I think the way people play video games can tell you a lot about their personality. This thought first came to me in 1999, when I was sharing a flat in London with a friend of mine. To preserve his anonymity, I will not use his real name here. For the purposes of this story, l will refer to him simply as “Christ.”
Back then, Christ and I used to spend hours every day on the Playstation. We were particularly fond of the various Tomb Raider games, in which the player has to guide the protagonist, Lara Croft, through a series of ancient ruins and underground caverns. Along the way, Lara must fight various foes, and each blow they land on her takes away a certain amount of life. If her life indicator drops to zero, she dies, and the player must go back to the previous checkpoint and start again. Dotted around the game, however, are occasional medi-packs, which can be used to restore a certain amount of life to the wounded heroine.
My approach to playing the game was not particularly sophisticated. I would charge through the tunnels and chambers as fast as I could, hacking away at the enemies who confronted me, and picking up any medi-packs I spotted. If my life dropped to dangerously low levels, I’d use a medi-pack. Often, I would make it through to the next checkpoint by the skin of my teeth, with my life perilously low and no medi-packs left.
Christ took a very different approach. He would proceed very tentatively, exploring each section of tunnel, and every nook and cranny of each room. As a result, he managed to find a lot more medi-packs than I did. But he would never use them. If he took any damage, he’d let Lara die so he could go back to the last checkpoint, and try to make it all the way to the next one without losing any life. By the time he reached the end of the game, he had hundreds of un-used medi-packs, like a miser who reaches the end of his life with a pile of banknotes under his death-bed.
At the time, I realized that these different approaches to playing Tomb Raider said something about our different attitudes to risk. Christ was clearly much more risk averse than I was. But since then, I have come to think that our different playing styles reveal much more than just this. They reflect our whole attitude to life.
Take work for example. Christ and I are both writers, but we write very differently. I will write furiously for a few months, finish a book, and then not write again for a year or more. For a while, I live well on my advance, but then I plough it into some crazy project, or invest in a business that goes bust, and before long I’m poor again, and must return to my desk to write another book.
Christ, on the other hand, has written for several hours almost every day for the past ten years. In that time, he has steadily built up a small fortune. He is always talking about retiring the country, but he never seems to think he has enough money to take the plunge. Even now, with over a million pounds in the bank, and large royalty checks arriving every few months, he is still living in his run-down old house in Catford. Next year, he says, he will finally stop writing and leave London. But I’ve heard that before.
A few years ago, when another one of my hare-brained schemes had failed dismally, and I was crushed and broken, Christ invited me to stay with him in Catford to lick my wounds for a week or so. Each day, as I crawled out of my bed and made my way downstairs for breakfast, I would look up admiringly at the rows of colored paper pinned to the walls of the stairway. Each piece of paper had a list of milestones that Christ had set himself for each book, all dutifully ticked off as he had achieved them. These humble records spoke eloquently of his patient setting of goals, and the diligent accomplishment of each one. At the time, they felt like a silent rebuke of my way of living, and I even caught the occasional gleam of triumph in Christ’s eyes, as if my downtrodden air was the vindication he had always been seeking that his way of life was better than mine.
But now, a few years later, I’m back on my feet again, and I see things differently. Since that sojourn in Catford, I’ve written another book, made a pile of money, and squandered it on setting up a company that went nowhere. I’m poor again now, and have started writing yet another book – my eighth. But in those few years, I’ve also got married, moved to Ireland, and spent several terms abroad teaching at universities in Beirut and Guatemala. I’ve bought a house and redecorated it, created a website that has been visited by over 100,000 people, and taken one of my employers to the High Court (twice) and won (both times). In short, I’ve packed a lot in.
Christ, meanwhile, has done nothing except write. His bank account has grown steadily, but his house is still in the same dilapidated condition it was when he moved in ten years ago. He still hasn’t married his girlfriend, despite promising to do so every year for the past five years. And he still hasn’t moved to the country, though he does say he plans to do it next year. He’s had a heart attack, so I hope he does it soon. Otherwise, I fear he’ll arrive at those pearly gates with a bunch of medi-packs which by then will be completely useless.