A Heaven In A Wild Cactus

I'm pretty hopped up on cold medication, so here's some profound life lessons I learnt from spending all day playing Desert Golfing.

To see a world in a bunker of sand.
And a heaven in a wild cactus,
Hold infinity in the pocket of your shorts,
And eternity in Desert Golfing.

~ the game's app store description


1) Your enemy is your friend

The first thing you'll realize about golfing in a golf course made out of nothing but sand traps is exactly as frustrating as it sounds.

The ball won't roll down the sandy hill. The sandy ground will stop the ball right outside the hole. The irregular hills will bounce your ball in unpredictable directions.

But sand is consistent. Sand can be tamed. Sand can be mastered.

I used the hills' friction to climb my ball up them. I used the sandy ground to stop my ball from going overboard. I used the irregular hills to bounce my ball into hard-to-get spots.

And maybe that's a life lesson to take to heart. There will be thousands of people who will tell you to list pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, goods and evils, but what if that's all wrong? What if things and people aren't inherently good or bad, it's just how we use them?

You can use your anger to create resonant works of art. You can use our "us vs them" mentality to unite people against a common enemy. You can use your sick day hopped up on cold medication waxing poetic about a silly mobile game.

Everything we think as bad can be used for good.


2) Living with your mistakes

The second thing you'll notice about Desert Golfing is that the scoring system is permanent. There's a counter for every stroke you've made. You can't go back a hole, undo the last stroke, or even reset the game.

In other words, every mistake lives with you forever. And Desert Golfing teaches you how to come to terms with that.

The aforementioned thousands of people will also tell you to "live in the moment." Fuck that. Single moments in time fluctuate wildly, and if you're going through a particularly rough time right now, focusing on "the moment" can be absolutely devastating.

Maybe by sheer luck, I'll score a hole in one with an entirely unintentional shot. I could get cocky if I don't remember that one moment was all luck. Or I'll completely mess up a hole in Desert Golfing, needing 20+ strokes by the end. That's okay. Desert Golfing goes on, and in fact, it's infinite.

I don't focus on the moment. I focus on how good I'm getting, on average. Every once in a while I'll stop to divide my TOTAL_NUM_OF_STROKES by NUMBER_OF_HOLES, and calculate my average stroke per hole. As of writing, it's around 2.4, and getting better.

Right now, I'm going through a stressful time in my life. I feel like shit, even though I know things have never been better for me, personally & professionally. Maybe I should take a step back, zoom out, forget all the friction-filled hills & troughs in my life and realize, hey -- it's all going to okay.

Just as long as, on average, I improve my average.


3) Don't go for the hole-in-one

Sometimes I'll get cocky. I'll have pulled off the previous level through a stroke of luck (get it? stroke?) and attempt the same on this level. Invariably, this ends up with my ball off-screen or in a ditch.

Usually my plans made in overconfidence have the tenor of a Rube Goldberg machine. I'll shoot the ball straight onto that hill, it'll bounce backwards onto that hill, then roll upwards into the hole. Then I shoot, the ball just sticks onto the first hill, and rolls past my starting position, off-screen.

My own work used to take that route, too.

First, I'll make a demo for an open-source indie game. Then, I'll make a whole crowdfunding site to fund that one game. Then, I'll make that game while building up the crowdfunding site, and I'll be both the next Jonathan Blow and Kickstarter.

No seriously, I actually attempted this.

Again, those goddamn thousands of people will tell you to shoot for the moon. For even if you miss, you'll be among the stars. Except no, you'll be in the dark emptiness of space, like the Soviet Union's Lost Cosmonauts, spending your last moments wondering if you'll starve or freeze to death first.

Survivor bias. You'll hear the success stories of people who took a huge risk and made it, but never the stories of the other 99% who took that same risk, and are now in ruins.

Over time, I learnt the best approach in Desert Golfing is to be boring. Straightforward solutions, rather than ones that require a lot of luck and long tenuous chains of causality. You might not score many holes-in-one, but on average, (and like I said in Lesson #2, the average is what matters) you'll do far better in the long term.

Same with life.

There are no One Weird Tricks that will magically turn your life around. You want to get into indie game development? Start with small projects, not that epic world-sprawling MMORPG. You want to learn the craft of storywriting? Practice by writing a short story every day for r/WritingPrompts. You want to lose weight and gain muscle? Eat less junk and use the free weights at the gym.

All the above advice is just me talking to a younger version of myself, and they all more or less worked. Also, throw that fucking Tim Ferriss book away. Still talking to past self. Idiot.

Desert Golfing is a simple straightforward game, that teaches you that simple straightforward solutions are usually the best.


4) Shut up and listen to yourself

Desert Golfing is a calm, meditative experience.

Okay, it's not calm. But it does get me into that meditative state of mind called "flow", when you lose yourself into whatever you're doing.

Meditation doesn't have to be passive, sitting quietly on a straw mat and reciting Tim Ferris mantras. Meditation can be active -- going for a long jog, playing a musical instrument, or sketching whatever comes to mind. Plus, you're actually doing something with your time.

Meditation and flow gives your brain the quiet downtime it needs. They also teach you how to tame and control our sometimes-chaotic monkey mind. But when everything's quiet, meditative tasks also let you finally hear what that monkey is saying.

Shut up and listen to your monkey.

What is it saying? That's what's sapping your mental power.

Several times while I was playing Desert Golfing, getting several holes in a row with only 1 or 2 strokes, really hitting that state of flow... I'm thinking of nothing else, and then... I think about Blackface Pikachu Guy.

BPG was a Twitter follower of mine whose profile pic was Pikachu in blackface, hence the name. (His profile banner was Ron Paul on a velociraptor) He's a fan of my games, and we chatted politely on-and-off for about a week. Then he linked me to an MRA website with "proof" that Anita Sarkeesian faked her own rape threats, and feminists are ruining games. I read through it, calmly debunked each point, and then he called me a feminist neo-nazi and blocked me.

What is it about BPG that bothers me? That my own fans can be so horrifically bigoted? That the gamer community has always been this hostile, it's just finally boiled over? That I was dangerously close to being a meme-tastic pseudo-libertarian gamer like him?

Then I remember Lesson #1 - I can turn the bad into good. The last two months finally got me to see how short-sighted and vicious the gamer/tech cultures are. I used to feel guilty for not making "real" games, which is why I started Nothing To Hide. And I used to feel guilty of not making "real" tech, which is why I attempted that crowdfunding site thing.

But now, I feel free of that guilt. I feel free from those gamer/tech monocultures. I can finally do what I want, not what I want to want.

Like, y'know, play Desert Golfing.


5) Meaning in the meaningless

I was 300 holes in. I'd started to doubt the "wild cactus" that was promised to me in the game's poetic description. I had almost lost faith.

And then, there it was.

In perfect stillness. In all its majesty. The wild cactus, oh how I have longed for thee, what I fool I was for ever doubting you. I fell to my knees, and cried to the heavens, yes, I have seen the face of god!... and it is a tall green desert plant.

Yeah, the cold medication was pretty strong.

Desert Golfing's just a fun little game, albeit one with a sublime minimalism in its mechanical and aesthetic design. But it probably would not elicit a near-religious response in others, as it did for me. Heck, it probably wouldn't have elicited that near-religious response from me if it weren't for the meds.

And that doesn't matter.

All these lessons I learnt from the game still ring true, even if they were the product of drugs and Desert Golfing. I found meaning in the meaningless. And in a wild, chaotic world, isn't that the best we can do? Isn't that all we can do?

Whoever you are, dear reader, know this:

I love you.

I hope one day, you will find your wild cactus.