It began as a pilgrimage to the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, my third TGS since I arrived in Japan that many years ago. My recent unemployment left me with an excess of free time and a dearth of funding, an imbalance I remedied by hitchhiking 550-some miles from the rural town of Saga all the way to the main event. Not only did I manage to make it to and from the game show with my wallet and kidneys intact, but I also gained valuable experience that saw me well on the way to my next level. At least, that’s what I understood after my very first ride.

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He called himself Miso, and he was a monk making his regular trip from his home in southern Japan to his university in Hiroshima. Since Hiroshima was my first destination on what turned into a week-long adventure, I couldn’t have been luckier. Conversation came easily after I learned that his religious leanings didn’t prevent him from enjoying the odd videogame. Top on his list was Dragon Quest, a guilty pleasure shared by almost every stranger who stopped to pick me up. More unique than his favorite game, however, was his next question.

“What level are you?”

“What, you mean in Dragon Quest 9?”

“No. What level are you?”

I’ve played enough roleplaying games to say with complete confidence that I’ve indirectly gained thousands of levels. I’ve assigned enough attribute points to provide stats for a small city and unlocked so many spells and abilities that Harry Potter is more a busker than a wizard by comparison. But I still couldn’t give an answer off the top of my head, and the number I found was a result of desperation rather than deliberation.

“I don’t know … 31? I’ll probably level up after this trip.”

My host was much quicker to reply.

“Ah, you have some catching up to do. I’m level 36.”

“That’s OK,” I said, playing along. “Once I get to Tokyo, I plan on walking around in the bushes, challenging random squirrels and passersby until I gain a few levels.”

“The only monsters I fight come from within.”

The conversation continued in this line with how many hitpoints I had (400-some) and which abilities I had unlocked (Japanese and hitchhiking, to name a few) before trailing off into other realms, but the question stuck with me: What level am I?

If a Cactuar Falls Alone in the Woods, Does Anybody Gain a Level?

What defines a level? While experience points can track progress in general, levels are reserved for measured, integral improvement. That’s “integral” in the mathematic sense – i.e. related to integers, whole numbers that don’t include fractions or decimals. Being halfway or even 99 percent of the way to mastering an ability has zero in-game impact. You either know it, or you don’t.

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Pretend your character just leveled and learned the Fireball spell, finally enabling you to really stick it to those ice gnomes or frosty wildebeests or whatever-the-hell your cold creature du jour is. It’s a boon to your offensive powers, but consider this: You went from zero demonstrable knowledge in this spell to complete mastery in a single post-battle “ding!” That’s the equivalent of not being able to read or write a single letter in spite of years of study, and then one day breezing through the complete works of Shakespeare in an afternoon.

This is more a consequence of game design needing to be fun than a lack of attention to detail. The alternative would involve you gradually mastering Fireball in tiny increments. Perhaps the first 10 times you cast the spell, you smoke up like a chimney without the fire. Maybe then you manage to conjure a few sparks or singe enemies with a candle-like flare, but a Great Chicago Fire-esque conflagration is still a long way away. When players’ entertainment comes into play, however, games will always start with a bang rather than a whimper.

Further inspection reveals my boasted triple-digit HP has no real-world analogue. You could gain a thousand of the aforementioned levels and be no more equipped to survive a bullet or a hundred-foot drop than you were when you began. That’s not to say different people can’t take different amounts of “damage” before they end up at that great Game Over screen in the sky, but rather that it’s not a negotiable value. I might be able to learn how to take a punch or two, but no amount of training will ever allow me to withstand the outrageous ordnance-unloading, dinosaur-stomping and planet-exploding endured by the average game character.

But with attribute points like Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity, the leveling analogy lends itself better to real-life growth. You can easily measure physical fitness as a result of time invested: Run for a month; shave minutes off your mile; level up! Pump iron for a year; double your max bench press; +4 STR! Even intelligence has plenty of rating frameworks in the form of tests, though intellectual progress will always be harder to measure than physical. But regardless of these statistical increases, remember: Merely making progress doesn’t count as leveling. It’s that integral leap that earns you your wings.

Now that you’re primed on the underpinnings of these statistics, let’s see if you can snatch the controller from my hand, grasshopper.

To Level, You Must First Realize There Is No Level

Finally, the good stuff: determining your level. As with the underpinnings of any RPG, I am required to define my own leveling conventions. To start, Level 99 is the max. Any higher, e.g. Level 100, suggests there should be another 899 levels to explore. Why bother with that third digit otherwise?

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We are all born at Level 1, and from there to high school is pretty much a straight shot to Level 10 or so. A disability or a natural aptitude does not alter this progression, but instead only changes your class. And just as game characters can have large gaps in skill points while sharing the same level, so, too, can people.

Levels begin to lose correlation with age as our options increase and our character classes change, however. Joining a sports team lends obvious increases to physical stats and quicker level progression. Likewise, college courses increase INT and open the door to more complex character classes down the line. Mastering skills – programming, elocution, interpretive dance – will help you level up, but your class plays an even more pivotal role in employment opportunities. After all, an accounting firm will be more keen to hire a Level 23 Economancer than they will a Level 45 Master Snorkelist.

I’ve completed college, done some traveling and had a few jobs; and yet while I’ve almost maxed out my navel-gazing skill, I still don’t feel any closer to divining my current level. If I were to ballpark my two greatest skills, the title of Level 31 Pixelante Scribe would best suit me. But unlike a character, I continually have access to all my abilities and classes. Is it possible to determine a single number that encapsulates everything I am?

Maybe not, and I’m beginning to accept that. Perhaps Miso was not merely asking a question, but planting a seed of wisdom. I took the pragmatist’s approach and labored under the hypothesis that levels are vital, discernable statistics, but the shortcomings of this thought experiment suggest that I should set aside my mathematician’s calipers and reexamine Miso’s riddle under a spiritual lens.

In an RPG, how many or what kind of monster you slay has no bearing on the quality or nature of your level – each +1 is just another step on a staircase built for easy ascent. But in the real world, while levels can be used to mark your progress, the journey itself is paramount. Even if I had been true to my word and battled the few woodland creatures left in Tokyo, I couldn’t hope to gain more than a squirrel burger for my trouble. Miso’s battles with his own inner monsters, however, let him out-pace me with ease.

If Monk Miso’s Zen koan-like wisdom has taught me anything, it’s that there is no single answer to that seemingly simple question. So, readers of The Escapist, I ask you: What is your level?

Brett Staebell’s power level proved simpler to ascertain, and it is assuredly over 9000.

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