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The RPG Gaming Metaphor

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything for this blog. Much longer than I’d like to admit. I’ve conducted a few interviews, written a couple of posts—but the vision of traveling around the country to hear people’s stories and churning out a new article about breakups every few weeks is one that I haven’t exactly lived up to, yet. And with every passing week, returning to that vision becomes more and more overwhelming. Where do you begin again, when a year has passed since your last writing?


Well—you begin here.


This article today is many things. It is a way to return to that writing, to that commitment. To honor all of our breakups and the immense power that they have in our lives. To give voice to how they can truly awaken us to ourselves. Simultaneously, I believe this article, in a way, also acts as an exploration of the very journey that led me away from and back to writing—an exploration of that fragmented time after a relationship’s end when you can’t tell right from left or up from down.


What is forward, after all, when all sense of direction is lost?


If you've ever felt your world turned upside down by loss and not known how to proceed, read on. This is for you.

Searching for North


I didn’t know what forward was. In a way, I wasn’t sure what felt worse: the loss of direction, or the very fact that a divorce had the power to cause such a loss, in the first place. How ungrounded it can feel to be a broken compass, spinning erratically, searching for a north it cannot find. And how unsettling it can feel to realize that romantic relationships, above all else, had been the magnet defining north—defining forward—in my life.


What is forward when all sense of direction is lost?


We’re all compasses, in some way, searching for a north. We all have some guiding magnet in our lives—a person, a place, a desire, a faith, a god, a value, a meaning, or a virtue—something that draws and compels us forward. And we all wander aimlessly when it disappears. We lose that magnetized force, that sense of promise, security, and direction. And it’s terrifying. Terrifying to lose your way home and your way forward. Terrifying to realize how easily those losses can come. And sometimes, perhaps most of all, terrifying to recognize the extent to which you value that which is so fragile, that can so easily be lost. So easily disappear.


I’ve come to find that few things demagnetize our lives more than loss—loss of a job, a child, a relationship, a parent, a friend, a marriage, a limb, a skill, a faith, a function, a talent. No matter the kind, loss can cripple the way we make meaning in and move forward in our lives. But breakups and divorce, that loss of relationship and partner, have a particular way of catapulting us into directionless space. After all, the nature of relationship and loving, at their core, are filled with direction. I love you. Direction. Intention. I attend to you. I honor you. I trust you. I nurture you. The art of loving, as both feeling and as action, points toward a north. There is a focused magnetism to loving. So is it any surprise, then, that people might spin erratically without direction after a breakup? After a divorce? Or perhaps even in an intact relationship absent of love?


So the question remains, then: what do you do in directionless space? How do you find your way forward in grief? What is forward when life loses its magnetism, when all sense of direction is lost?


Well today, I’d like to share one potential answer—an answer that I honestly owe to video games.


You just level up.

Beating the Game


Some of you may know gaming lingo like the back of your hand, and terms like RPG, XP, grinding, dungeons, and sidequests all come second nature to you. For the rest of you: bear with me. We’re about to get real geeky.


In most video games, a player controls a fictional character and sets out to accomplish whatever that character’s mission is in the game. In Super Mario Bros., for instance, the player assumes the role of Mario with the task of rescuing the princess. Easy enough. There is a clear directionality and sense of urgency to the game—a focused magnetism, if you will. As a player, you aren’t rewarded for deviating from that primary quest. There is no reason to waver from this mission. Your job is to rescue the princess, and moving through each level and area of the game helps you get closer to fulfilling that task. Super Mario Bros. is quite literally defined by this clarity and simplicity. There is an obvious way to win the game—a clear plot with clear rules. The primary task and driver of the experience, as a result, is beating the game.

Developing the Character


However, in a role-playing video game—“RPG” for short—things are quite different. A player still controls a fictional character and sets out to accomplish whatever that character’s mission is in the game. But, that mission might be far less clear. Less defined. Less linear. And while there may be an overarching plot and primary tasks for this character to fulfill, there are often thousands of additional quests and incentives to deviate from and sometimes even completely forego the main plot.


Furthermore, in most RPGs, the character you control begins the game tremendously weak. As if a newborn, the character begins with little to no strength, vitality, wisdom, intelligence, resiliency, and so on—basically, in real world terms, they aren’t very good at anything. Unlike Mario, who starts his game with a clear mission and essentially everything he needs to win from the beginning (including one hell of a vertical leap), characters in RPGs usually start their games severely outmatched, underhanded, and unprepared—so much so that they’re often not yet even aware of what ultimate mission will await them. Much like life, they are tasked to slowly and gradually improve themselves through frequent exploration, challenge, and experience. It is often only through the tangential exploration of the world outside of the main plot that an RPG character can gather resources, learn, and grow. And similarly, it is only through exposure to challenges and obstacles that an RPG character can gain “experience points” (abbreviated to “XP”) and become strong enough, wise enough, and resilient enough to successfully continue onward in the game.


So, it is quite literally through the deliberate seeking of challenge that an RPG character gains XP and “levels up”. The way to win, then, is not merely by completing the game’s main plotline, but rather by the process of investing in the depth, growth, and wellbeing of your character. To become better. The primary driver of the experience, at its core, is developing the character.

RPG-Kind of Life


One year ago, I wrote: “Maybe, breakups are an opportunity to turn your attention from the visage of your future self to the exploration, vulnerability, and growth of your present one.” Consider this statement within this RPG gaming metaphor. Rather than purely focusing on tackling the next mission, plowing through the main storyline, and beating the game, you can instead focus on investing in and developing your character—wandering the world, battling monsters, and leveling up.


In other words, breakups offer an opportunity to transform from living a Mario-kind of life to living an RPG-kind of life. They offer us permission to pause and roam through an open world, to seek opportunities to gain XP, and to simply reinvest in ourselves—leveling up our hearts, our souls, our skills, and our minds until the next worthy pursuit reveals itself. If you don’t know what direction progresses your storyline, then progress your character.


When I first divorced, I had no idea what would be next and how to progress my storyline. I had no idea what to do or where to go. How to spend my time, what to work on, what to care about. Imagine living in a Mario-kind of world if suddenly, there’s no princess to be rescued and no King Koopa to defeat. Surely, Mario would have an existential crisis, right? So no surprise, so did I. So do many of us. We want the kind of clarity that comes with playing Super Mario Bros.—that comes with being an Italian plumber with an obvious purpose and everything he needs to win the game from the get-go.


But life doesn’t work that way. None of us really know what game we’re playing, much less how to move on to its next level. We never actually know what items and armor we need, nor how strong, wise, and resilient we need to become. And so, in the absence of our knowing, we are all tasked by our breakups to transform our lives into RPGsto explore, gain XP, and level up.

Walking Through the Grass


In her beautifully written book When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön writes:


“Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit.”

It is here, in this perfect off-center and in-between moment in time amidst the ashes of relationship loss, where we can let go of progressing the plot and finally invest in progressing our character. We can finally level up: not for the sake of accomplishing a goal or as a means to a game’s end, but simply to level up for leveling up’s sake. To become better. To nurture our soul and spiritual growth. To open our hearts and minds beyond limit.


Writing this, I remember playing Pokémon as a child. There would be these long stretches of grass that you’d have to cross when traveling between cities. Walking through this grass, you would have to battle wild Pokémon and overcome them to make your way to the next city and the next plot point of the story. The funny thing is, rather than hurry forward to the next city, I remember walking in circles in this grass. Back and forth, back and forth. Hours on end. Simply to do battle, over and over again, and make my Pokémon stronger. Hours on end, amassing XP, leveling up, investing in myself and the things I cared about, taking my time, and just wandering through the grass. Just to get stronger.


When did I forget to do that? When did we all forget to wander through the grass and level up for no other reason than to invest in and better ourselves?


Perhaps, through our breakups, we can all finally remember the grass.

Question of the Blog:

What part of yourself do you want to level up?

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© 2018 by Grant Gordin, LMFT, MA, M.Ed

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