On Leveling Up

There is a video game that most video gamers have never heard of that I used to spend hours playing as a kid. It was called “Astrosmash,” it was the flagship game for the Mattel Intellivision game system, and it was a competitor to Atari’s “Space Invaders.” It was a missile defense kind of game where you shot falling meteors out of the sky. It started off slowly, but, as the game went on, it would go faster and faster and you would accrue more points, and increase in levels. It was immensely satisfying to improve, until there was so little room for improvement.

There is a phrase for increasing levels in games: “leveling up.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the phrase has been co-opted from gaming to anything from the use of psychotropics to personal and professional development. It applies to the never ending quest for improvement. But I find that, at a certain point, this quest becomes self-defeating.

I've had conversations with lawyer and entrepreneur friends of mine about the insatiable pursuit of improvement. One of the problems with the concept of improvement is that it presupposes certain metrics or factors required to reach improvement, while discounting others. For instance, I find that one of the failures of the American ideal of corporations is the expectation of YOY (year over year) growth in order to signify "improvement." What if a company is serving the needs of its customers, is compensating its employees adequately, is creating a satisfying and nurturing environment, and has the same revenue year after year? Isn't that a big success story?

Likewise, I find that it can be a trap to spend the entirety of my days trying to personally “level up,” trying to consume and process valuable information, build relationships with supposedly self-actualized people, and become edified by the intellectually curious and the emotionally deep. Sometimes, I just want to have fun. Sometimes, I want to be dumb.

I don't really play video games anymore, but I can't help but notice that graphics in the arcades and on platforms such as X-Box and PlayStation have become almost indistinguishable from live video. And yet… There are throwback game systems available for the 21st century. The Nintendo 64 and Atari throwback systems are huge hits. The Intellivision less so, but that’s the one I have. It's the one my own children love to play on despite its prehistoric graphics. And when they're not necessarily looking to improve their lot in life, my kids love to turn their attention not to photorealism, but to the blocky 8-bit graphics of Minecraft, the multibillion dollar digital phenomenon that demands imagination and exploration rather than “leveling up.”