Friday 5: What Video Games Have Taught Me About Litigation

NWLawyer Editor Michael Heatherly shares how video games made him a better litigator.

video gamesI started my video game indulgence as a kid with Pong, Space Invaders and Asteroids. I didn’t play much in my younger adult years, but I rediscovered gaming as a parent, occasionally venturing into my son’s chaotic, Star Wars-themed room to challenge him (always unsuccessfully) on the latest PlayStation offering.  And now that the kids are gone, I again have time to pick up a joystick from time to time.

In other words, I’ve been playing video games a lot longer than I’ve been practicing law. And I have to admit I’ve learned some life lessons from wrangling virtual race cars and wrestling the undead, lessons that translate to the practice of law, especially litigation. Here are a few:

Patience: As with litigation, it’s tempting to enter a game battle with guns blazing in hopes of swiftly annihilating a foe. Unfortunately, quick, total victories are rare in either world. It has taken years, but I have gradually found that a patient, stealthy approach — sneaking in a back window rather than lobbing grenades at the front gate — often produces a better outcome for one’s own client, while reducing casualties on both sides.

Perseverance: Although I enjoy playing video games, I’m not particularly good at them. Accordingly, I lose a lot. I find myself constantly fighting the urge to give up on a game altogether if I struggle with one battle or level. Even as an adult, I’ve tossed the controller down in disgust more than once, convinced at the moment that the situation was utterly hopeless. But there are few games I’ve actually given up on, and I usually at least complete the main quest. Likewise, I’ve lost plenty of motions in court, and I’ve thrown files to my office floor in despair. But I never give up on a case. And despite a case’s limitations, I often get a good result for my client by just hanging in there.

Calm under pressure: A few years ago, I tried an experiment in which I attempted to achieve a Zen-like level of relaxation while playing an especially challenging auto-racing video game. I had noticed that if I didn’t consciously relax, my whole body became tense, my breathing got erratic, and this impaired my ability to play the game. I concentrated on relaxing every muscle in my body, even as I maintained control of the furious action on screen. Honestly, it was only a partial success. Apparently, the mind and body have extreme difficulty distinguishing between real and virtual catastrophes. Fortunately, I have better success using the same technique in stressful professional situations. Just recognizing the physical effects of stress and turning the knob down from 10 to 5 or so gives me a sense of calm, like time is slowing down a little and giving me a chance to catch up.

Humility: Again, since I’m not a great game player, I lose a lot. But that gives me plenty of opportunities to feel humble. I’m not a Buddhist, but I do get a sense of inner strength from humility.

Perspective: Whether it’s playing a video game or working on a case, I try to remember that as engrossing as those pursuits are, there is more to life. I need to recognize when it’s time to put down the controller, or get out of the office, and reconnect with the other people and things that matter.  Often, I find that the game is much easier to play the next day.