There’s a great series of books by Robert Bevan involving a group of Dungeons and Dragons players who accidentally get sucked into the game world and have to find a way to survive in a medieval fantasy. At one point, the characters find themselves playing a tabletop RPG to pass the time, and wonder why – since they are now really living in the game world – they do not simply go out and do magic and defeat mythical enemies for real:
“I mean, just take a look around. We’re here. Look at your ears. You’re an elf, for crying out loud. We could be out having real adventures, fighting monsters, collecting treasures.”
“We could have been doing that stuff back in the real world too,” said Tony the Elf. “We could have gone around stabbing people and taking their money. Or run off into the woods and look for a bear to kill. But wherever you are, here or there, that’s a good way to get yourself imprisoned or killed.”
Because, of course, the vast majority of us – if transported to the world of Skyrim or Fallout – would not be the hero. We would be an NPC, serving in a tavern or a weapons shop or haplessly stabbed or eaten in a cutscene. Why? Because no one ever completes a full play-through without dying first time, and when we die we don’t respawn. If real life were an arcade, we’d always be playing with our last quarter. Imagine how you would approach – say – a Dark Souls game if you knew that dying would deprive you of any chance to play again. Suddenly risk-taking looks a lot less attractive. Maybe let’s just grind some skeletons for a while and not go all Leeroy Jenkins just yet, eh?
It is, after all, the consequence-free nature of play that is central to its function. As children it lets us try out new approaches to life without suffering anything more painful than the occasional “get rekt noob” in the chat. This is why play is so central to learning. As adults, the function changes somewhat: play is a chance for people with draining jobs and heavy responsibilities to blow off steam and to let their minds focus on something other than work and care for an hour or two. In real life we would never jump between two multi-storey buildings on the basis that it looks doable, but if you have as many tries as you like to get it right, then why not?
And there’s the thing. In real life we often tell ourselves that doing something – asking a girl out, learning to skate, speaking up against petty injustices – is simply not worth the risk involved. But how would our attitudes change if we knew that we would have an infinite number of do-overs? It may not seem this way, but a lot of the time this is effectively the case. While a failed attempt to chat up the barista cannot necessarily be repeated (or not without risking charges of stalking and harassment), if this shot fails there will be many more in the future. Sure, if you’re shot down it might be embarrassing in the short term, but within six months you will have forgotten all about it – especially if you’ve tried again and met the love of your life as a result.
So why not be a bit more playful? I’m not necessarily recommending that you find a monster to fight or jump between tall buildings, but you can enjoy a slightly more adventurous life if you see every small challenge as a game element that can be fixed be returning to the last save point rather than as a permanent and fatal error.