Aleks Krotoski
The Guardian
Wednesday 19 August 2009

There are few things more satisfying in life than levelling up. That, after all, is what games are all about. As a long-time player, I have a tendency to look at the world through console-coloured glasses. Recently, I had one of those mini-boosts in XP when I was on a train. I had quite happily, furiously, been scribbling in the margins of a document, drawing spaghetti arrows from one end to the other and back again, jotting down incomprehensible notes for myself and scratching out passages of text, when out of the blue my pen ran out of ink. It wasn’t blocked, it hadn’t dried up: I had used the entire charge of red in my ballpoint pen, from the moment it was first de-capped through to its final stroke. When I realised just what had happened, I heard that telltale little “ding” and knew I had a new trophy for my achievements shelf.

Yes, I had managed to avoid the common Ballpoint Challenge pitfalls, like dropping the pen down a drain (lose a life), losing it at the bottom of my bag and half-completing another pen instead, only to rediscover the original pen much later after the ink had dried up (lose a life), and – by far the most common – loaning it to someone for a second, who then runs away with it and keeps it for their own challenge (forfeit game). Instead I had successfully achieved the maximum points possible in that round and had moved on up to the next level.

Of course, that was an incidental levelling up, kind of like the experience you get from surfing the web in the Passively Multiplayer Online Game, which distributes points for browsing and awards special badges for using certain sites in clever ways. There are also those compelling life-levelling experiences that you actively work for, that dangle on a stick in front of you, that keep you going to the next stage.

Last week I levelled up big time: after an impressive four-and-a-half years of leaping over chasms of theory, dodging methodological concerns and, in a series of epic clashes, defeating the members of the university ethics committee, I finally delivered my PhD thesis to the last keymaster who will unlock my final quest in the Doctorate Game. Although I made it through an unbelievably difficult boss battle, I haven’t won quite yet; I still have one more perilous task before I can see credits rolling over the final celebration screen.

But before I dive headlong into that one, I’m going to hit pause for a few minutes and make myself a cup of tea. Maybe I’ll draw a map of the final dungeon with the new pen I got after beating my last game. After all, the nicest thing about life is that all the little challenges are intertwined.

Originally published on The Guardian