Cartoon owl holding a magnifying glass. Pixelated red background. Text: Games Have Taught Us - Anti-Patterns

As I’ve discussed in many articles, games can teach us quite a few important things. From understanding our money usage to taxes, or how it feels to be unfortunate and why our justice systems work the way they work.

However, there are also certain anti-patterns that may affect you in real life.


“Hol’ up!” I hear you say: “What the heck’s an anti-pattern?”

In layman’s terms, an anti-pattern is something you learn to do because it seems or feels like something you should do, despite being a bad idea.

For example, there is a common anti-pattern in video games where you can do a double-jump (jump once, then jump again while your character is still in the air).

Players easily tend to use the second jump always while jumping – despite not needing to.

An example of anti-patterns. Silhouette of Mario jumping onto a ledge. Text: One jump is enough to reach the ledge. But just in case, let's double jump...

The correct method would be to use a single jump. And only use the second jump when needed (when you need to reach higher or suddenly change direction mid-air). This is especially important in games like Super Smash Bros. where you may get launched far to the side of the screen and need that second jump to get back to the stage.

So that’s an example on anti-patterns. Now, why do they matter?

There are times when I’ve asked myself: “Why is real life so complicated. Why can’t it be more like video games? I’d achieve so much in life if life worked like a video game!”

Sometimes, that’s a good point, but I’ve noticed that there’s many cases where it’s not actually that real life is complicated, but that games have taught me an anti-pattern that I’m applying in real life.

And in order to make my life easier, I need to identify that anti-pattern, stop following it, and then real life doesn’t actually seem that complicated anymore.

And sometimes, it’s not really that a game has taught me an anti-pattern, but maybe it reinforces a thought pattern that I shouldn’t be having in the first place.

Either way, here are three major anti-patterns I’ve picked up during the years:

Anti-pattern #1: Pre-designed quests and tasks

Thank you, game, for guiding my will.

Most modern games have quests, which are presented to you as a list of tasks you need to do in order to advance in the game. (This is one of the major reasons why task-oriented people are so drawn to video games while having hard time focusing on any work that requires thought or creativity.)

On one hand, there is something really great to be learned here: if you break your work or daily activities to simple, clear tasks, then it’s a lot easier to get them done. It’s also easier to visualize what you’ve done and what’s left.

The problem with games, is that tasks are decided for you.

A bunch of game designers have already pain-stakingly designed and crafted each and every task. You never actually need to learn how to break your work into tasks yourself.

Back when I was young, things weren’t quite as easy. Games didn’t really have these ready-made tasks lists for you. Despite that, things weren’t perfect. Just because there wasn’t any task lists, it didn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t need them. In many cases, it just meant the game designers had to design their games to work without them using whatever tools they had: simplicity, linearity, hint books (that sometimes came bundled with the games) and hint phonelines or email.

As much as I love to dote on the Ultima series, I have to admit that the first time I played through most of them was by using the walkthroughs that came with the Ultima Collection. You might think it’s understandable, since I was a teenager and English isn’t my native language. But I have heard many people having problems understanding those games even if they didn’t have those two handicaps.

Anti-pattern #2: Results are permanent

Status screen in Shodai Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun, showing Riki's stats.
These are my stats and I stand by them.

Any experience, stats or skills your characters gain in video games are permanent. When you level up, you’re now stronger. And you can only get stronger from there, unless you get temporarily weakened by a debuff. Even items you’ve found always stay on you, unless you personally go and sell or throw them away.

There are some notable exceptions to this. Such as Pokémon (where the number of moves a single monster can have at a time is limited to four) and rogue-likes (where death means having to restart as a new character). Also, I swear I’ve heard of games that have skills/stats decay over time, but I can’t find any right now.

In real life, most things require constant maintenance. Your muscles weaken and you forget things. Take a short break from eating healthily, and may end up eating unhealthily for many years. Miss a week of gym and you might never go there again.

Anything you want to retain needs to be maintained.

Anti-pattern #3: Near-instant results

Bunch of Marigold decoctions on an apothecary's table in Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
It took me 15 minutes to make hundreds of these potions and sell them to merchants. I’m now rich beyond belief.

In games, things happen fast. Games simulate successes. But success in real life takes a long time to manifest.

In a game, all I need to do is to buy a book and use it to instantly learn a new recipe or skill. In real life, getting a book is just a fraction of the whole process: reading the book, understanding its contents and then applying what I’ve just read takes a long time. You may even have to read the book several times, take notes, and you still won’t remember everything in it.

Trading stocks, growing vegetables, winning championships, and getting fit. Those are all long processes, sometimes spanning dozens of years. In video games, you can experience the results within hours and minutes.

How these anti-patterns affect us

These anti-patterns have already shown themselves while I was writing this article. In a video game, I could just tell my character to write an article. They’d sit down for a while and get it done. All I’d have to do is maybe pick a topic, and then watch a nice little percentage gradually go up while I wait.

Instead, this article has laid unpublished for weeks because I had to consider many things. Is this interesting? Easy to read? Too long or short? How’s my structure? Does this need pictures? Where do I get those pictures? These thoughts plague my mind with every written sentence.

And there’s no immediate reward for overcoming them. Not until the whole article is written and published. Even then, the only satisfaction is the pleasure of having created something. There’s no money involved, and any form of success (in whatever form that might be) is far in the future. Possibly even beyond my lifetime, so that I’ll never get to enjoy it personally.

Breaking these anti-patterns

To be honest, I don’t have a silver bullet to unlearn these problematic patterns. The best I can do most of the time is try to recognize them and try to work around them.

However, the good thing is that these specific problems sort of overlap with each other. And so, I found one solution (or more like a theme of solutions) that appears to work rather well: to-do lists and how they’re used in agile methodology.

Agile Methodology

Explaining agile methodology would warrant its own article, but the simple gist is that they’re methods to create and design software. The most famous frameworks are Scrum and Kanban.

Kanban board with columns: Backlog, Doing, Review, Done.
Kanban board, for managing tasks and their states.

Agile methods focus on designing software by first turning user needs into requirements. Those requirements are then split into small tasks that programmers can start working on to build the software. Finally, there’s emphasis on continuous improvement.

They work pretty well for software development, but there’s potential for making them work for your daily life as well. The best part is that they more or less help negate the anti-patterns I talked about today:

Quests and tasks:

When working with either Scrum or Kanban, you inadvertently get experience with writing tasks and to-do lists. So, I’ve tried to incorporate writing notes for things that need to get done in my daily life.

The downside is that it’s something of a grind. Turns out that writing down things you need to do by yourself is a lot of work. I almost wish I had a secretary.

Permanent results:

I’ve tried to improve this with regular habits. And for that, I’ve employed what I call “natural kanbans” (combining certain activities with each other).

For example, if I want to watch a gameplay video on Youtube, that means it’s time to exercise while watching. If I want to go to bed, that means it’s time to read a page in Japanese.

I’ve found that these work a bit better than trying to set up time-based schedules, at least for me. However, I do still have some problems upkeeping some of them.

Instant results:

Since real life results take a long time, there’s two important steps to take.

First, start with your requirements, your needs: what are you trying to accomplish and why it’s important that you accomplish it? (Yes, this step is very hard if you don’t know what you want from life. You may have to settle for just choosing something and changing it later if it wasn’t working.)

Second, you must visualize some expected results for the things you’re doing (they don’t have to be 100% true, but they should be realistically achievable). Do this beforehand and write them down. Plaster them on your wall and now you have some realistic goals. You’ll still have to work to make those goals a reality, but at least now you’re instantly seeing the results for that work you planned to do. That’s motivating.

And one more thing:

As I already mentioned, a big part of agile methodology is continuous improvement. It’s there to make sure that if what you’re doing isn’t working, then something needs to change.

In the simplest of terms it means that every now and then, you need to stop and look back at what you’re doing. What’s working? What’s not working? Think. Try. Struggle. Adapt. Improve.

And even when everything is working, you must ask yourself: how can I make it work better? There’s always something to improve.

And that’s the story of how I managed to finally finish writing this article.

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Crazy owlmister. Eternally attemps to find ways to prove that his thousands of hours put into video and computer games has not been just an utter waste of time.

2 thoughts on “Real Life Anti-patterns – Games have taught us #9

  1. It’s interesting how some patterns that are positive in certain games, become anti-patterns when applied to other games. Often, I discover those when a mechanic is especially well applied in the first place, making me unconciously try to propogate it I think. For example, one game has a mechanic called ‘ukemi’ (or something similar) that allows you to avoid a brief stun after falling from a height by pressing the jump button just before landing, causing you to roll forward as you land instead. The mechanic was implemented extremely smoothly, and the player is essentially forced to practice it throughout the game. This means that the reflex is imprinted on my brain as a completely unconcious response that I end up trying to use in completely unrelated games, which inevitably fails because only that game has the ukemi mechanic. (it’s actually a pretty decent reflex to have in real life anyway)

    I haven’t really heard much about software and agile methodology in that context before, but I do use what you call natural kanbans myself. Like you, it seems, having regimented time blocks doesn’t work well for me at all. So I often end up in a similar place of connecting responsibilities with certain actions. I think that this ends up eventually letting me have to think less about what I have to be doing constantly, while creating a habit and (sometimes) creating positive reinforcement. I can’t say I’m the most organized person still, but it’s better than time blocks :p

    1. That ‘ukemi’ mechanic reminds me that there’s also some games that allow you to mash buttons (or directions) to wake your character from a stun (or lying on the ground). Then there’s games where mashing does nothing, but you’re not sure so you’re mashing anyway, and it may make your character do something unnecessary once they’re free from the stun…

      Another big struggle is with button placements: I grew up playing on Nintendo consoles (and on PC with keyboard and mouse), so whenever I’m thrust to a scenario where I have to play a game with an Xbox controller and the game tells me to press X, Y, A or B, I will always be confused. (If only controllers came with buttons that have clear shapes, like on Gamecube.)

      Double jump is, I believe, pretty notorious when it comes to anti-patterns, since there are a lot of games (especially 3D platforming games for younger audiences) where you often MUST use double jump everytime. So it becomes a very bad habit, and you may never even question that you might not need it in other games.

      Good point on the not needing to constantly think what needs to be done. I forgot to mention this in the article, but the big reason why putting things I need to do into time slots doesn’t work is that then I’m always looking at the clock. And if I’m looking at the clock, then I’m anxious and my mind’s in a state of “I should be doing something right now but I’m also busy mentally preparing for what starts in exactly X hours, Y minutes and Z seconds”. It makes it hard to focus on anything.

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