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Dark Souls helped me be a better parent the other day.
It happened when I was chatting with my daughter in the car. Opportunities for uninterrupted time alone to talk to her are rare, since I usually want everyone to just leave me alone so I can sit in my room and play video games. So I took it. We had recently signed my daughter up for a summer swim team, which would start its practices soon. I asked her if she was looking forward to it. She said no.
I looked at her in the rearview mirror. “What? Why not? You were into it last summer.”
“I dunno,” she said, shrugging and looking away. “Getting up to practice sucks and the competitions are kinda intense.”
Further probing revealed that by “intense” she meant “intimidating” and by “sucks” she means …sucks. She’s right on all counts, no doubt. The swim meets are noisy and demanding competitions where she goes up against others who are often better than her. But I thought getting excited about competitive swimming would be good for her for various reasons. So I started to say “Well, you’re really good at it,” which is true. But then I thought of two things to make me reconsider those particular words.
The first was Dark Souls III, which I had been fighting my way through at the time. If you don’t know, the Dark Souls series is difficult by most standards, but I think most of that reputation is earned by virtue of brutally punishing sloppy players who don’t pay attention. It’s true that the Souls games require a baseline of manual dexterity and game system literacy. But if you persist at them and learn how things work, where enemies lurk, and exactly how to engage with the in-game dangers, you can persist and win. Nobody is naturally good at Dark Souls. Nobody flies through on their first try if they’re truly new to the game. Failure is an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to persist, and an opportunity to, as they say, git gud.
The second thing that made me reconsider the words “Well, you’re really good at it” was a book I’d recently finished reading. It’s called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.1The title sounds a little self help-y, and it is so in some places, but it’s also rooted in real research that Dweck has done on what she calls “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.
Consider how much you agree with these questions from Dwick’s research:
- You are a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that.
- No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.
- You can do things differently, but the important parts of who you are can’t really be changed.
- You can always change basic things about the kind of person you are.2
Agreeing with questions 1 and 3 indicates more of a fixed mindset. Agreeing with questions 2 and 4 indicates a growth mindset. These are just a few of the items from the research used for the purpose of illustration, but you get the idea.
These mindsets are attitudes and beliefs that govern how people conceptualize success and how they deal with failure. People who are naturally talented athletes or academics, for example, tend to have fixed mindsets. They think that they have a given amount of talent that sets them apart. They may be right, but Dweick’s book argues that this also may fix them in place, and that people with such a mindset not only don’t try to grow their skills, they avoid situations that are beyond them so that failure doesn’t damage their self esteem.
This is in contrast to people with growth mindsets, who may not have heaps of raw talent, but they do believe that they can improve. They also aren’t averse to failing in order to improve. People of this type are more likely to see screwing up as a chance to learn how to improve, and they are less embarassed and frustrated by challenges that are –at the moment– beyond their ability. Those with a growth mindset, Dwick argues, are more likely to be successful, happy, and productive no matter where their reserves of raw talent top out.
This highlights something I’ve thought for a long time about video games. Whenever someone bags on them as a waste of time, I come back to the idea that most video games teach you what I now see as a growth mindset. Games let you fail. They expect you to fail. Dark Souls III threw me up against Iudex Gundyr, a difficult boss fight, during the tutorial. I died to him 15 or more times, but I persisted and eventually figured out how to time my evasions and bait him into overextending himself so I could safely counterattack. If you’re the kind of person who thinks you’re just really good at video games and can pick up any title and beat it –if you’re the kind of person who has a fixed mindset like that– then you’re probably going to get pissed off at Dark Souls. Maybe you’ll even call it poorly designed and throw down the controller without ever making it through the tutorial.
But I’m not good at Dark Souls games because I’ve got the quick reflexes and sense of timing that let me fly through it on first exposure. I’m good at Dark Souls games because I know they expect a growth mindset out of me and I give it to them. I pay attention, I learn, I keep at it until I get the encounters down.3.
This is why I bit my tongue before saying “Well, you’re really good at it” when my daughter expressed doubts about staying on the swim team. Instead, I said “Well, you’ve improved a lot since you started.” Then I told her about Iudex Gundyr.
Practice sessions started a couple of weeks ago and her first swim meet is in a few days. She’s a gamer. She gets it.