The Language of the Game

Blame it on the economy, a “quarter-life crisis” or merely being young and restless, but whenever my friends and I convene, we invariably talk about What We Want to Be When We Grow Up.

“I’m so jealous you’re getting your master’s,” my girlfriend bemoaned to a friend of mine. “I feel like I haven’t done anything since I graduated college.”

“But you’re doing plenty of things with your life,” she replied. “Don’t worry.”

The two men sitting at the table had a decidedly different take on the matter.

“You know what the problem is? She hasn’t unlocked a class change yet,” I said to my friend Allen. “She’s leveling up, but she’s not unlocking any new abilities. No JP.”

Allen nodded. He and I played a lot of Final Fantasy Tactics together. “She’s still a squire,” he said. “She could still get pretty buff, but no cool skills. Just, you know, ‘Throw Rock.'”

My decidedly non-gamer girlfriend just stared at us. “Okay, you guys,” she said. “Whatever.”

It’s probably less strange than she thinks it is. Spend time with a group of gamers and you’ll often hear them describe the trials and tribulations of their daily lives in game terms. What they’re doing is “talking in Game” – that is, using the language of videogames to relate their problems to each other in order to prescribe advice, offer sympathy and help each other work through the decisions they must make while trying to get the high score in the game of life.

Spitting Game

Navigating the dos and don’ts of your love life is hard for anyone regardless of vice or vocation, and it’s where many people start talking in Game. Allen and I have done this for as long as I’ve known him, usually mixing metaphors from fighting games. He came to me once while agonizing over his feelings for a girl during a Marvel vs. Capcom 2 session. “Should I rush this chick down like Magneto?” he asked. “She’s got the Captain Commando anti-air assist.”

Translation: “Should I chase this girl? She’s got some wingmen/women that might get in the way.”

“Tag Storm in and build meter,” I told him. “Bait the assist and punish. Then rush down. You’re ahead on life – don’t make stupid mistakes.”

While this statement is incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with MVC2, he picked up on it pretty quickly. Allen is many things, but a skilled pickup artist he is not, and it takes some serious Magneto skill to rush down a girl without running into the Captain Commando anti-air assist, which takes off a good chunk of life and pushes him out to the other side of the screen. If he had some solid assists of his own – a good wingman, or Sentinel’s ground assist – he’d be able to pull it off, but most of his buddies weren’t quite up to the task. So instead of rushing in blindly and risking rejection, embarrassment and a high-damage combo, I advised him to focus on handling his own business – building meter (working out, spending his emotional energy on school and work) and playing it cool until he had enough social capital to deal with the assist on his own.

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Sometimes the situation isn’t so easily handled, however. Later, Allen came back to me with a stressful situation more resembling Street Fighter III: Third Strike. “It’s like she just knocked me down, dude,” he said. “She’s ahead on life, and the timer is about to run out. What do I do? Do I parry? Throw? Or go for the reversal dragon punch?”

I could relate to the situation. Sometimes, love feels like you’re stuck in a bunch of Street Fighter mind games; once you’re knocked down, all you can do is hope that you guess right and your dragon punch hits, or you tech the throw, or you parry successfully instead of eating the throw or the hit and getting knocked down again. In this case, Allen was stuck in the friend zone, and nothing but a big gamble would get him out.

“Go for the dragon punch,” I told him. “It’s risky, but you’ll need to take a big risk to win this one.”

Allen didn’t really want to hear that – the dragon punch is a high-risk, high-reward move in Street Fighter because if it’s blocked, your opponent can punish you with her fanciest, most damaging combination – and in this case, the “dragon punch” consisted of openly and honestly confessing his feelings to the object of his affection.

“What if she blocks it? What if I lose?”

At this point, neither MVC2 nor Third Strike will help Allen win her over. However, a lifetime of losing in the arcades gave me the most important advice of all:

“Just put up another quarter and try again. You’ve gotta lose before you win.”


Some of the most poignant talking-in-Game moments don’t involve winning, losing or even another player. “Leveling up is huge,” says David Ayala, an old hand at Final Fantasy XI who looks kind of like a Filipino Ben Stiller. “Beating middle school, high school, college … I don’t really care for academia or more education, but a part of me just wants to level all the way up – you know, master my skill tree.”

I know what he means. Personal progress and development are staples of many videogames – if you’re going to save the world, you’d better be damn good at shooting guns, commanding armies and stacking blocks. What’s more, boosting stats, unlocking new abilities and hitting longer combos are all concrete markers of our achievements that don’t always find analogues in real life. “It’s almost a competitive thing,” David continues. “I spent so much time building my character that anything I write or say will kick the shit out of you for no reason other than that I’m at a Ph.D. level.”

This doesn’t mean that all gamers are single-minded grindaholics, though. “I think it’s made me strive to be more well-rounded,” says Rachel Chai, a gamer in her 20s who just finished a production stint at Riot Games on League of Legends. “If a character has high DPS (damage per second), I’ll boost their defense instead of focusing everything on damage power. For better or for worse, I always wanted my characters to be balanced.”

Sam Kim nods his head. “You can improve your Street Fighter game by playing StarCraft if you think enough about it,” he tells me. “Turtling, rushdown, mind games, patience – it’s surprising what you can take away from two seemingly completely different things.” Sam is a Street Fighter player by trade – he’s “OG3plus7” on Xbox Live if you want to try your luck.

This is new to me, mind you. I see video games showing up in daily life, whether it’s about women or work. These guys are the other way around; they’re seeing life in videogames. This doesn’t mean that they spend all day playing World of Warcraft; they’re using the thought process they learned from videogames to organize their individual goals, motivations and desires into an idea of the Good Life. After all, most gamers aren’t satisfied with simply being a “good enough” gunslinger, army general or brick-stacker. They want to be all three – and more besides.

No one embodies this ethos more than my good friend Hyung “LB” Lee. A renaissance man by nature, he is just as likely to pick up mixed martial arts or magic tricks as he is Minesweeper or Magic: The Gathering. “My approach toward games and life is the same, if that makes sense,” he tells me. “Many people approach hobbies because they are fun. They just do what they like, let the time flow, try to achieve happiness and so on. I want to experience things at a high level – the ‘pro’ level. The level that the majority of people have no idea even exists, and even the ones that do know about it don’t know how to get there.”

I pick Lee’s brain for a moment on what constitutes personal improvement and discover he’s thrown pretty much everything and the kitchen sink in there. On one hand, he’s been advancing steadily in his career (marketing), working on running a six-minute mile and taking tennis lessons. Right next to those goals, however, are “finish the Spicy Ramen Challenge,” “learn to drive a motorcycle” and “play the harmonica.” Even his approach to his love life is similarly goal oriented: “Move off of dating and into a stable relationship” is on his to-do list.

“I try to appreciate life at a higher level,” Lee says. “That’s what I do in life. Appreciate it at different levels – and try to achieve greatness.”

As a pastime, gaming is geeky at best and self-destructive at its extreme worst. Whether it’s the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam or the President of the United States, everyone seems to have an angle on why videogames are responsible for the shift from the Greatest Generation to the Gamer Generation. It’s nice to know that all the problem-solving we do in-game can help us out with our problems in reality.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.

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