Maybe Sometimes Video Games Teach You About Life

A silly video game unexpectedly gave me an interesting insight into real life.

We created a video game for my son's school project, a remake of Asteroids in a closer-to-home setting: "CoVIDoids", in which you pilot a microscopic ship doing battle with the Corona Virus.  It was a silly concept, but we hoped it would give people a few laughs and help my son complete his school project and raise some money for charity in the process.  It also gave me an unexpected perspective on the times we're living through now.

When we started implementing the game, we chose to use a 2^n progression for the number of viruses you fight in each stage, 1 large virus in the first stage, then 2, 4, 8, 16, and ultimately 32 in the toughest stage.  When you hit a large virus, it splits into two medium sized viruses, and the medium sized ones split into two small ones.  We had no particular design rationale behind doing that, it just seemed like a reasonable approximation of a worse-case kind of scenario.

When we started play-testing the game, we found that in the early stages you can just blast away at the viruses, mashing the fire button as fast as your fingers allow.  But that didn't work in the higher stages: if you blast away indiscriminately, you're going to get into trouble and it'll be Game Over pretty quickly. We were worried that maybe it was too tough in the higher stages.

The really interesting and unexpected observation that we came to was that you can make it through the higher stages, but the only way to do it is to be cautious, and patient, and disciplined.  You need to maneuver carefully, pick your shots deliberately, and take your time.  If you get impatient, you're likely to make a reckless mistake, and one or two such mistakes can wipe you out. We didn't intentionally design the game that way, but the realization was kind of a "wow" moment.

We could have changed the game to make it easier for players to blast their way through it, and some players will undoubtedly get frustrated and walk away without trying a different approach.  But there was a  kind of elegance in the subtle lesson that the game had to teach.

It seemed to be a very unexpected case of art imitating life.  

It has been a tough few months in the real world, and we're all ready to get back to normalcy.  It is tempting to just say, "screw it" and try to resume life as we knew it before.  It is tempting, but I'll be damned if creating a video game about COVID-19 didn't teach me a lesson about dealing with it in real life. 

Sometimes video games surprise you, and sometimes they maybe even teach you something about life.


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