Life is one big role-playing game, and we gain skills constantly…even ones we don’t want. That doesn’t mean we can’t still beat the boss.

I talked with a friend the other day about Vainglory, the touchscreen-based MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) I rave about pretty consistently. I’d gotten her in to it a couple months back, and she’s played pretty consistently since she started. We discussed strategy, and eventually talked about how much she’d improved over the past couple months. She’s come a long way, and though she certainly wasn’t great when she started, consistent practice really gave her a chance to learn and improve. Still, this isn’t her character that’s improved, it’s her…I wonder how a game would quantify our growth in reality.

Role-playing games generally work with some kind of experience-based system: the more experience you gain through in-game actions, the stronger your characters become. RPGs tend to allow character advancement in one of two general ways, both of which I’ve named ridiculously:

  • The Ever-Higher Staircase. The typical “level up” scenario; characters have a base set of attributes and abilities which increase by a certain amount after achieving the required amount of experience. Example: Character starts at Level 1; after gaining 100 EXP, character is now Level 2, gains +2 POW, +1 SPD, and a new spell: Firebomb. After gaining 175 more EXP, Character becomes Level 3…
  • The Ever-Steeper Curve. Skills and attributes increase gradually, over time, generally based on the use of corresponding traits and abilities. Example: Character consistently uses two-handed swords, so character gains more strength (for wielding and swinging around a heavy weapon), two-handed proficiency (because hey, a great axe might work just as well in some situations) and sword proficiency (because a great axe might not work just as well).

This massively simplifies character growth in gaming, of course, and odds are that any modern RPG uses a combination of these two systems, using “Leveling Up” to reward players for large progress, while incremental gains in specialized traits keep players excited and engaged between large boosts. Today, game developers plug these systems into games ranging from Candy Crush Saga to Madden football because we all love to feel like we’re making progress, we all want our achievements showcased, we want our efforts validated and acknowledged. In RealLifeRPG, though, not all the skills we develop work towards our benefit. What if instead of gaining levels in “Fortitiude” or “Stamina,” we leveled up in “Procrastination,” “Fear,” or “Depression?” If we still needed to beat the boss at the end of the level, but we’d just gained levels in “Impulsivity” and “Alcoholism,” what would we need to do to ensure our success?

Level Up All the Things

Living in the real world isn’t that different from playing an RPG: we go through life, encounter obstacles, and find ways to get through them and move on to the next day, the next challenge. We tend to focus on the Ever-Higher Staircases in life: the next birthday, the graduation from school, the marriage, the promotion, the children. Even so, we’re presented with a million little Curves over the course of a day, a week, a year, each choice we make pushing a couple fractions of a point into various skills, each skill coming with benefits and drawbacks. Those “skills” are our habits: the actions we reflexively call on so we can handle increasingly complex situations in life without becoming overwhelmed.

It’s tempting to focus on the staircases, on leveling up to the next job, to the next relationship, with thoughts that the new gear that comes with that new level will make the next boss battle a breeze. Truth be told, sometimes the additional boost from reaching an anniversary or special date gives us the kick we need…but sometimes it doesn’t. And when we’re faced with a fight where the gear we’ve gained from our most recent accomplishment isn’t good enough, those skills and stats we’ve developed over time can be the difference between success and defeat.

Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (which you should read) describes habits as etched pathways in the brain that connect an impulse with an action. Because they’re etched in to the brain, you can’t simply “erase” a habit: instead, you have to program yourself to take a new action when the impulse arises. People with tons of levels in “dedication” may stick out tough problems where others with levels in “avoidance” leave, but that’s not to say that either one is the better skill: sometimes it’s critical to know when to walk away from a bad situation, and too many dedication levels may only leave you with skills that keep you in the fight long past the time to leave. Generally though, there’s only one way to learn new skills: the hard way.


If you’re reading this, chances are you’re far past the point of initial character creation in your own life. You’ve tasted multiple victories, suffered even more defeats, and you’ve got base stats and abilities you like, while you wish you hadn’t put so much time into developing others…maybe you didn’t know you were developing some of those skills until it was too late. Here’s the bad news: in role-playing games, the higher your level is, the more experience it takes to climb up to the next stair on the staircase. When you already have set habits, it takes a lot of effort to change them, and it gets really frustrating to feel like you’re not making progress like you used to.

The good news, though, is that every day gives us tons of little curves we can climb, multiple small opportunities to start shaping ourselves into the heroes we want to be. Some of those old skills won’t go away, scars from prior battles will hang around, mistakes will be made. But anyone who’s played an RPG will tell you about grinding: taking on small battle after small battle to prepare yourself and your party with the experience you need to take on the boss and win. We all have to grind a bit to get to success.

My friend’s pretty decent at Vainglory now, not a pro (and neither am I), but good enough to jump in and have some fun with the game while stacking up a couple wins. That said, she’s still prone to some of the same mistakes she made when she first started playing: a touch too aggressive on occasion, and she falls apart a bit when she starts to self-chastise or get nervous. But she keeps playing anyway, and now she recovers from those errors better than she did before. It’s made her a better player, and she’s said that it’s also improved her thought processes in life in general. Games give us an opportunity to reevaluate ourselves and our actions in ways normal daily life doesn’t always provide…either way, I’d call that leveling up no matter the context.