Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Need for Honest Effort

In some cases, I know that I’m going to make a two-part post before I even start writing. Not so this time; I realized about two minutes ago that I could extend what I said last week. (Well, two minutes before I started writing, anyway.) And really, it’s more that I realized I could use similar titles than a realization that I had more to say.

Regardless. Last week I discussed some of the rewards that I found in the effort I put into Pokémon. But there’s more than that in what video games have to say about effort and hard work, at least for me. You see, like many activities, video games offer rewards to dedicated players.

It’s visible all over: the amount of effort required to even clear a lot of games is almost enough right there. The idea of an “achievement”, first seen in Xbox titles, has spread all over the community of Internet flash games, even spawning a parody game (Achievement Unlocked, produced by Armor Games, link to that has nothing but such achievements. Even after clearing a game, usually there’s even more to do for 100% completion (link to TVTropes). And unsurprisingly, these kinds of rewards for reaching goals, even if those rewards are nothing but the satisfaction of success, do encourage the kind of motivation and effort that can translate into all areas of life.

And an excellent example of one game in which this applies more than any other is Dance Dance Revolution. Dance Dance Revolution (or just DDR) is a kind of rhythm game where the challenge is to respond to a song being played. Predictably, having a good sense of rhythm is unendingly helpful when playing these games. DDR in particular is a dancing game, in which the player has to step on arrows on the ground in response to the arrows on the screen. The game, like most rhythm games, thus requires a special controller to play. In this case, a pad with four arrows on it.

The difficulty ranges from really easy to insanely hard. The songs with difficulty levels around one or two are usually easy enough for anyone to handle, while songs up at eight or nine usually cause people unfamiliar with DDR to stop and stare. The legendary level ten songs are usually impossible for just about anyone, even experienced players. The odd thing about all of that, though, is that surprisingly enough, it requires no small amount of practice and effort to become any better at the game.

I can barely even remember when I first tried DDR. I know it was in an arcade somewhere, and I seem to recall being immensely proud of myself after doing a really easy song. That lasted about until I finished, and the person waiting for the arcade machine got up and played a song that was much, much harder than anything I had attempted. Better yet, it seemed like every time I went to the arcade, there was a large crowd of skilled players around the machine, and I didn’t dare interrupt them.

Because of this, I wasn’t really getting any practice. I wasn’t improving significantly at all. Now, I certainly could have just written it off as unimportant and done something else. Certainly, there are plenty of people in the world who write off video games in general as unimportant. But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to get better at DDR; I harbored my dream of being able to one day walk up to such a crowd and force my way in on the basis of my skill. And I knew that if I wanted that, I had to practice.

I could have backed down overall. I certainly could have just thought about that dream and satisfy myself with those thoughts. But that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. Setting a goal or having a dream is only the first step. It’s a first step that’s meaningless without the willpower and effort to make it happen. I could have saved my money and my time for other pursuits. But all of life is making choices and allocating resources to the goals and dreams that we possess. And in this case, I chose to put my effort into realizing this dream.

In addition to the arcade versions, there are DDR games sold for home consoles as well. So I went out and got the only available DDR game for the only major console I had at the time: DDR Mario Mix for the Nintendo Gamecube. And I practiced and (slowly) improved. Unknowingly, I had bought a DDR game that was easier than most other available games; I can’t say whether or not this affected my development.

I eventually got to the point where I wasn’t being challenged anymore by any of the songs on that game. By this time, we had an Xbox as well (still in the previous generation), so the obvious solution was to pick up one of the DDR games for that system. After getting DDR Ultramix 3 as a gift, my improvement continued.

Two more recent events have shown the culmination of all of this effort. My old high school held a talent show every year, and by the time that my senior year rolled around, I was confident enough in my ability (and encouraged by all of my friends) to play DDR for the crowd. I chose what is known as a “boss song”, one of the insanely difficult songs that on the hardest difficulties are almost always difficulty level ten. I did not play at that level, instead going for the level nine difficulty just below that.

It went about as well as could be expected. I missed all of three steps in a lightning fast song that demands quite a lot in terms of physical ability. And I led off the talent show in style as the first act; according to some of my friends in the audience, I drew at least a partial standing ovation. I had gained the respect and admiration of a crowd far larger than I had ever dreamed of performing for.

Much later, at a club meeting for video game players at Brandeis (yeah, CGX shout out!), two highly skilled club members had brought a DDR game on the computer (not technically called such, but it might as well have been the same thing) that several members were enjoying immensely, including myself. And with a massive selection of songs from any number of different DDR games, I had a lot to choose from.

Near the end of the meeting, I found the song that I had played for the talent show in the list, a song called The Legend of MAX. And I decided that, since I had improved in the intervening months, it couldn’t hurt to try it on its highest difficulty. Yet again, I stood in front of a crowd of people and demonstrated my skill. One cleared level ten song later, I had finally reached that goal that I had set so long ago.

And now? Now I can do things like, well, the video below.

That’s a level ten song on DDR SuperNova for the PS2, called Xepher. (Obviously, I was the one dancing in that video.) I’ve cleared six level ten songs since then, and I’m still practicing. The nature of songs of this difficulty means that really, one has to individually break down each one. Unlike at the lower difficulties, where the ability to clear one level nine or level eight song usually translates into the ability to clear most of them, level ten songs usually require a lot of individual practice before they become possible.

It took me about a year to get from being a complete novice to being able to handle level eight or nine songs. And it took me about another year of practice after that to finally clear a level ten song. For the truly motivated, video games like Dance Dance Revolution aren’t just a waste of time; they’re a skill in their own right, one that like any other requires time and effort (that is to say, practice) to master.

And over the years that I improved, there were so many chances for me to turn back. Either before I got any DDR game, or before I got Ultramix 3, or just at any time to get tired and quit. But nothing in life works that way. Not Dance Dance Revolution, not my classes, not my extracurricular activities, nor anything else. If one has a dream, one has to put in the effort and the will to make that happen. And that’s a lesson that if nothing else is reinforced by the challenges presented by the video games that I play.

1 comment:

Tommy said...

I agree that many video games impart a great variety of skills to the players, with some being more useful than others. When I really get into a game, I work to master the gameplay, even if my first endeavor is a poor one.

I recall that the first experience I had with building mastery from scratch was the game Tetris Attack for the SNES. If you're not familiar, the game isn't actually much like Tetris, but is a puzzle game nonetheless. Anyway, I remember being terrible at it, but I found the environment to be very fun(it was themed after Yoshi's Island, an excellent SNES game), so I kept at it. After many, many hours of playing, I grew to see patterns that I would never have detected beforehand, and I became something of an expert at the game.

Of course, I've had similar experiences with dozens of other games. Pokemon, the dozens of JRPGs I've played, and various strategy games all fall under my successful endeavors towards mastery. As for the usefulness of all the skills I acquired, I cannot say. However, one reigning, universal theme is the strong connection which bolsters hand-eye coordination.

All video games have an element of kinesthesia. Your description of DDR is probably the greatest example of how far the connection between what you see and the translation into movement can go. I would describe myself as thoroughly adequate at DDR, playing mostly in Standard with occasional jaunts into Heavy. I haven't played in well over a year, though, so I imagine I've deteriorated considerably. Still, I can likewise attest to the fruits of an honest effort to improve--DDR's lack of the element of luck forces people to perform exactly as they are.

There is a definite feeling of accomplishment that accompanies the mastery of any skill, even if the skill is virtual. So while training the perfect characters may not mean much in the real world, the internal satisfaction gained is certainly real, and therefore worthwhile.