I've never considered myself a "serious gamer" even though gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I guess to me a "serious gamer" is someone who spends lots of money on the very latest gaming console or gaming PC, and buys every game as soon as it's released. That's decidedly not me. Yet as a kid, between riding my BMX and playing with Lego(s), I stole over to my friend's house to play Nintendo games, I read Dragonlance novels and never really understood why everyone was so impatient with Raistlin (he was the only good guy as cool as the bad guys, by my reckoning), I rolled up D&D characters I'd never play (Satanic panic collateral damage), and tried my best to fall in love with those really bad board games that every American family seems to get for free along with the purchase of a picket white fence. I think I must have been a serious gamer without ever realising I was a gamer at all.
But as a young adult, my background as a compulsive fan of gaming gave me an outlook on life that most everything is, if you boil it down, a game.
This discovery started in grammar school: most of my friends got into endless amounts of trouble for poring over Zelda maps, Mario World lore, and gamer magazines when they were supposed to be doing schoolwork. So I learned by inverse example how to integrate my undiagnosed gaming addiction into everyday life, making every assignment somehow relate to gaming. No matter what teachers assigned, it would always get returned so that it related to a game I was playing at home on the computer, on my friend's Nintendo, or to a game I was inventing in my head. I succeeded (to whatever degree I did succeed, as a school dropout...twice) at education because I learned to see it as a sort of game of stenography, in which the goal was to hide gaming content in seemingly ordinary schoolwork.
It turns out that there's a lot we can learn in life from gaming.
People I introduce to D&D are often surprised to find that if you step back a little and squint one eye, RPG is a lot like a boardroom meeting of some self-proclaimed experts looking to solve a series of challenges.
I am, likewise, often surprised when I'm called into a workplace as an expert to solve a problem only to find that the fix is as simple, more or less, as "unplugging it and plugging it back in again" (as the cliché goes).
It seems to me that the first group of people are getting a very good education at troubleshooting, while the second group of people somehow missed that lesson. It's not a mystery; problem solving isn't generally taught in school. You get told how to answer questions, whether they're literary or mathematical, and there's usually a stark difference between a correct answer and an incorrect answer. Yet even if you get to the right answer, many of us can't honestly explain why or how we got there, because problems in school are rarely broken down into component parts and explained.
Breaking a problem into component parts and tackling them systematically may as well be the description of every RPG I ever play. D&D is a good enough example, but Shadowrun might be the ultimate example. In a typical Shadowrun game, you and your friends meet your client and you're presented with a task. About half the game session is spent planning out the heist, and the second half is the execution of it, with improvisation happening as needed. It's the perfect simulation of real life troubleshooting, complete with hypothesis, investigation, and revision. Wrap that process in whatever thematic elements you prefer, but playing a well thought out RPG is the best problem solving simulation available.
We're all guilty of sitting around oblivious to what's going on around us. It's why we have that phrase "stop and smell the roses": because we all get into a stressful daily routine that more or less works for us, and so it doesn't occur to us to deviate from it.
That can be boring, and sometimes it can be a little dangerous. Asking questions is an important part of being an intelligent human being, but like problem solving, it's a learned skill.
Heroes of a Pathfinder campaign aren't known for sitting complacently about their gardens. In fact, many of them have literal jobs exploring for the ever-daring Pathfinder Society.
A typical RPG involves a fair amount of combat, but generally so do most games. It's a crude but exciting expression of conflict and success. But if you look at most of the time spent playing an RPG, it actually consists mostly of exploration. Finding new and strange lands, wildlife, and cultures is what drives the story. It's what drives the characters.
The heroes of an RPG are rarely out just to kill and pillage for the fun of it. They're out to discover more about the world around them.
The conflict happens because someone or something would rather them stay at home, obediently succumbing to an oppressive and invasive regime.
While there's a danger that the implicit lesson (to fight for individual freedom) can be lost as mere fodder for a fictional game, I like to think that us folk who grew up on Dragonlance and Lord of the Rings actually take the messages in our art seriously.
Gaming, at least from my point of view, is a diverse culture. While there is a trope wherein different races have tensions mirroring those in the real world, the games and speculative fiction I grew up on encouraged diversity. Men and women worked as equals in adventuring groups (and in the case of Dragonlance, at least, wrote the actual books together), dwarves and elves and halflings and humans worked together, and there was even a whole spectrum of good and evil (quite a difference from the black-and-white morality of the conservative USA).
The key, I think, is the collaborative nature of the RPG. If I had 100 XP for every time I heard "Oh, so we're on the same team in this game?" when I introduce someone to D&D, I'd be mythic by now. It's a surprising, unique, and powerful aspect of RPG, and it's something that forces people to set aside their ego, their competitive nature, and often times even their insecurities, so that they can work as a team. I've managed to avoid several "team building" exercises at the places I've worked in the past, but I've been subject to one or two, and not one of them has anything over a good D&D session. And why wait until we're at work, anyway? Kids should be getting this valuable lesson in school; getting forced together for group projects is one thing, but getting to play D&D together is quite another. I know. I've seen it. I've GM'd it.
Unsurprisingly, gamers aren't all alike. Some gamers play games for the thrill of a challenge, others play because they like to win at stuff, some just like math and statistics a lot, others play because they like to get together with friends, and some play because they like to be told a good yarn, or they like to help tell a good yarn, and some play because they like to experience simulated cultures and worlds and physics. And that's just a list of the reasons that came to mind. No gamer I know would ever say that their reason for playing is the only valid reason; if you're playing the game, then you're a gamer.
Understanding that not everyone in the world has the same goal is really important, and often woefully misunderstood in real life. People don't seem to understand that it's perfectly valid to have no desire to contribute to an certain economy, or to engage in a war, or to fly a certain flag, or to lack "team spirit" just to fit in. People sometimes view different goals as antagonistic. Maybe you yourself were bullied in school, or scorned at work, for having a different sense of purpose than most of the other people around you.
Could we design alternate systems in life to appeal to the people who don't conform to the majority? Probably. We humans rank pretty high in ingenuity, and we have a great simulation we've been working on for at least 40 years: the humble RPG.
Dice image by Seth Kenlon. Creative Commons cc0.