Computer games can be time wasters when we’re just playing against a computer. MMOs tend to be a waste in the absence of an end goal in an environment that’s deliberately designed to be aimless and addictive.
Games of strategy, however, tend to exercise the mind and spirit, especially when your opponents are other humans. This is a role Starcraft II fills admirably with its server packed with thousands of people, a game against fresh opponents always ready to play in a few seconds. Each match has clear objectives and an ending, unlike MMOs. In an hour one can play 3-4 different matches finding out what works and what does not.
One quickly finds even at the lowest level of play human opponents are far more dangerous and unpredictable than any AI.
About every 15-25 minutes you can go through life’s conflicts in miniature. It doesn’t take long to see certain patterns emerge, that certain philosophies work optimally while others are mediocre or fail outright.
I will try to list some of the lessons I’ve learned from starcraft that have proved valuable in real life:
1. Experience trumps wits. Some idiot who’s simply spent more time playing the game will beat you when you’re new, no matter how fast and clever you think you are. You might think you’re smart, but it’s not as much an advantage as you think if you haven’t put in the time and effort.
Coasting on raw ability alone fails miserably in a contest that relies on learned skills. An ordinary guy who knows an optimal build order to execute a sound strategy will destroy a genius who’s trying to figure everything out for the first time.
This is why there’s plenty of average joes doing well in life while everyone knows that “smart” guy who’s losing at life.
Starcraft 2 teaches there’s no such thing as “potential” only results.
2. Success is a numbers game. You have to lose (a lot) to ever be a winner. As you get better the matchup will try to move you up the ladder to people who are your equal or better in ability.
You lose your ego fast when you constantly go up against opponents who you’ll lose to half the time. You’re never allowed to just stay comfortable crushing people who are below you. Every time a new game begins, you’re up against someone you can’t take lightly. By the time you learn enough to play even half decently, you’ve suffered dozens of humiliating defeats and know what it feels like when the winner decides to be an asshole.
Even if you get good, you know there’s no shortage of people who can slap you around effortlessly. You realize gloating in victory is for children who know little of life. A real life Big Man is above such silliness.
3. Time is the most important resource. A dumbass who’s simply faster than you will destroy you every time. If you aren’t ready when he comes for you, if you can’t react fast enough, that’s it, you’re dead. All your boasting and bragging how you’re a master strategist is for naught. Knowing kung fu makes no difference if you’re dropped right away by a swift punch to the jaw.
Imagine getting extra moves in chess! You’d be able to destroy players monumentally smarter and more skilled than you. The day is often decided simply by getting there first with the most.
The importance of time in deciding conflict can’t be doubted if we glance at the American Civil War. A bit more speed would have prevented the rebel armies from uniting at Manassas. A bit more speed could have threatened Washington after First Manassas. A bit more speed could have destroyed Lee’s army at Gettysburg. Longstreet saved Lee from defeat at The Wilderness by arriving at exactly the right time. A little more speed and there would have been no months-long siege of Petersburg…
Starcraft drills this lesson into your head mercilessly. If you’re playing terran and that bunker is completed just a few seconds too late before that zerg rush hits, it’s game over.
4. To everything there’s a golden mean. Goldilocks and Aristotle had the right idea. Too aggressive, you die. Not aggressive enough, you die. Starcraft teaches you the hard way to have a feel for exactly what kind of approach a situation calls for. When we’re first learning to drive a car, we sway back and forth in the lane, compensating then overcompensating. Soon, we drive straight.
In real life, though, we tend to make a major mistake that causes us to overcompensate to an equally faulty extreme. Then we waste years of our lives compounding our error until continuation becomes so painful we’re forced to re-evaluate our strategy. A few decades later, the lucky among us are finally able to drive that car somewhat competently, the rest never learn.
With starcraft, it becomes possible to see a model of that grand learning process in miniature.
5. Your brilliant ideas mean nothing until you try to execute them. Even a simple plan falls apart when you’re under pressure. Being adaptable in the moment is more valuable than making grandiose complicated plans. This is why armchair generals fail. A game like starcraft becomes a laboratory to test your hypotheses about what will work and what will not.
In real life, we can’t formulate a philosophy and then have a series of 20 minute tests to see if it really works as a guide to our actions. But starcraft allows us to come somewhat close to that. Through trial and error we learn that some approaches are objectively better than others. After trying something 20 times and getting your ass kicked every time, you’re forced to stop rationalizing. That approach doesn’t work. Now, no demagogue, ideologue, or politician will ever convince you otherwise; you’re immune to their poisonous talk of relativism because you’ve experienced objective truth for yourself, often painfully.
In real life, winning conflict requires the same principles as engineering. You want the simplest, lowest investment solution that effectively solves the problem. The more complexity, the more points of failure. Evolution shows us this philosophy is one of the underlying laws of reality. A “fit” living thing accomplishes its goals as efficiently as possible with as few points of failure as possible.
The pages of history are littered with egotistical generals who broke this universal law, thinking themselves military geniuses to the bitter end.
6. Always go for decisive objectives that put your opponent under mortal threat, which forces him to try to stop you with all his resources. As with chess, you want to risk your army for proportionate gains. A new player might wreck his opponent’s new expansion base only to find his own main base is now being gutted. Dealing a painful but not mortal blow allows the opponent to retaliate—and they might well kill rather than wound you. If the opponent is constantly forced to prevent unacceptable losses, you control the game. It’s hard to be aggressive in chess when the King keeps getting put into check! If you can seize the initiative, you’ll usually win.
7. The line between defeat and victory is a narrow one. If you forget detectors, that could cost you the game when cloaked units show up. One small oversight and you instantly lose the game, even if you were otherwise in a position to finish your opponent. In real life, battles both literal and figurative are often decided by the smallest mistakes. This is another great lesson that crushes the ego. It’s hard to be an arrogant victor when you’re keenly aware one small mistake would have reversed the outcome.
8. Decisiveness wins. Even the poorest strategy will sometimes succeed if someone commits to it completely and without hesitation. With indecisiveness, we divide and conquer ourselves. In real life, a weak faction like the North Vietnamese can defeat even an overwhelmingly strong faction that is indecisive, uncommitted, with no clear objectives. Without a clear mission to fulfill or a clear course of action to achieve it, there is no such thing as victory.
9. Starcraft teaches us to be less critical of those who have great responsibility. Even a mere game that shows how easy it is to screw up teaches perspective. Bad luck and small mistakes can easily bring disaster even to the competent. Even those who prove incompetent at the highest levels often stand far above the average guy on the street. You begin to realize that herdbeasts who mock and complain endlessly about their betters are just misbehaving children. They have never known leadership or great responsibility themselves yet deign to criticize as if they were equals.
Starcraft 2 is certainly not a perfect microcosm of real life. For one thing, the playing field is far too orderly and predictable. We never have that much information when making real decisions. If two opponents played 100 different strategy games against each other for the very first time barely knowing the rules, that would be much more like real life. In fact, I think sloppy bronze league play may simulate real life best. But the controlled environment of starcraft allows us to test ideas more extensively. It invites us to reflect on our own lives and contemplate how the mindset we learn playing battle after battle applies to real conflicts we face.
Looking over the battlefield, what are the most effective actions we can take to defeat the obstacles before us? What objectives are vital and which are distractions?
Many now seem to view life as some kind of sentimental TV drama, but to me it is perhaps just another game, the Great Game.