What do video games say about you?

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.


Breaking in and sneaking over: why placehacking is risk intelligent

Would you illegally climb the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, currently unfinished, just for fun? Maybe that’s not your idea of amusement. But what if you were itching to leap over a walkway, sneak past the security guard, sprint up the Shard’s seventy internal flights of stairs and then scale an external crane ladder to possibly the best night views of London… and just couldn’t let yourself?

Would you walk past the Shard each day on your way to work and regret it forever? Blame society for making you too fearful and law-abiding? Or would you conclude that your abstaining from such behaviour was for the best? After all, scaling a ladder-like structure at the top of a crane blowing in the wind at great height with no ropes, crampons or climbing aids is not risk intelligent, right?

Or is it? Dr Bradley Garrett, urban explorer, anthropologist and geographer, scratched that itch some weeks ago and survived. While he agrees there were obvious elements of physical and legal danger, he understood the risks involved perhaps better than anyone else, for he is a professional ‘placehacker’: someone who physically trains and mentally prepares to sneak into forbidden public spaces. He is more than a tourist, however – he is an academic (his PhD thesis is titled ‘Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration’) and a social campaigner. His aim, by scaling the Shard, is to demonstrate that we live in a risk-averse society under a nanny state obsessed with safety – as demonstrated by our shocked reactions. Dr Garrett argues that our natural desire to explore and wander our own neighbourhood, if not the entire world, is suppressed. The other message he can’t help but send is that the ‘most secure site outside of the Olympic Park’ is, or was, incredibly easy to break into. It makes you wonder what we are in store for with the Olympics.

Of course not everyone should take on the Shard or even something smaller. Knowing your personal limits is part of having good risk intelligence. It’s worth observing that while Dr Garrett displays formidable risk intelligence, the risks he takes are directly physical, unlike, for example, the risk of choosing which stock to buy or whether to trust a new nanny with your child. A directly physical risk carries the challenge that no matter how much analysis you’ve put in, when it comes to the actual moment of placing your body onto the single ladder at the top of the Shard, you might face instant death due to a whim in the weather or a momentary glitch in your own bodily instincts. This is a very different risk outcome from the instant ruin of your business or the death of someone close. You might go through hell and back rebuilding your business or suffer great stress through grief but we still live in an era where medicine is unlikely to save you if you fall from the Shard. If you fall, that is most probably the end of your risk-taking.

So what place do directly physical risks have in the realm of risk intelligence? Is placehacking worth potentially dying or suffering major injuries for? Our preconceptions of placehackers, Dr Garrett argues, are usually prejudiced, like the way homeless people are often taken for scavenging drunks or the way the Beat writers were considered mad for going ‘on the road’. The urban explorer is usually perceived as an angry, off-grid anarchist rebel who sees the world as a playground and life as expendable. But an intelligent and dedicated placehacker such as Dr Garrett (and he is far from being the only one) will consider whether it’s worth dying for their profession the same way a firefighter, a soldier posted to a warzone or certain types of athlete would consider it. Young US recruits who can’t afford a college education often see being drafted into the army as a career-saver. They are thinking ‘it is unlikely to happen to me’. Not only is that statistically true, it allows them to get on with the job and worry instead about making the rent, supporting their families and all the other day to day things most people worry about.

Like people who work in warzones or burning buildings, Dr Garrett’s preparation for his place-hacking is tantamount to being ‘trained’. His whole life, whether he planned it or not, has lead up to his ‘Shard moment’. Before climbing it he had broken in to the Barcelona subway system, spent five years on archaeological digs in thirteen different countries and spent three years working for the US Bureau of Land Management. Add to that his teenage skateboarding (which he pursued so fully it became a business before he sold up and switched to academia) and you have a man who is highly attuned to buildings and the societies that govern them from a viscerally anthropological perspective. He is physically embodying his intellectual ideas. We need more Garretts in the world, not less. We might not climb the Shard at night ourselves, but it’s good for our risk intelligence to know that a skater-turned-PhD can do it, survive, and have a blast. We all have our Shards.


Friday 13th and the “Hound of the Baskervilles effect”.

Oh dear, it’s Friday 13th today! Whether you are superstitious or not, you can’t help but notice this combination of day and date because it is so marked in cultural consciousness as being unlucky. You might not care about the number 13, black cats or any other superstition but as a risk intelligent person are you wondering whether drivers will be just a little more anxious than normal today? Or if important meetings will sour halfway through if the collective mood of the nation is punctuated with unease?

Perhaps, however, you are in China as you read this, where no one cares it’s Friday 13th. But did you notice any malaise in the ether on the fourth day of this month if you were there? Or in Japan? In Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese the words “four” and “death” are pronounced almost identically. So despised is the number 4 in these countries that mainland Chinese omit the number 4 in designing military aircraft and some Chinese and Japanese hospitals do not list a fourth floor or number any rooms with 4. Multiply that dislike by nearly 1.5 billion people and it becomes worth asking what noteworthy effects the fear of number 4 might have. Can believing in superstition even be dangerous enough to hasten a stress-related death, such as the heart attack that kills Charles Baskerville in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel The Hound of the Baskervilles?

A group of Western and Chinese academics undertook research to ask precisely this question. Their objective was to determine ‘whether cardiac mortality is abnormally high on days considered unlucky’ and they did this by examining the numbers of cardiac and non-cardiac mortalities on or around the fourth of each month in groups of Chinese and Japanese people based in the US. Interestingly they found that cardiac deaths for Chinese and Japanese people peaked on the fourth of each month – the peak being particularly large for those with chronic heart disease. The study was done in the US with a non-Asian control group but the peak on the fourth of each month was particularly noticeable in California which has a high Asian and American-Asian population. Of course the number 4 itself isn’t dangerous the way a heart attack is but believing it to be gives it an indirect but quantifiable power, which is what these academics are suggesting.

The risk intelligent course of action would be to rationally acknowledge that numbers, even ones that sound like words, are just numbers and must be used as such. But to do away with superstition is to do away with deep-rooted parts of our cultural psyche, wherever we are from. Plus we may not be able to shrug them off at all. You can emigrate to a new life in the US but you can’t leave your fear of the number 4 neatly behind in China – as the cardiac statistics indicate. Also there are good traditions that would have to be thrown out if we treated all numbers the same, such as the Chinese belief that 8 is a lucky number and that cheques given as wedding gifts should contain as many eights as possible, ie £88.88. My guess is that our feelings about certain numbers are here to stay in some form or another, at least for the time being. Just don’t put a 4 on the cheque you give your Chinese friend on their wedding day.