Bits of Bliss?
By Ben Luttinen
I’ve been playing video games since I was 6 years old and it’s easily one of my deepest passions.
I can talk myself into playing video games for multiple hours at a time, escaping to a virtual oasis and away from all worldly responsibilities. However, escaping to this oasis has sometimes landed me in trouble with my family and friends, so everything is good in moderation. But what do video games provide other than being my guilty pleasure? The answer is a little unusual, and quite frankly it took me a while to wrap my head around it. Video games can provide a steady stream of organized thought. To help back up this statement, I’ll share my video game experience and let you be the judge.
So I started my graduate program at the University of Georgia in the fall of 2018, coming straight from an undergraduate program where I obtained my bachelor’s in general biology. I entered this program with a focused mindset, ready to tackle the next 5 years of my education, and earn a Ph.D. The first semester of this graduate program involved three laboratory rotations, each of which was 8 weeks long, and within a broad range of the life sciences, such as Genetics, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry. Due to these fairly frequent rotations and students not having a “home” department, the classes during this first semester were geared towards professional development. Also, our typical research workloads were relaxed, leaving students with more time on their hands.
My initial reaction to this was “wow, I don’t understand why people complain about grad school, this seems pretty easy!” But as you may have guessed it, I would soon come to realize that I was very, very wrong in that statement.
Fast forward to the end of the first semester. At this point in the program, you would be asked to choose which lab you would like to join and complete your Ph.D. work in. I decided to join a lab within the genetics department that works on an unorthodox system of parasitic wasps. These wasps utilize viruses to help their offspring survive while inside the body of an insect host. Immediately after learning about this system I was hooked. The strangest part about this fascination I have with this project is that I was not the biggest fan of insects in general. I didn’t have a problem with them, they just weren’t my cup of tea. Regardless, I had chosen a lab, I had done well in my classes for the first semester, and I was motivated to get started on my project.
It took all but one week for the workload tsunami to wash over me and bring back a sense of humbleness.
After joining the lab, I sat down with my advisor and laid out the coursework that would help with my background knowledge. My project quickly became very interdisciplinary, spanning the fields of genetics, cell biology, entomology, and developmental biology. My future coursework reflected this, but the hubris I was sporting from last semester was still in full effect, so of course, I wasn’t worried. I decided to take two of my core classes in that second semester, one on genetics and one course about insects. It took all but one week for the workload tsunami to wash over me and bring back a sense of humbleness. I was exhausted and burned out. Between studying, doing research in the lab, reading up on current scientific literature, and making time for myself, something had to give. Unfortunately, making time for myself drew the short straw. As I made my way through the rest of the semester I spent less and less time doing the things I enjoyed, and I began thinking: “Is this going to be the next 4-5 years of my life?” Thankfully, spring break arrived just in the nick of time. Although I was still working in the lab over this break, the beast known as my coursework was at bay.
During this break I was able to get back on track with a healthy work schedule, coming in at 9 am and leaving at 5 pm. In addition to working reasonable hours, I was able to catch up on my studies, prepping in full for the following week. Besides work-related activities and above all else, I finally had some free time.
Once the clock hit 5 pm on Friday, I headed back to my apartment for some much-needed relaxation. Upon arriving I turned on my TV, grabbed my PlayStation controller, and sank deep into my couch.
I started playing a game from one of my favorite gaming franchises, Assassin’s Creed. In my defense, I hadn’t played in a few weeks, but I started off rather rusty. But soon after a few quick failed attempts, everything started flowing. Before I knew it I was racing through levels and completing missions like I’d played the game a million times (FYI: I’ve played it 3 or 4 times); I was locked in. After a while, I could feel all of the stress I had bearing down on my shoulders start to drift away. I get the same exact feeling from my research after I finish a hard experiment.
Seemingly out of nowhere, my mind started to wander while I continued playing and it somehow brought me back around to my work. Didn’t I start playing video games to escape all this? But suddenly everything just started falling into place: the things I should study, the people I should reach out to, the experimental setups I needed. An intricate map formed in my mind, not unlike the game map I was currently using.
I looked at my schedule for the upcoming week and I planned out some experiments and study sessions like I usually do, but this time I added a new wrinkle to the calendar: I put in some blocks for video games. Somehow during those moments of gaming, I had organized and arranged all of my responsibilities into a clear and logistical thought process. But how? I mean all I did was zone out and play a game for a couple of hours. Then it all made sense. I had been so focused on the work on hand that I had forgotten about everything outside of it! Playing those video games had cleared my mind of distractions, and in some ways pressed the reset button.
I had been so focused on the work on hand that I had forgotten about everything outside of it! Playing those video games had cleared my mind of distractions, and in some ways pressed the reset button.
Since that epiphany-like experience over spring break of last year, I’ve made it a necessity to incorporate time for myself in my weekly schedule. I find that although the stress associated with graduate school can be intense, finding a proper work-life balance can help alleviate most of this. Now that I’ve found it, I can finish all of my work in an efficient manner while still managing a 9-5 schedule (with some exceptions here and there). Video games are not the answer for everyone, but I encourage you to find your own “video game” and add this to your weekly routine. I can’t promise you a Ph.D., but I can promise you a more empowered lifestyle to help you get there.