When people talk about gamification, they’re usually thinking about video games, but the movement undoubtedly has its roots in pen-and-paper roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons. I might just be biased because I grew up on pen-and-paper roleplaying games, namely Dungeons and Dragons, but the whole “quantified self” movement is a natural progression from the concept of the character sheet.
Dungeons and Dragons and Self-Confidence
For those of you who were popular in high school, every game of D&D begins with the players creating their characters, filling in details and descriptions on their character sheet, which in the old days was nothing more than a sheet of ruled paper. The people who live in a D&D campaign are truly quantified, with attributes such as strength or intelligence represented by concrete numbers on their character sheets.
To oversimplify what is probably the most complicated board game ever, you do things in D&D by rolling dice. Whether I want to hit a goblin with a flail or perform a sweet lute solo for a crown in the local tavern, I roll the dice. If the number is high enough, I succeed. If I have good scores in the relevant stats – such as a high strength score in the case of hitting the goblin – I won’t have to roll as high of a number to succeed. In other words, whether a veteran knight or a scrawny farm boy is swinging the flail, luck will be a factor, but the odds are a lot better for the knight.
I credit D&D, and this mechanic specifically, with teaching me two important things about life. First, the Universe is a cold, random, uncaring place where most things happen for no reason. That’s not really relevant here, but has certainly informed my life philosophy. More importantly, it taught me that the outcome of a given scenario has nothing to do with who you are as a person. A legendary knight might fail to strike a puny goblin, but that doesn’t mean his strength has suddenly diminished. If I was roleplaying as the knight, I would not suddenly lose confidence in my character’s strength and retreat. Seeing my exceptional strength score on the character sheet in front of me, I would write the event off as a fluke and attack again.
Confidence vs. Competence
In the real world, we do not have the privilege of character sheets. We are not always clear on our own attributes. In fact, the only way we have of measuring them is by testing them. Let’s say my D&D character has 10 points in the Perform (lute) skill. I get up in front of a tavern crowd, start to play, and roll a 2 on my skill check. I suck and get booed off stage. Not exactly a triumph, but nothing to worry about in the long run. My sheet still says I have 10 points in Perform (lute). I am objectively an exceptional lute player. Maybe it was a tough crowd, or the tavern had poor acoustics, or I just drank too much and struck a bad chord. If I perform for another crowd tomorrow night, chances are they’ll love me.
If that happened to me in real life, though, I would come to a different conclusion. Maybe it was a tough crowd, or maybe I don’t have as many points in the Perform (lute) skill as I thought. After all, tests like this are my only way of measuring my skill, and the results of this test were very negative.
There’s an ongoing joke among D&D players about the attribute known as Charisma. Pretty much since the creation of the game up until the present day, it has been considered an exceedingly useless stat and the one you assign your lowest score to by default (when I play I always make Charisma my highest stat, but the reasoning behind that is a discussion for another day). The reason is that Charisma measures something that is exceedingly difficult to translate into game mechanics.
Contrary to popular belief, Charisma is not a measure of attractiveness or even social skill. It is essentially your strength of character, your belief in yourself, your very will to live. People with high Charisma usually are attractive, but only because confidence and self-assurance tend to be attractive features. One minor quirk I’ve always loved about d&d is that demons in the game, often outwardly hideous, possess superhumanly high Charisma scores. How could they not? They are cosmic forces of nature, almost physically incapable of believing anything they do is wrong.
The problem with Charisma is that the attributes it is supposed to define are left up to how a player roleplays a character. A character with a Charisma of 3 probably wouldn’t be able to work up the confidence or motivation to even go adventuring in the first place – but if the Dungeon Master told the player “You can’t go on this adventure because your character doesn’t believe in herself” it wouldn’t be a very fun game, would it?
In real life, Charisma is strictly enforced. My objective competence with the lute (skill points in game terms) might be very high, but my confidence with the lute (Charisma) might be low enough after one humiliating failure that I give up and never touch the lute again.
What Game Are We Playing, Anyway?
In Dungeons and Dragons, a bard character with 10 points in Perform (lute) is a very impressive lute player – if she’s a level one character. If she’s level 20, then hopefully she specializes in a different instrument and the lute is just a hobby, because that’s just embarrassing.
Another downside of not having character sheets in real life is that we have no idea what level we are and thus it is tricky to know how far in life we are supposed to be. People come up with all sorts of fixes to this problem, most of which have to do with comparing ourselves to other people. As an aspiring author, I think it’s perfectly acceptable that I have not published a bestselling novel by the age of 22. None of my friends have either, after all. Conversely, someone who shall remain nameless but also happens to be my girlfriend and Desdenada co-founder Venezia, also 22, considers herself a failure because Mary Shelley published her first novel, Frankenstein (you may have heard of it) at the age of 21. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, though, because Mary Shelley had the luxury of being a noblewoman who did not have a job or any responsibilities at all really. Also, she had the help of her husband, the already-successful Percy Shelley.
Then again, it’s hard to find any valid comparisons to measure your progress with. Most people compare themselves with a peer group by default, such as their graduating class. If everyone you went to school with has a better job than you now, you must be a failure, right? Unless they came from stronger financial backgrounds, or you suffer from a mental illness, or you simply have different priorities than they do. If they’re all playing backgammon and you’re playing Chinese checkers, how are you supposed to figure out who’s winning?
I’ve talked before about my guiding life philosophy, influenced heavily by Nietzsche and a little-known philosophy professor by the name of Luke Cuddy, that life is a game in which you have to make your own rules and win conditions. By the same token, you’re in charge of measuring your own progress.
I won’t lie, that’s tricky. If you make the game too hard, your confidence and self-esteem suffer and you feel miserable. If it’s too easy, every victory feels hollow and you are dissatisfied knowing you are capable of more. I’ve spent most of my life grappling with this problem and coming up empty. It’s certainly a topic I want to discuss a lot more in the future, and something I would love to hear your thoughts on, as well. No, seriously, somebody help me out here, because I don’t have the answers.
Anyway. The major takeaway is that it’s impossible to know your true competence in any skill and thus it would ridiculous to base your confidence or self-worth on your perceived competence in any skill. Maybe I’m the best writer. Maybe I’m the worst writer. It’s impossible to know for sure. What I am absolutely confident of, though, is the fact that I can write, and the fact that I want to write. I’m going to keep doing the thing that makes me happiest, and try to stop worrying about whether I’m good at it, because that’s a question that can never be answered.
What about you?