds hokey. Even writing it feels hokey, but Trials Evolution was a game that made me feel like the impossible was possible.
There were tracks in Trials Evolution so fiendish I truly believed I would never be able to finish them. Then I finished them.
Then I looked at the conditions for receiving a gold medal on those tracks — had to finish in a certain time, could only make a certain amount of faults. That seemed even further out of reach.
But I did it. Eventually I did it. Through constant practice and consistent learning I managed to achieve the seemingly impossible. Honestly, I've carried that through into real life situations. Sometimes goals and targets seem far from reach, but making small steps towards those goals is paramount. If you keep pushing you'll get there.
I know, I know, this sounds like some sub-Tony Robbins shit, but I truly believe it.
Chris Jager, Lifehacker editor
The Lords of Time (age 10): The importance of imagination
The Lords Of Time was a text adventure originally released way back in 1983. I first encountered it on a friend's old ZX Spectrum and was instantly enthralled by the time-travelling storyline and vivid world building.
A few years later, I picked up an enhanced port of the game for my Amiga 500. But the magic had been lost. The new version added graphics to the top half of the screen, which effectively robbed the game of its greatest strength: the player's imagination. Instead of envisioning gigantic rampaging dinosaurs and the architectural splendor of Tudor England, I was staring at poorly rendered 16-bit "paintings". Sometimes, less is more.
Pro Tennis Tour 2 (age 11): How tennis scores work
As a kid, I never paid too much attention to tennis on the TV. I subsequently had no idea how the scoring system worked. "Love?" 15? 40? Wha?"
After a few bouts of Pro Tennis Tour 2 on the Amiga, I had all the basics down; from the number of sets in a match to the peculiarities of changing sides during tie-breakers. As a direct consequence, I didn't look like a total idiot during 7th grade tennis. Thanks Pro Tennis Tour 2!
Hired Guns (age 13): How to multitask
Hired Guns was a single-player action adventure game that put you in charge of four futuristic mercenaries. Unlike most other RPGs of the time, all four characters were on screen simultaneously, each in their own window. This forced the player to constantly micro-manage each party member, instead of simply concentrating on the guy in front. Inventory, weapons, and unique character strengths all needed to be taken into account across four windows simultaneously.
Looking back, I think Hired Guns helped prepare me for the multitasking proficiency expected of any office worker. The ability to manage scores of browser tabs, tackle myriad computing tasks at once and find solutions to more than one problem: my professional life is basically Hired Guns without the robots.
Dune II (age 15): Never rage quit
I spent the summer holidays of 1994 holed up in bed with a broken leg. For six straight weeks, I obsessively played the Commander & Conquer precursor Dune II on my Amiga — and it taught me a valuable lesson about the dangers of rage quitting.
As anyone who ever played as House Harkonnen would know, there was a devastating but unpredictable weapon in the game called The Death Hand. Sometimes it would strike your enemy's base causing untold destruction... but other times it would malfunction and explode from its launching site. This happened to me after a grueling two-hour battle against House Ordos. I had neglected to save my game the entire time. Enraged, I jumped out of bed on one leg, grabbed one of my crutches and attempted to wallop the crap out of my mattress — the only thing in the room I could attack without breaking.
Unfortunately, the crutch collided with my bedroom's light fixture on the upswing, covering me, my bed and my Amiga in white-hot glass shards. If only I'd learned my lesson then and there. (See below.)
ISS Pro 98 (age 19): NEVER rage quit
My most spectacular rage quit resulted in me literally getting knocked out cold. It was triggered by my mate scoring a totally bullshit goal in ISS Pro 98. I threw my controller across the room and dived towards the PlayStation's off button. Except I misjudged the dive and slammed head-first into the corner of my parent's coffee table. I woke up around ten minutes later and still suffer from occasional migraines to this day.
Nowadays, whenever a game pisses me off, I just put the controller down and calmly walk away.
Dragon Age Inquisition (age 35): Quitting doesn't make you a failure
I'm pretty busy these days. I've got a wife to entertain, three kids to look after, a full time job and various financial responsibilities that need constant monitoring. I'm also getting older. The things that used to matter in my youth — like "beating" a video game — no longer hold much water.
Dragon Age Inquisition wasn't the first game I didn't bother finishing but it's probably the first time I didn't feel the least bit bad about it. The concept of the "shame pile" now seems alien to me. Simply put, life's too short to toil over sub par video games purely for bragging rights, trophies or achievements. The same thing goes for everything else in life. If you're not actively enjoying something and nobody else is counting on you, there is literally zero reason to follow it through to completion.
Junglist, Kotaku contributor
The Guardian Legend (age 7): Sometimes I don't know what's best for myself
This was the first game I saved up money for. I was quite young, and my parents took the opportunity to teach me about the value of hard work. I did all the chores around the place for money, and saved up almost $US100 for a joystick because I thought it would make the game more fun. I got there, I bought the joystick, and then it turns out it was more fun with the controller. Sometimes what you want isn’t what you want. [I've been there, man. — Chris J.]
Age of Empires (age 15): I’m not actually that good
Boy, did I think I was good at Age of Empires. I was kind of the best player I knew. Better than all my friends. Then I took it online.
I was dealt this lesson in both the first game and its sequel, the first time I just didn’t listen. But when I went onto Microsoft’s Zone to play multiplayer, I was thoroughly schooled. I thought I was so good. But the player who took me out wasn’t even all that great in the grand scheme of things. He merely used one of the more popular strategies of the day - one I didn’t know about, because I was a relative noob - the Feudal Rush.
Sadly, it would take until Age of Mythology before I would actually get any “good” at the series.
Counter-Strike (age 23): Building a team
Having played this game for easily over a decade, it’s had an enormous impact on my life. I got into it at 16 years of age, when all I cared about was killing virtual people, and telling my friends about my epic bomb defuse. But as I got more into the game, I started caring more about real success in it.
I started to scrim and war, I was more active in the community, and my band of merry terrorists worked our way up the ladders. Success in this game requires teamwork and communication, but leading the team also taught me about responsibility, managing personalities, being diplomatic, and how to get things done. If you think managing people in the workplace is hard, with monetary incentives, try doing it when your only leverage is their passion and competitiveness.
It also taught me that online respect is a myth. Many people spend so much effort trying to attain it - Lord knows I did - but with trolls, tall poppy syndrome, and anonymity, no matter what you do you’ll have to deal with someone saying you’re the worst thing ever. The eSports crowd in particular is hard to please, to the point of not being worth it, and to a lesser extent, hardcore gamers in general. It was a bitter pill to swallow, as those are labels I assign to myself, and I’d like to be able to make my own kind happy. But core gamers don’t like to be pleased. They like to win.
Lastly, Counter-Strike taught me the value of mentoring. In an effort to curb rampant dickhead behaviour, we sponsored some younger players as long as they adhered to our code of conduct. They could use our tools, and be taught our strategies. It was an attempt at positive indoctrination, and I believe it took hold with at least two of them, as they went on to become prominent community members.
World of Warcraft (age 24): I have a way addictive personality
By that, I don’t mean people just can’t get enough of my awesome style. I mean, if you locked me in a cage with a lever, I’d know what was coming and be hooked on cocaine through anticipation. WoW was another step in self discovery for me, learning that I can get super addicted to anything, and that makes me vulnerable to the psychological tricks used in the “dark side” of game design.
Up until this point, I had mainly played competitive multiplayer. But Blizzard are among the best at what they do, and they had me hook, line, and sinker.
Dark Souls (age 28): Don’t hate the game, baby. Hate the player.
A funny thing happens when you’re learning a combat system that’s objectively perfect. All those excuses you tell yourself don’t ring true inside your head. You can’t blame the game with a straight face internally. It’s not the game, it’s not the lag. There’s only one thing it can be, and that’s you.
You failed. You Died. And that will happen again and again, until you just do better. Playing Dark Souls is like an exercise in self analysis. If you want to keep playing, you have no choice but to adapt your playstyle, fit it’s way of playing, instead of it fitting your playstyle. And that’s exactly the successful attitude you need when attempting something difficult.
Some things, like learning coding, have very direct similarities. The code isn’t wrong, you are. Fix yourself. Level up. Try again. But even when life isn’t fair, having the mindset of stubborn self-improvement, perseverance, and self analysis, is a massive asset.You start to look at other people blaming the system, or the game, and you’re aware of how they’re limiting themselves.
Alex Kidman, veteran games journalist
Pitfall! (age 8): Picking left from right
This is somewhat embarrassing, but for whatever reason as a kid I could never quite get left and right properly associated.
I wasn't dumb in other areas, but this particular distinction eluded me until I started playing videogames. Platform games specifically, because you typically run from left to right. So all I had to do was think "which way would I be running" to pick between them.
Yes, I did eventually sort it out in my head. Brains are weird things.
Fairlight (age 12): Imagination can make things better
I picked up Fairlight along with a number of other games in a compilation set for the Amstrad CPC6128, which was the family computer at the time. The instruction manual was a sheet that displayed the basic controls, but that was it.
Why was I in the castle? The loading screens were thin with detail, and in truth, it's a game you can complete in remarkably short order once you know what you're doing. That didn't matter, however, because in the absence of a lot of detail, my youthful brain filled in the gaps, making Fairlight a game that I have remarkably detailed and fond memories of that wouldn't make a lick of sense to anyone outside my immediate family.
Ghosts N Goblins (age 14): Anger isn't good for you
Again with the Amstrad, and its remarkably limited port of Ghosts N Goblins, a game which gave me my first rage quit experience. An early section of the game seemed impossible to my tiny mind, and no matter how hard I tried, or how angry I got with the game, I couldn't proceed.
It's the first and only time I've ever thrown a joystick across a room. Mind you, the Amstrad Joystick was a horrible thing, and it frankly deserved it. The only way forwards was to walk away, cool my nerves and try again when I was significantly calmer.
It's again a pretty simple life lesson, and, to be totally honest, one that I miss from time to time. When I do, however, I think back to angry Alex, age 14, and the game I just couldn't finish.
RoboWar Age 17: Coding can be interesting
RoboWar (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RoboWar) was one part coding language and one part silly robots blowing each other up in a tiny arena on the Mac computers that the high school I was attending at the time. There wasn't a lot else to do on these particularly locked down machines other than create junk files in order to watch Oscar The Grouch pop up and sing the trash song (remember that?), and while I was never the best coder I knew (that would be a friend of mine, Jonathan, who, while a peaceful soul, could code some quite killer bots) there was simple fun in tweaking code to make a robot appear "smarter" over time.
I don't code much any more, but RoboWar gave me an appreciation for logical approaches to problems that stays with me even now.
Super Bomberman/Sim City (age 20): Games can be great icebreakers
When I went off to university, I had to live in shared accomodation, which meant (gasp!) living with other people I wasn't related to. Some I got on well with, some I loathed, and some I just seemed to be unable to connect to, even though there should have been some similar interests to shuffle around.
Enter the Super Nintendo, and its versions of Sim City and Super Bomberman. One flatmate, Eric, was so enamoured of Sim City (which I'd rented overnight) that he went out and bought the cartridge, despite not owning a SNES. Many, many games ensued until we moved onto a bitter time trial rivalry with Super Mario Kart.
Meanwhile, another flatmate, Max, moved in. Max was OK, but we didn't really get along in any real way, and instead tended to irritate each other.
Max declared one day that "all videogames were stupid", until Super Bomberman came into the house. A full twenty hours of competitive play (and a small amount of lubricating beer) later, and the tension between the two of us relaxed remarkably.
Luke Hopewell, former Gizmodo editor
Heroes Of Might And Magic II (age 10): The importance of family
When I was young, I never understood what my parents meant when they told me I would need my sister when I was older. I was an angsty teenage boy and she was a naive little girl. Why would the two of us ever need each other? Now that I'm a little older, I understand what they meant: when my parents die, my sister — Laura — and I will be all the family we have left.
We moved to Australia from England when I was about three years old, and we're the only members of the Hopewell clan in the Southern Hemisphere. I didn't grow up with my grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins right around the corner: they were around the other side of the world. Our immediate family is all we have.
That's why it devastated my mother to see us fight when we were kids. I imagine all parents think about the time when they'll no longer be around to take care of their kids, and when they see them fighting they get a glimpse at what that might be like if it all goes sideways. That's why it hurts them so much.
When my sister and I got along, we were either watching TV together or playing Heroes Of Might And Magic 2 on our home PC. It was a time before kids had phones, tablets and laptops. The computer was stored in an ornate-looking cabinet and we opened it up, pulled up two dining table chairs and whiled away the hours during the school holidays playing Heroes.
We'd set up our own victory conditions and build our armies. We'd team up to go to war against our AI enemies before eventually having to take on each other. Our fights in the game were nothing like our fights in real life. Heroes gave us common ground. It taught me how to get on with my sister at a time when I hated everything, including myself.
When Laura and I used to fight in real life, it felt fierce and world-ending, but now that I look back it was over trivial stuff. When we fight now it feels the same: fierce and nasty, but I'm sure when I look back in another 15 years what we fight about now will also seem petty.
This game taught me how to get along with my sister, and now that I look back it's a memory I really enjoy, and one that helps me realise that I definitely will need my sister when my parents aren't here anymore.
Pokemon Blue (age 12): How to be a human
If you ask someone to describe me these days, you'll probably hear words like "loud" and the perhaps more polite "extroverted". It wasn't always that way. I was a painfully shy child.
I didn't know how to make friends, so I was always the kid who didn't speak to anyone else out of fear of being embarrassed. That all started to change with Pokemon Blue.
First of all: don't let anyone tell you Pokemon Red was better. They are lying to you and themselves whether they know it or not. Second, Pokemon Blue showed me how to build a team, how to go on an adventure and how to play different attributes against another player. It taught me to love competition.
As a result, I fell deeply in love with the world of Pokemon (a love that still burns to this day). That love for Pokemon Blue led me into the Pokemon Trading Card game, which is where my lesson on how to interact with people really kicked off.
I built a few battle decks using cash I'd saved up from my meagre pocket money and started looking for somewhere to play with others. I loved this game enough to want to venture outside of my comfort zone and take on other players.
In the Pokemon TCG community, I battled other players for badges and almost got myself to the level of Pokemon Master. I don't remember why I stopped playing competitively, but I know that it taught me how to conquer my anxiety by interacting with other people who were into the same things as me.
I've since learned that the best way to conquer embarrassment is to run at it headfirst, but that's a lifehack for another day.
Now that I think about it, I still have all my Pokemon cards in a drawer at home. I fight any of youse.
Forza 4 (age 22): How to drive awesome cars safely
Everyone likes to think they're a pretty good driver. I know that I certainly used to be rubbish.
I'm lucky enough to have a job where I can test some pretty fast cars now, and thanks to my first play-through of Forza 4 with racing line assistance on, I've been able to figure out a racing line and how to take a corner.
Not only has it helped on track days, but it's also helped teach me how to take a corner better on my motorbike day-to-day.
Whelp, that's everything that video games have taught us in a nutshell. Now we want to hear from you guys: what valuable life lessons has your beloved hobby imparted over the years? Or is it really just about jumping on Goombas and shooting fireballs? Share your stories in the comments!
This story has been updated from its original publication.