My family had a ritual when I was growing up. If we were watching TV and a back to school commercial came on any time before August 15th or so, my sister, my mother, or me would rush to change the channel while my father cackled like a madman at the inevitability of our fate. Summer would end, sooner than we could have thought or hoped, and we’d all be forced to ride the bus to school while my father waved from the sidewalk before hopping in his car, gleeful with the knowledge we were suffering alongside him in our own way.
In truth, he was jealous. What my father wouldn’t give for just one more day in school. He’d love to have just one day where he could sit in class, drink during recess, and slay shadow monsters after school (or whatever y’all did in the 1980’s). Instead, he had to get in his car and drive almost an hour to central New Jersey to work a shitty office job so he could provide for his family that he’d get home late to every night.
Which is to say, we never seem to truly escape feeling like we’re going through the most difficult part of lives.
School seems awfully sadistic when you’re in the midst of it, doesn’t it? You’re forced into a concrete box with a bunch of people you may or may not like, told to devote your life to subjects you may have have a passing interest in at best, or wholeheartedly loathe at worst. You’ll hide your face from becoming a dodgeball target in gym, and navigate the hormonal awkwardness of pubescent youth while trying to convince yourself it’s totally cool to go to the prom stag.
I’ve come to realize that I’m probably in the minority when I say I rather enjoyed my school years. I hear people who say they couldn’t wait to leave. They’d do their time and then fuck off forever. I guess I’m lucky I don’t have that reaction. I keep a close circle of friends I’ve been with since at least high school. My current roommate I met in the fourth grade (I’m sorry again about not going to see the goats with you on the field trip, Kevin). I generally liked learning things, but also understand I got real lucky with some of my teachers who expanded the classroom beyond the textbook.
I’ve asked all of my friends the following thought experiment: If you could go back and relive your high school years with the same brain you have now – all the knowledge you’ve gained, life experience you’ve suffered, an open hand of what the future holds – would you do it?
Most people say yes.
My friends and I definitely romanticize our high school experiences, and I think the reason so many are willing to go along with that thought experiment is because we’re now emotionally better equipped to handle the downsides of being at the whim of the world with no say than we were when we were sixteen. By our modern standards, school was easy.
I think that video games give us a way to role play this experience in a similar way. Persona, Final Fantasy VIII, Harry Potter, Bully – whether taking place in literal high schools or some facsimile of a military prep school, the core loop of going to school is something easily gamified. Go to school, learn about a subject to level up, go fight demons in the town sewers. Unlike real school, all of the game’s problems can flatly be solved.
I recently dipped my toes back into the Harry Potter universe. I remember playing the original game (based on the movie, based on the book) when I was an obsessed youth in middle school. Even then, playing around in a school in a video game made my child brain feel immensely adult at the time. I could solve puzzles, get to class on time, find hidden secret passage ways, stick up to the bad guys. In the game world, I was essentially an adult playing a child in a school. I had more real world knowledge than Harry Potter did, but got to share in the exciting exploration of the wizarding world with him. Sure, he had to go toe-to-toe with Voldemort, but in the confines of a game space, that’s a safe way for me to build confidence and overcome challenges. Everything could be solved.
After all real school didn’t have nefarious death eaters around ever corner, although at times calculus could feel more impossible than slaying a giant basilisk.
Nowadays, I’m sure I’d relish the opportunity to flex my adult logic reasoning skills. I’d take classes head-on like the adult that I am, cool and confident in my problem solving abilities and knowledge about the critical context in which the subject is relevant to the real world. As a child, slaying the bad guy is an easy problem to solve (or at least, to understand). Having a raw discussion on whether or not we should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan when you’re fifteen years old is a bit murkier.
As an adult, we’re better equipped to solve, or at least understand these problems. Why wouldn’t we want to go back in time and more forcefully argue for things we now know to be true and just? To solve the math problems that tripped us up night after night? To calmly catch the dodgeball and whale it back in the class asshole’s face? To do so now would not only be easier, but build a helluva lot more confidence in our ability to grapple with the adult things that trip us up now. I can bang out an essay critically examining the United States’ foreign policy initiatives in the 1940s without breaking a sweat, of course I can do my taxes and repair the hole in my tire.
Alternatively, schools in games give us a clear blueprint of how we grow and build relationships with our peers, and these lessons are just as relevant when you’re an adult. The most clear recent example is Fire Emblem: Three Houses. In somewhat of a twist to the classic school kid formula, you take on the role of the school teacher instead.
The loop is much the same. You teach your students to level them up in specific areas, explore the campus on the weekends to perform recreational activities such as fishing, cooking and hosting tea parties, and then take them on field trips to mercilessly murder enemies of the church once a month. Just like high school.
What Fire Emblem: Three Houses gets right more than anything else is the focus on building relationships with each of your students. To push it further, the game doesn’t just show you the main character’s relationship with these students, but how they grow amongst each other throughout the school year and beyond. The game cheerfully notifies you when you see someone lounging around the dining hall or cultivating plants in the greenhouse.
These notifications are a quaint approximation of what it’s like to spot a friend in the hallway on your way to class, or looking for a place to sit at lunch. At worst, you should at least say hi not to be rude, at best, you might want to stop to hear if their brother is plotting a coup and offer them advice.
The more you talk to your students, interact with them, and provide them with gifts or lost materials they’ve dropped, the higher their motivation to do work and the more they’ll like you. To do this consistently every week or month is quite a bit of work.
It’s not unlike maintaining relationships in real life. To truly understand someone, to know where they’re coming from, and to know what motivates them, takes time and effort. You have to seek them out and approach them. You have to know when the right time to do that is. You have to be open to them being very honest with what’s going on in their life and how they interpret the things that you say.
These are skills you begin honing in high school, mostly out of necessity, but I’d argue that you don’t really get good at empathizing with other human beings until after college when you get some more relatable life experience under your belt. Or at least, it takes that long if you grew up in a comfortable middle-class household.
Back to School
This past month the company I work for, Automattic, had their Grand Meetup. This is when all 800+ of us remote workers descend upon a poor, single hotel and tear up the joint. It’s a time for us to learn new skills, take classes, and build something new, but it’s also a time for us to reconnect and make up for all the after work, uh, hanging out we don’t get to do throughout the year.
In a way, the yearly Grand Meetup is the closest I ever get to reaching that fantasy of reliving my high school youth with a modern brain. In some ways, it’s probably better. I get to wake up every morning and check my schedule for the day. I go to the dining hall for food, finding a place to sit amongst friends. I get to bustle from class to class (that I’m actually interested in), spotting people I know in the hallways and stopping to chat. During free time, I can wander between groups, practice playing in a band, join a game of D&D, or start up a conversation with someone I’ve never met before.
I also get to build relationships with my coworkers and teammates. I spent a lot of time hanging out with them this year, getting some one on one time and having some really honest conversations. To put it in Fire Emblem terms, our motivation increased.
Three Houses uses this motivation building to form its core gameplay loop. Every weekend, you explore the school campus, speaking to various students, answering their questions and giving them lost items or gifts that they like. You use this motivation that you’ve built to help teach them new skills, which you then use to slaughter foes on the battlefield.
The thing that Three Houses gets so right is the nature in which you have to build motivation amongst your classmates. There is no shortcut. In order to connect with them, and then in turn learn from them, you have to seek them out on campus and speak with them. You have to share a meal with them. You have to find objects they’ve lost and return it to them. You have to listen to what they’re saying and find the right gift that they’d like. It’s time consuming and something that requires constant maintenance.
These skills are universal to our experiences outside the screen. Having meaningful conversations with other people requires you to reach out, often and routinely. It encourages you to really listen to what another person is saying and be conscious of your words.
“Real life” doesn’t operate like a school. There are less opportunities to come across people in their natural element – art class, gym, math, whatever. There are less opportunities to connect and meet people outside of your existing bubble.
I’m thankful that the Grand Meetup lets me emulate this experience, at least for a little while. Speaking with people outside my division, connecting with groups of people from the other side of the world, or even just catching up in person with those I speak to digitally every day lets me get to know and grow with people who have completely different experiences than I do.
Doing so builds a mental rolodex of contacts. Need a developer for a particular project, or specific data to be collected? Looking for advice in an area you don’t have experience in? Want to share feedback on a product, workflow, or idea? Knowing who to talk to and how to approach them only comes from putting in the effort to truly get to know someone. In Fire Emblem terms, it’s like recruiting someone outside your class to bring in a skillset you didn’t have before.
While other school-themed games let us relive our school experiences, or at least make school problems seem easily solvable, Three Houses looks back on the school experience from an adult perspective. It puts a spotlight on the core emotional aspects that take us forward into adulthood. It understands that life, relationships, and lessons learned all scale with age, and the difficulties we face grow with us, even if they’re different in nature.
We can’t go back in time. To go backwards, to a time when our circumstances were simpler by today’s standards, would rob us of the very growth that lets us look back and snicker at the thought that we ever let freaking trigonometry give us a headache.
Digital spaces let us get a glimpse back into that time where things seemed a little more straightforward. Go to class, build and nurture relationships, defeat Voldemort. It’s the sheer nature of the world that we’re never in a state of comfort for very long. We’re constantly pushing up against the boundaries and challenging ourselves, whether we want to or not. As we grow up, we’re always proverbially getting on another bus while another looks on from the sidewalk, secretly wishing they could trade places, just for a day.
Games can let us revisit these spaces, at least for a little while.