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Post-traumatic growth and games

Do you know the feeling of how you just can’t progress in a game before you have achieved everything before the next milestone? Explored every nook and cranny or defeated every enemy? If you do, we probably have something in common: the trait of being perfectionists. It can be both a boon and a bane, and applies to other parts of life besides games as well. Making a presentation at work or delivering a project for a client, the material just has to be top notch.

After some soul-searching I noted that striving for perfection has to do with the fear of failing as well. I don’t think anyone genuinely wants to fail, even though many self-development gurus tell us to embrace failures. But everyone will fail, even if we think our output—what ever it is—is perfect. It happens in games, it happens in life. But hear me out! Every failure can be an opportunity to learn if we can shift our thinking just slightly.

Recently I stumbled upon the concept of “adversarial growth” (or “post-traumatic growth”) in one of the episodes of the Tim Ferriss Show, and it immediately resonated with me. Only six months ago it probably would not have, since—I have to admit—I’ve had it easy this far. I got to the university I wanted to on my first try, got my first position at a great company before I even graduated at the age of 23, I’ve been together with my loving fiancé for over four years now, and me and the people closest to me have been healthy. Recently though, I’ve had to battle with some adversities like the challenges of a long-distance relationship and losing my job.

The formal, scientific explanation of adversarial growth is “the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises.” While games and small bumps on the road in our daily life can hardly be described as “highly challenging life crises”, I think it is possible to apply the principles of the phenomenon on a small scale as well.

Growth isn’t always what happens in the face of adversities, and taking advantage of adversarial growth can be quite hard. After all, you’ve just had an uncomfortable experience, and the default reaction probably is negative emotions such as anger or sadness. However, my hypothesis is that by training the mind on small adversities we will be better equipped to cope when a big wave hits.

Using games as a failure simulator

Games can act as a great sandbox to train our brain into taking the positive route. After all, there’s no safer place to experience frequent failure than games. Unless you are some kind of superhuman, you probably fail constantly when you play. I admit I’ve been in the situation where I stare at the “Game Over” text and blame lag or others for what was clearly caused by my own actions, cursing or yelling at the TV. But that’s not a very constructive way to handle failure. What you could do instead is to coax your mind into the track that can help you improve. An example routine could look something like this:

  1. Be conscious about the negative emotions and stop them right on their tracks before they can take control.
  2. Take a deep breath and accept the situation.
  3. Think back on what caused the failure. Was it your own actions? External influences? Or were you just unprepared?
  4. Think about what you could have done differently, what you can learn from the situation and formulate a plan.
  5. Execute the plan and adjust as required. Don’t hesitate to ask for help either.

Sounds simple, right? This kind of routine can act as an improvement loop for us to be better at controlling our negative emotions AND boost our performance in the process. After all, what do we get for wallowing in the negative, when we could be making progress towards the goal we just missed?

At first it can be really hard to resist the urge to throw that controller out of the window or bash that keyboard into tiny pieces, but in time it will get easier. The mind is like a muscle that needs to be trained consistently for it to improve. The cool thing about practicing this kind of routine with games is that you will be prepared when the failure hits you in real life. And you can experience dozens of failures in a day—heck, in an hour. It’s like an intensive interval training for the mind.

And as a note for the perfectionists: once you have trained your mind to be constructive about the failures that come your way, you’ll be able to let go of some of the perfectionist traits as well. Not striving to be perfect and afraid to fail all the time frees up your time for other activities, and I know that for me it also reduces my stress levels.

Do you think I might be onto something? Please share your ways of coping with adversities and stories on how you’ve turned failure into a growth opportunity. I would love to hear from you!