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The Teachings Of Video Games – Donkey Kong

The Teachings Of Video Games – Donkey Kong

People often dismiss video games for being child’s play, a waste of time. But as with anything in life, perspective is everything. Choose to find value in video games (or anything you choose) and you will.

Take the following thought experiment I instituted for myself long ago that has, surprisingly, proven itself to be powerfully enlightening. When playing video games, ask yourself: If this game was here to teach me lessons on how to be a better human being, what would it say? What are the things I can take away that will bring value to my human experience apart from short term endorphins? Take that questioning perspective for long enough and you are certain to reach some fascinating places.

When I’m playing NBA2K, I’m:

  • Observing the value of teamwork.
  • Reflecting on the importance of precision in executing a plan.
  • Being reminded that meaningful achievements only happen through the conquering of many individual moments.

When I’m playing Street Fighter, I’m:

  • Reflecting on the hero’s journey.
  • Thinking about the need for resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Recognizing the need to meaningfully analyze my adversaries’ tendencies.

But it’s not NBA 2K or Street Fighter that I’m studying today – or that I’m allowing to lead my study of me. It is the Nintendo classic – Donkey Kong. With beautiful simplicity (travel from bottom to top before the clock runs out while hopping over rolling barrels) it makes for a wonderful meditative practice. The repetitiveness allows the mind to rest. Part autopilot, part zen.

Today I watch the endless barrage of barrels rolling my way, the clock overhead pressuring my movement, and I reflect on the destructiveness of inaction. Not only does standing still not move me toward my goal, it actively pulls me further and further away due to the allotted seconds counting down. At a certain point, there comes a moment when I recognize that the remaining time is so low that no action, no matter how dedicated, will allow me to achieve my goal. I don’t know how many seconds I have left on my own clock, but I know for certain that, just like Mario (the game’s hero), the longer I stand still and the longer I wait to pursue my potential, the less likely I am to reach it.

Fortunately, The Teachings of Video Games never present problems they don’t offer solutions for. In this case, that is the value of action. But not just any action – jumping in place, or running backwards, those are no more helpful for Mario than inaction – rather it is purposeful action that is required, driven by a goal. Just as the waiting princess inspires Mario to action, we too need a target to aim for, a “North Star” of sorts to lead us in the right direction. When we know what it is we’re truly after, it becomes much easier to ignore the barrels coming our way.

That too, I realize, is a great teaching of this game: at no point do I find myself wishing there were no more barrels coming – what would be the point? Nor do I wish that instead of barrels there were buckets coming my way – what difference would it make? Having understood the rules of engagement – remain active, persistent, and pursuing the goal – I let go of all longing for things to be different than they are and commit my focus and energy entirely to getting better through the pursuit of the North Star.

Who knew there were so many spiritual teachings from a 1980’s video game?

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