I was in elementary school when the first Pokémon game flooded the consciousness of every kid around me. Recess was no longer just the fields and playground; it was the Pokémon-infested Kanto region and the trainers that made their careers there. For a brief time, that game became a measure of popularity.
Oh man, you had a level 76 dragonite!? Wanna trade? How about a fight?
Back in those days, it was rather simple to measure yourself against others. Obvious, in fact. All you had to do was look at what bits of data you’d acquired. Levels mattered. How many unique Pokemon you’d captured mattered. And it wasn’t like the arcade days when how far you got in Pacman or Tetris was a matter of rumor and conjecture. “Oh, yeah, I’m AAA with that score of 12 billion and 32.” Indeed, with children carrying their Gameboys to school with them, comparing this information was both effortless and accurate—lying was impossible.
Since those days, I’ve always enjoyed the role-playing game (RPG) genre. To those that know little about it, I’ll bring up the wonderful storytelling experiences or the world exploration that make RPGs apparently enjoyable. But nothing truly compares to the fact that RPGs offer the most concrete progression system in any genre.
Using the simple example of Pokémon, every fight would give at least one of your Pokémon experience points. With enough accrued experience points, your Pokémon would “level up” and gain increased fighting ability as well as an occasional new technique. It didn’t matter how weak the enemy was: if you won, you got experience points.
An action game might pit you against hordes of monsters. Killing each of these monsters potentially pushes you further along in the game, but the reward is nearly invisible. It is subtle. And in many cases it can be frustrating, as you fight more and more enemies and wonder if you are actually making progress. In an RPG, each enemy is progress, for the experience points they give will continue to make your character stronger. That strength will make further events easier. If I wanted to run, there was the trade-off of having less experience points for time saved. Even if no progress is being made in the game’s plot, something is always getting better. I’ve loved that obvious mark of advancement.
I’m not alone. People have tried in many ways to make their advancement in life obvious. For many, it’s material objects that prove their advancement to themselves. Money is an obvious one. Like experience points, a salary makes every day seem like it’s adding up towards something. But money is impermanent, carrying value only in the collective faith of its users. Economic depressions remind people that even storing money in large sums could be like throwing possessions into a fire, once you realize that stored money has the potential to evaporate.
You deposit money…aaaaaaand it’s gone.
Some people buy possessions. Objects made of steel rather than faith disappear less easily. Some people write their experiences on paper (or blog about it :p), or buy big world maps and place pins on the places they’re been, hoping to paint the world red. Some count the number of people they’ve dated in the same way. People tend to favor those things which cannot decrease. Regardless, everyone does something to mark their progress, and they’re happy when they build up their own reserve of “apparent experience points”.
When it comes to real life experience points, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. After all, that’s what life is; an RPG, more or less. A massive role-playing game.