Exit 112. I don’t want to play this game.

In the 2011 novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, an ordinary trailer-park kid is trying to save a dystopian near future virtual reality world from a corporation trying to gain control of it for themselves by solving a series of puzzles rooted in late 20th century geek pop culture.  I have written about this novel before (#32), and how one quote from it sticks out in my mind in particular:  “Like any classic video game, the Hunt had simply reached a new, more difficult level.  A new level often required an entirely new strategy.”

This principle seems especially true in my life today.  I came of age in the context of evangelical Christian college-age youth group in the late 1990s, and much of my views about life and the future were shaped by this world.  In this world, you get married in your early- to mid-20s (preferably without dating, and without kissing your wife until your wedding day, because Josh Harris), and start having children, who will then get involved in Awana and Sunday school while you and your wife attend the young parents’ Bible study. That ship sailed a long time ago for me.  That strategy doesn’t work in my world, and I feel like there is no precedent for me, because many people I know in situations similar to mine have long since walked away from their faith entirely.  Hence, an entirely new strategy is required.

Now would be a good time to plug a guest piece I wrote for another blog, since it is related to this topic.  Go check it out.  And while you’re at it, check out the rest of this other blog and the original blog from which this was spun off.

Anyway, where was I… I realized recently that there is more to the story than finding a new strategy.  Looking around me, it seems that the life that many of my peers are living, the life that is considered normal for someone my age in my situation, is one where socializing revolves around alcohol, whether that be going out drinking with friends, going out for drinks with a date, or, especially here in northern California, a classy wine tasting excursion.  Dating in this life involves playing with people’s feelings, fooling around physically with no sense of commitment, and not communicating honestly.  Is this the life I want?  Do I want to find a new strategy only to become this?  I don’t think so.  To go back to the video game analogy, I don’t want to play this game, and the game I thought I always wanted to play is out of print, with no copies anywhere on eBay and no working emulators for it.  Furthermore, I’ve realized that I don’t know if I want to play that game after all, by which I mean that the evangelical Christian family world I described above is not entirely my ideal anymore.

But what game do I want to play?  How can I figure that out, and how much of the rest of the world’s game will influence my game?  I’m never going to be the type to hang out in bars regularly, but maybe I could benefit socially from hanging out in bars occasionally and drinking something without alcohol?  Should I give up my personal prohibition on drinking alcohol and have a drink every once in a while in moderation?  Should I be a little more adventurous in pursuing dating rather than looking for any of hundreds of deal breakers right when I first meet someone?  I really don’t know.  But I have a feeling I’m at least starting to ask the right questions.

Exit 53. Go big or go home.

In 1998, during my last finals week as an undergraduate at UC Davis, I wrote a board game.  I always seem to get my best creative ideas when I have tons of other work to do.  Go figure.  The game has been through several major and minor revisions over the years.  Every spring since 2009, my friends and I have had a tournament to determine the annual champion of this game.  The fact that I wrote the game does not give me a major advantage in the tournament.  The game is not completely based on luck over strategy, but enough of the game depends on dice rolls and card draws that even the most strategic player is not guaranteed a win, and even the n00biest n00b can win sometimes.  I won the first two tournaments, in 2009 and 2010, and going into last night’s tournament, I had not won since.  This is not a big event; so far there have been between 6 and 9 people participating every year, and three of us have participated all seven years.  I am the only remaining player who has advanced to the final round every year.  (The explanations in the next few paragraphs seem kind of vague, but I’m writing this for an audience not familiar with the game, in a way that does not require readers to become familiar with the game.  Considering that there are probably only a hundred or so people who have ever played this game, in its 16-year history, I think it’s safe to assume most people reading this are not familiar with the game.)

In the tournament, everyone plays three full games against different combinations of opponents.  You get points based on whether you finished first, second, third, or fourth in your game, as well as bonus points for certain achievements that could happen in the game.  The scores are added up, and the four people who have the highest scores play a final game to determine the winner.  The last few years, I have been playing rather conservatively, but last night I decided to take a chance more often than usual.  At the end of the second game, the standings were very close; no one was dominating, and only a few points separated first place from seventh, so every point was going to matter in the third game.  I took a big gamble at one point in the next game, and after debating if I should do it, I said, “Go big or go home.”  My gamble had a 50-50 chance of succeeding, and it would have given me a bonus point in the standings, and if it did not succeed (which it didn’t), it probably would have only put me two or three turns behind where I would have been otherwise.  The only way my plan could go horribly wrong is if I rolled a 1 on the next turn, which would have taken me to a space where I draw an Encounter card.  These are kind of like Chance and Community Chest in Monopoly; some are good, some are bad, and some take you elsewhere on the board, which could be good or bad depending on your situation in the game.  So even if I did roll a 1, it wouldn’t have put me that much farther behind unless I got a card that took me somewhere far away on the board.  That would have been very bad.  But I didn’t have to worry about that unless I rolled a 1, and that such a card happened to be on top of the deck.  Well, guess what happened.  I rolled a 1, and I got a card that took me to the opposite side of the board, so it took another 10 turns or so to get back to where I was and continue what I needed to do to finish the game.  I ended up finishing third in that game.

I had done well enough in the first two games that a third place finish in game 3 was enough to qualify for the final round.  I was set up to take an early lead when another player stole a card from me that I would have needed to follow through with my plan to take this early lead.  (When I say stole, this is part of the game; there is a way in the game that you can take things from other players.  He did not cheat.)  When he stole the card, I told him, “Enjoy being the champion this year.”  But thanks to a few fortunate dice rolls, I ended up not too far behind where I would have been, and I did eventually jump out to a lead.  But this put a target on my back, and I ended up spending another 10 turns or so stuck behind a trap set by the same player who had stolen my card.  I would not have escaped except that circumstances eventually changed to the point where it became advantageous to another player to let me out of that trap.  At the end, it was a race to the finish, and I eventually won.

There are so many life lessons involved in this experience.  Sometimes you have to take chances.  Playing conservatively doesn’t work with many things.  Taking chances doesn’t always work either, but at least there is the satisfaction of knowing you did everything you could.  And sometimes, even when your plan doesn’t work, even when you take a chance and it fails miserably, things could still turn out just fine in the end.  So don’t give up, and don’t be afraid to take a chance.  That’s what I’m going to keep telling myself.