What Lessons Video Games Can Teach Us About Real Life

A few years ago, my kids introduced me to a video game called Subway Surfers. The object is pretty simple: you're a graffiti artist in the subway system, a police officer is chasing you, and you have to avoid him by jumping on top of and over trains, over or under barriers, and dodge a variety of other obstacles.

It's relaxing, fun and a little addictive.

The more I play, the more I've come to see elements of Subway Surfers as a metaphor for much of real life itself. For example:

  • Even when you win, you keep going. For a long time, I lived under the misconception that life was about achieving a specific set of goals and once those goals were met, then you could relax and be happy. A few years ago, I checked all of those boxes, spent a few weeks going to movies in the afternoon and pretty much lost my mind (and then launched our venture fund). I now realize that life is about doing things you enjoy and find meaningful (personally and professionally) as much as you can, step by step, day by day. Subway Surfers is kind of the same way. First I wanted to score a million points. When I reached two million, I took a break, then came back around a year later, determined to beat my high score. Now I'm going for five million. You want to achieve more and more because maintaining the status quo is no better than going through the motions. You don't stop playing.
  • Once you have a lot, it's easier and easier to get more. In real life, the rich tend to get richer. Subway Surfers is kind of the same way. Initially, the coins you win are valuable because you use them to become more powerful (your jet packs, magnets, jumping ability and double points periods all increase). Then you want coins for other stuff like hoverboards, score boosters and head starts. Then you hit a point where you have more than you can use, but as you churn through your coins, you just keep getting more and more (especially if you buy mystery boxes that provide more coins than you paid for them, which happens a lot). Life is the same. Getting to a certain level of success can be very hard. But once you're there and have a measure of self-acceptance, external validation and a decent reputation, the rest is a lot easier.
  • You may end up with more than you need. Because of the principle above, if you play Subway Surfers long enough, you end up with an embarrassment of riches (I have over 3,000 hoverboards and not much use for it). This is where Subway Surfers fails the real life test - other than meeting your own needs (and material wants), from what I've found, the real value in making and having money is to give it away to help other people. It'd be great if you could do the same in Subway Surfers.
  • Choices versus values. There are two ways to win in Subway Surfers. You can win keys, which allow you to play longer and score more points. Or you can buy keys, which could allow you to play indefinitely. To me, buying keys is cheating. There's no real accomplishment there. Then I thought about how that theory applies to real life. We don't hesitate to send our kids to private schools that can give them a leg up. We pay for tutors, we use personal trainers, therapists. Isn't that the same thing? Maybe I should buy keys.
  • Time management. With the caveat that playing Subway Surfers is a waste of time altogether, when you buy or win a mystery box and get a prize you like, you can double up by watching a video. This is part of how the game designers make money, but it's also a choice to make each time. You want more keys, more score boosters, more head starts. But you don't want to watch the video. It's a time management decision, every single time, just like real life.
  • Excitement of crashing and burning. The entire game is based on trying not to crash and lose. Inevitably, you do, but other than losing the game, you don't face any actual consequences. No matter how much we achieve or no matter how content we feel, we all still want excitement in our lives. We want some level of risk, uncertainty and danger (we also, paradoxically, want contentment, security and familiarity). Obviously, playing Subway Surfers is not a substitute for real world risk and excitement, but the fact that the game is so popular is a good example of this human craving that we logically shouldn't want and yet we also can't shed.
  • Learning how to game the system. In my cherished three million point game, I realized that when I crashed and used keys to keep going, I could also use head starts and score boosters at the same time to pick up more points. Maybe I was gaming the system. Or maybe I just learned something and built on it. Life is the same way: if we pay attention, ask ourselves hard questions and are introspective, we learn from our experiences and mistakes and do better the next time.

Can you read into pretty much anything and come up with a list of metaphors?

More or less. But maybe our kids do learn more than hand eye coordination when they play video games. I've lived long enough to learn some real lessons and then recognize examples of it in Subway Surfers.

My kids are 10 and 8. They don't see Subway Surfers the way I do. But as they experience life, maybe some of it will feel vaguely familiar because they already saw a version of it in the game.

I don't think we'll change our 30-minutes of screen time on weekends rule. But maybe games like Subway Surfers are closer to life than we think.

Published in Inc.

Bradley Tusk