Thoughts: Starving for a routine

Lately I’ve been struggling.

I have many projects going on, and even more ideas pending. Yet, I find it difficult to establish a proper productive routine that eventually will lead those projects to conclusion. This frustrates me a lot. It’s one of the reasons I made Perfectionism – Episode 2: I felt the urge to complete something, start to finish, and leave it alone. The jigsaw puzzle reference in the game isn’t accidental. Puzzles have a tangible final state, an ending that draws a line from “undone” to “done”, and I’m indulging a lot in the feeling of reward, of self-fulfillment and personal achievement that comes from a completed puzzle. It’s like typing the final words in a short story you spent months trying to write. Or playing the last mission of a 40+hrs game. Or just delivering an article on time to your editor in chief. Satisfying, to say the least.

However, productivity for me rhymes with routine: I realized that I function better when stuck in a methodical set of activities. It’s common sense. After all, results come through hard work and dedication. Trivial? Yes. Kinda true? Also. The problem with me is that I am prone to distractions, and also tend to play games too much. For example, yesterday I was playing Don’t Starve instead of writing.

dont-starveThis is fine.

Don’t Starve is a survival game made by Klei Entertainment in which the player’s character wakes up in a procedurally generated world filled with random resources. In order to survive as long as possible, the player has to harvest those resources and combine them into elaborate tools, in a loop that eventually comes to an end. Alongside health, there are two more stats to keep track of: sanity and hunger (hence the title).

Ironically enough, it’s a game I love, but never completed (as in, “reached the final state”, if there’s one). While reasoning on how much Don’t Starve reflects my recent inability to complete almost anything, yesterday I also realized that in survival games there’s a rhetoric for a productive routine. The rhetoric potential of video games has been already taken into account (Frasca, 2003; Bogost, 2008), so I’m not certainly claiming anything new. What I see in survival games, however, is how they encourage the player to organize each day, to plan ahead, and to make the most of the scarce resources available. Which is, more or less, what productivity is about.

In survival games time is probably the most crucial resource. To exploit it means to be able to obtain more, and better, results. The clock ticks and you, as the player, cannot stay idle. If you want to survive another day, you must gather or hunt food, build shelter, create tools to be even more productive the next day. There is clearly a representation of primal human nature (and history) at work here, but that’s way beside my point. The rhetoric I talk about emerges when the player realizes that the same rules apply to everyday life, and tasks are one after the other.

dontstarve2

Livin’ the dream

For example, to build a Crock Pot (cooking device) the player requires 3x Cut Stone, 6x Charcoal, 6x Twigs. The latter can be harvested by shrubs, pretty commonly placed next to the starting point. Charcoal is a little bit trickier, as it can be found after chopping down a burnt tree (hence, the player needs a way to lit a fire -> other resources). Cut Stone must be refined by raw Rocks, found after digging with a Pickaxe (again, more resources needed to craft one) on proper sites. But not all these things can be gathered in a single day of the game world. This forces the player to set a list of priorities in her/his mind, answering questions such as: “Should I build a Crock Pot or a Farm first?“, “Can I find these resources nearby or should I move far away?“, “Do I have enough food to survive until this project is complete?“. Then, each day has to be scheduled in detail for an optimization of the time/results ratio. And so on.

Now, this is exactly what a productive routine means to me: set a goal, organize priorities, make the most out of every day, but also make room for leisure (sanity level decreases over time!), food (do-not-starve!), and all the relevant things in your life. The rhetoric of survival games lies there, and if understood could help in establishing a daily set of tasks. I think it’s fundamental, though, to not let the routine in the game overlap or substitute what should be outside it; the sense of fulfillment can be tricky sometimes, and mislead to contentment.

So, well, don’t be hungry…nor foolish.

References:

– Frasca, Gonzalo (2003). “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” In The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge. 221–37

– Bogost, Ian (2008). “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 117–40

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