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The Zen of Bloodborne: What gaming can teach us about repetition

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We tend to think about repetition incorrectly.

In gaming, as in life, we crave novelty. New experiences excite us, and we often plow through actions that must be repeated over and over in order to get to the interesting and novel things that are waiting on the other side.

I often do a poor job when cleaning, for instance. I've cleaned each room in my house hundreds of times, and this week I'll clean them all again. It's not enjoyable. It's a chore I must do, and I often half-ass my way through it in order to get to something I enjoy.

There is a reason my house is nearly always dirty.

This is a trend that many of us share; repetition causes our performance in even simple tasks to go down instead of up. You'd think the more I cleaned my bathroom the more I would understand my bathroom. I should be able to write down a list of steps that, when done well, lead to a perfectly clean bathroom.

My performance at bathroom cleaning should improve, until I knew exactly what to do to have a clean bathroom, and then all I would have to do is go through those actions once a week or so. Instead I find the act of cleaning my bathroom repetitive and, even worse, boring. I plow through it mindlessly. My bathroom is never really clean for this reason.

This negative feedback loop came up again when I was reading an article about Bloodborne, and why the author stopped playing. Repetition was a major reason behind his need to step away from the game, as it was causing him to do poorly.

"Tough games are great, but when I triumph over a significant enemy or obstacle and make progress, I want that progress recognized and rewarded. The last thing I want is to be told to do it again and again and again, until it loses all meaning," IGN's Dan Stapleton wrote.

You're not being taught how to hunt monsters, you're being taught the art of mindfulness

"As a new, inexperienced player, that’s exactly what Bloodborne does: it takes the achievement of killing a big group of evil villagers or a couple of werewolves and reduces it to tedium by making me kill those exact same enemies so many times it becomes more chore than challenge."

Doing a task over and over should make you better at it, but as my example about cleaning my bathroom and Stapleton's gaming habits show, that's not the case. You become worse at that action.

"This led to a downward spiral of impatience and frustration. Bored by the prospect of running through the same level again and again just to get to the part that was giving me trouble, I’d try to take shortcuts — mostly by diving into combat and biting off more than I could chew," Stapleton wrote.

"That usually ended about the way you’d expect. That setback — and resulting loss of items, BloodBux™ (I refused to call them 'blood echos' because how does that even make sense?), and another 40 seconds of my life — would make me even more angry, and the cycle would repeat. After a few hours, I knew exactly how Bill Murray felt in Groundhog Day."

I'm not here to heap scorn on Stapleton for writing this piece, because his experience echoes not only how I play games myself but how I do any repetitive tasks. The more I do them, the more I dislike them, which leads me doing a poorer job.

How to do it right

Bill Murray is a bad example to put in this situation because he quickly learned that his life would be more enjoyable, and certainly easier, if he learned from the repetition and allowed it to lead him to mastery. He helped people. He developed new skills. He became something like a god for that one day. His anguish over repetition was short-lived; he used it as a path towards greatness.

Watch this clip from the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi for an example of the right way to think about repetition.

The problem with repetition is that it tends to make us mindless due to the fact that we think we know what to expect. I'm often mindless as I clean. Dan Stapleton becomes mindless when he replays a bit of Bloodborne.

People like Jiro, on the other hand, become mindful when faced with repetition. They use it as a way to improve their technique, to strive towards perfection. They learn a bit more about even simple tasks, day after day. They become great.

Every action, from cleaning your bathroom to killing monsters in Bloodborne to making Sushi, has an optimal method. The trick is to teach yourself to do each task in life mindfully, to move closer to that optimal path. You can never get there, but the idea is to improve bit by bit every day until you become great. By rejecting repetition, by allowing it to drive us to mindlessness, we're cheating ourselves out of that path.

Games like Bloodborne force repetition so you can improve, so you can learn how to do everything a bit better than last time. The trick is to greet each opportunity to replay a section of the game with that in mind.

That constant improvement, that striving towards the optimal path, is one of the reasons From Software games tend to elicit a nearly religious fervor from their biggest fans. You're not being taught how to hunt monsters, you're being taught the art of mindfulness, and that path can be very satisfying.

Every action has an optimal method

It's perfectly fine to reject games of this nature due to the repetition, no one is right or wrong when it comes to how they spend their free time playing games. But by rejecting the act of repetition out of hand in general you're losing out on the ability to improve how you think of each action, while improving your performance in that action.

By reprogramming your brain to welcome repetition, to use it as a way to grow more capable, you'll improve not only your ability to play this sort of game, but everything you do in life. There is no greater gift you can give yourself than embracing repetition and growing from it.

If you figure out how to teach yourself that discipline, let me know. My bathroom will thank you.