College as a Video Game (And the Gap Year as a User’s Manual)

Sunghoon Kwak - India

January 15, 2018

Skill tree(Noun). A hierarchal visual representation of customizations a player can make to their character. Skill trees can either branch out or eventually fold back to a single point depending on the game.
Skill trees are found prominently in video games, but you don’t have to be in a virtual world to realize the presence of a “skill tree”, even in daily life.
Most video games utilize the concept of “skill points” that are earned over time to be allocated to certain branches of the skill tree. This phenomenon is not as explicitly present in real life, as we don’t earn points that we can use to suddenly improve a skill. However, parallels do exist. By pouring in money, time, and effort, we are able to become considerably better at certain things. A soccer player develops his skill through practice, and similarly, a video game character grows stronger through consistent training.
In many games, it’s often considered foolish to mindlessly allocate points into random skill paths, as they impact one’s future enjoyment and play-style of the game. This means that dabbling in many different play-styles during a run can be detrimental to a player’s experience. This system rewards those who have a solid path they want to traverse, and punishes those who want to explore the different opportunities available to them.
As children of our generation grow and progress through high school, they’re met with a similar dilemma of those of video game players: what will they dedicate their time and resources on? The prospect of college looms over high school students, and they need to make decisions regarding where and what they’ll study for the next few years. If it’s regarded as foolish to allocate skill points randomly without a prior thought in a game that can easily be restarted, why do we force ourselves to make a decision to allocate our funds, time, and effort into something we may never end up using at the young age of 18?
Luckily for these players and anxious prospective students, there are resources to help them through the decision-making process.
For the players, time can be taken before jumping into the game to read manuals or online guides to optimize their experience. Through these guides, the players are able to read through the many possibilities present to them and make an informed decision as to the path they will take in the game.
For the students, a similar option exists where they can take time off before starting college and take a bridge year. This year serves as a period in which the students reflect and understand their selves before delving into a commitment that could very well dictate the course of their lives. Although the decision to study a certain topic in college isn’t rooted in permanence, why rush the decision and risk being in a field that may lead to regret and dissatisfaction?
I’m not saying that taking a gap year is a fool-proof way to prevent this “misallocation” of skills from happening, but it’s refreshing to take a step back a really see where one’s interests may lie without the prodding of outside influences. For me, my gap year made me realize that the original path I was originally set on had no correlation to my core interests. I learned that my interests don’t lie in engineering or business, but rather in the liberal arts and government. I learned that I love problem-solving, and not just in the context of numbers and math, but also in the context of people and society. I discovered a hidden love for writing and creating art, and found that having a creative outlet helps me stay in touch with inner self.
Still, I can’t say for sure that the path I’ve carved out for myself is the one that is guaranteed to give me the most happiness or fulfillment, but I can truly say that I’ve pondered and sat with the decision I’m willing to take in terms of higher education. I can proudly say that my decisions in my studies will stem from my true interests, rather than from interests imposed by those who surround me.
So this is a message to those still struggling to find their true passions while having no other choice but to conform to the rigidity of secondary education: Take some time off and do the things you’ve always wanted to do. Throw yourself into the world of uncomfortable interactions and head-scratch inducing dilemmas. Figure out which path of your skill tree you want to focus on. This is a time meant for you and only you.
Sometimes we need to take a step back and take some time to sharpen the axe before swinging away at the trees.

Sunghoon Kwak