Mental model: Life is a RPG video game

August 1, 2020

Life is complex. Mental models help make better sense of it and reduce its complexity.

One such model that doesn’t get talked about much is - Life is a video game.

If you think about it, in life

  • You’re the player. You can only control your actions directly.
  • You have a physical health bar, mental health bar, skills bar, status bar and a few others
  • There are objectives to achieve, missions to complete, side quests to optionally embark upon
  • Your past decisions affect your future path, there’s a complex infinitely branching out decision tree
  • There are skill trees to unlock, upgrade, and master
  • Everyone else around you is a NPC (non-playable character). You can’t control their actions, but you can influence them indirectly through your actions.
  • The game ends when you die

You must be thinking - “Life sounds exactly like a RPG video game. How did I never think of it this way before?”

I know right!

The first time I chanced upon this framework was when I was playing The Witcher 3.

That game has incredible depth - past decisions unlocked future events (or locked certain paths), I could upgrade my skills and specialise in one or two domains, but not all of them.

Just like in RPG games, you can dress up and style your character in real life too

While playing through game, I went through a parallel journey of equating the game’s structure to the structure of one’s life. That was back in 2017 when I first thought about this mental model.

The final piece of the puzzle set in when I heard Kunal Shah say “life is a game, make up the rules and win it.” I can't find the original post, but here's a derivative post from the same thought.

Every game has a set of rules, and so does life.

We’ve heard them since we were children - don’t die, don’t end up in jail, if you screw other people it can come back to bite you, look both ways of the street before you cross, and endless other such rules.

There are some rules that are immutable, and some that were simply placed there or perpetuated due to circumstances. These are variables.

“Don’t die” is an immutable rule.

“Get an MBA and work for 35 years and retire” is is a variable.

Kunal Shah’s statement essentially says that the power over variables is in your hands.

How to apply this mental model in your life

You are the player in your life. Now ask yourself:

  • What are your objectives? What gives you happiness and satisfaction
  • What decisions can you make today that will unlock the paths you want to realise in the future? Where do you want to be 10 years from now. Work backwards from there until you arrive at today. What should you do today so that you end up in that future in 10 years.
  • Which skill trees do you want to unlock (new skills), upgrade (improve existing skills), and master (becoming 1%)?

…and so on.

You can apply this mental model in any number of ways, I’ve just highlighted a few big ones.

If I had to update the original thought by Kunal Shah, I would add a clause which has been beautifully captured by my friend Prashant.


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