I am a big gaming fan. When I was just 14 years old, I got into Yu-Gi-Oh, then World of Warcraft, Magic the Gathering, League then Warhammer. For every game, I obsessed over countering the meta: The universally over-powered (OP) character and item picks that often ruin the game mechanics, which I hated to see. This resulted in experiments and sorrows, of course. I rolled vanilla shaman as a damage dealer (DPS) and never landed a 40-man raid spot. Played Fiddlesticks mid and lost to AP Yi. I built a counter deck against Exodia and ran out of money.
It was demoralising. Being shut out from competitive scenes, such as four-hour guild raid events and pro-ranked games, made me realise that despite all the talent trees and class perks, there were only a couple of selections and combos that were actually taken seriously. It was an illusion of choice. Hundreds of guides recommending the same talent picks and item sets down to every slot—everyone ends up building characters who look and talk the same. They were OP, of course, but counter-metas, like myself, became increasingly discouraged to play and the game soon became significantly more predictable and less exciting.
I saw first-hand how, when given an opportunity, players willingly and desperately optimise the fun out of the game. They tend to quit quickly afterwards.
I often reflected on my gaming experience. The conscious choice I have made to not min-max made me a causal. Yet I was happy: happy because I got to enjoy the game for what it has to offer, not treat it as another part-time job to grind for the best gear. I immersed myself in every quest line and poured over the arts and the lore. It gave me inspiration to design, to draw and to build my own thing. I found this to be an enriching, almost educational, experience.
Ironically, to hold on to this fun, I had to distance myself from the palpable stress and anxiety found in community forums, which tended to be complaints about tilting, grinding and game balance from expert players. They were very serious and invested—but apparently always unhappy and never satisfied.
I often think about this. I would have saved myself many precious hours if I decided not to browse those forums and used that time to chase after my own fun.
The rules and norms might be hard to change and that can lead to disappointment. I remember hitting max level as an enhance shaman in World of Warcraft and getting told by a guild member that I could not make a raid. “Sorry bud, wrong talents. Game is designed this way. Can’t do much”, he said. It made me feel bad because I thought it was true: I didn’t get to join the raid that actually mattered to me because I couldn’t change my decision to match the way the game was programmed. Despite playing as a counter-meta, my expectations were still imparted by the pro-players. I was setting out for a goal that was already inconsistent with the choices I have made as a casual: Chasing something that I am determined to run away from, losing the fun in the process.
It makes little sense: I could have not cared about the hard-core grinding and the loots, but I still subscribed. I was claiming offence but playing defense, optimising for something everyone else wanted but not what I wanted myself.
“There is no, ‘restart’, button and we might only get the opportunity to seriously optimise for something once”
Sometimes I wonder if we are making similar mistakes in life by choosing to optimise for the wrong thing. We preach, “follow your passion”, in school yet force young people to declare majors and find internships before the age of 20, when many can barely drive. We worship relentless hustle and salary brackets, then spend years healing from health complications due to over-working. It feels awfully familiar and confusing and disappointing.
As a founder I have grown to be critical about the voices that come around. My Asian upbringing made sure the voices, those that are more practical than fun, stayed close. Throughout the years, I have found a balance between the two. Though making choices can be daunting at times, I have become a lot more intentional in appreciating my privilege in having my options.
I try to keep in touch with my friends. Many of us struggle with ‘what now?’. This helps to put things into perspective for me: Setting milestones is easy, setting the goal is hard. The goal is never a plural, however. When the goal becomes clear, choices are just choices, not sacrifices. Complications fade away. There is the blue sky, there is the fun again.
I feel lucky to be sharing this journey with many. It is a beautiful process seeing people coming to terms with what makes them smile. As a kid, I loved story-telling and world-building. I was able to grow and find my unique creative outlet in podcasts and tech ventures. It took me years to circle back to my inner voice amid the narratives; looking back, it was an unnecessarily scary process. I just hope there is a bit more time to explore, try and fail for all the smart people out there figuring out things for themselves. Those who have more options than they thought, those who might have optimised the fun away in the process.
“Though making choices can be daunting at times, I have become a lot more intentional in appreciating my privilege in having my options”.
We live in a world where blaming try-hards is unhelpful and rage-quitting is impossible. We live in a world where we are permanently on 1HP, living by the mercy of every driver we come across. There is no, ‘restart’, button and we might only get the opportunity to seriously optimise for something once—with a university education, loans, mortgage, relationship and our mental state. It might as well be a bet.
And as always, the metas are going to be obvious, the pro-players are going to be loud, the game design is probably rigged, but in this mess, there has got to be something simple that you enjoy, that you care about.
Find out what it is. Just like I did, fishing and collecting herbs as a shaman, foregoing the glory of raid loots.
Optimise for the right thing. Life is short.
Brent Liang is a graduate of Shanghai High School, International Division, Shanghai, China. He continued his studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. He is a 3x student founder and a Chancellor’s Scholar. On weekends, you are likely to find him obsessing over Mac Miller’s music. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.
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