The 5 Biggest Life Lessons I Learned in the Arcade

Ms Pacman Donkey KongAh, the Arcade.

As a kid, I remember wandering into the local Ryan Family Amusements in the Cape Cod Mall, enamored with the shining lights and loud noises, excited for what adventures lay ahead.

Armed with five dollars in tokens (dutifully earned from a week’s worth of chores), I’d carefully wander through the aisles, watching others playing fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, old school classics like Rampage or Donkey Kong, and ticket games like Skeeball or Rock’n Bowl.

I’d then settle my eyes on the game that intrigued me the most that day, and devote the next two hours of my life to mastering it….or losing a lot of quarters very quickly 🙂

Who knew that the basic lessons learned in the arcade could translate over to life and fitness goals; they even helped shape me into the person I am today.

Let’s take a look at some of these awesome arcade lessons.

There are cheat codes and combos

Mortal Kombat

Everybody loves a good cheat code.

And combos make you feel like a badass, inflicting massive damage with minimal but directed effort:

I remember games like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Killer Instinct. I remember studying Orchid’s 80-hit combo, practicing for days so that I could get to the arcade and unleash fury on an unsuspecting victim.  Yes, hammering away on the quick attack button might defeat the bad guy, but putting in a bit of effort to learn combos meant maximum damage with minimal effort.

I remember playing games like Top Skater, and learning about the special cheat code that let you play as a freaking surfer…dropping the jaws of all the confused people watching (I LOVED doing this).

Some codes made games more fun. Some codes gave you an advantage.  Some combo moves allowed you to advance more rapidly.

Just like in the arcade, there are combos in real life and cheat codes:

Exercise is a good start. Strength training is a cheat code (Ask Staci).

Eating fewer calories is a good start.  Following the Paleo Diet is a cheat code (Ask Saint).

Want a flawless victory? Go with the killer combo of Paleo Diet + Strength Training + Intermittent Fasting.  C-C-C-COMBO!

Creating a financial budget that saves a few dollars a day is the “quick attack” button. Making one phone call to renegotiate your rent and another to lower your cable bill is an Ultra Combo (thanks Ramit!).

Working hard and hoping for a raise is good.  Spending two hours of prep to negotiate a higher salary?  That’s a cheat code.

Why do more and get less results when you can do less and get MORE results?  Pick and choose the codes you want to use, combo effectively, and achieve a flawless victory.  Stop worrying about landing 100s of quick, weak attacks and instead knock people out with one big combo.

Not all games are created equal

Pokemon GrabberNot all games are created equal, and not all games are worth playing! 

I could drop a quarter into a grabber game that is over in half a second (“THE CLAW!!“), or I could drop four quarters in Time Crisis and play for over an hour (thanks to my First Person Shooter skills – and this shooting trick demonstrated by the late Andy Whitfield).

Not bad for a buck!

So, although it was fun wandering and playing lots of different games once (and being terrible at them), nothing made me happier than finding a challenging game that that I truly enjoyed and dumping all of my time, energy and effort into honing my skills and racing for the top score in that one game.

As with Arcade experiences, not all life experiences are created equal, either:

Think about your gym: You could spend an hour doing leg presses, leg curls, leg raises, hip abductor and adductor machines, calf raises, and then an ab workouts…or you could spend 15 minutes doing one exercise, heavy squats, and get FAR more results in far less time.  Win.

Instead of spending hours doing cardio (if you don’t actually enjoy it), why not spend 20-30 minutes doing the Beginner Bodyweight Routine or Star Wars Workout anad then go home and WATCH The Empire Strikes Back?

Instead of playing the calorie counting game (weeee!), why not play the “let’s stop freaking out and just focus on eating real food” game?  It’s more fun and requires less work – I promise.

Think about where you spend your time and money: Is $100 a month (and 2-3 hours per day) spent on cable TV better than $100 spent on language instruction, or 10 books that enrich your life?  Your call.

Seek out the “games” in life that are the best use of your time, that bring you the most happiness, and that challenge you in a way that you want to be challenged.  

What do you spend your tickets on?


One of the most important lessons I learned about life is delayed gratification.  It came from games that allowed me to earn tickets, like Skeeball and video poker.

True story: When my mom was out of town and it was Dad’s turn to take care of my brother, sister, and I, he taught us to play poker using LEGO Duplo pieces as poker chips. I was five years old.  And I wonder why I love casinos…


Tickets could always be turned in for prizes, from bouncy balls for 5 tickets to speaker systems for 25,000 tickets.

There were two ways to approach the arcade:

  • Spend all of your tickets each time you finish, buying lots of tiny knick knacks. Nothing too exciting, and you’ll probably lose them or grow tired of them in about five minutes, but they can be fun for RIGHT NOW.
  • Save your tickets, stockpile them at home, and return when you have enough for an actual prize of worth.

I bet you can guess which camp I belonged to. If you answered: “the weird kid that loved saving tickets almost as earning them,” you’d be right.  I would have been the kid who waited forever in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.

This attitude has carried over to the rest of my life:

  • Rather than stuff my face with empty calories throughout the day, I’d rather hold off on snacking and instead later enjoy a big (and healthy) nutrient dense meal.  I know the special power boost I’ll get from my big meal destroys the short lived rush from low ticket food.
  • I spent two years living on very little, building Nerd Fitness from the ground up while also working a full time job.  I knew that putting off short term distractions and focusing my effort on something I truly wanted would lead to the greatest “delayed gratification” victory ever.  3.5 years later, I couldn’t feel more happy or humbled at my life as a video game.

Stop sabotaging what you REALLY want by chasing what you want RIGHT NOW:

  • That cookie might make you temporarily feel better, but it’s not gonna help you look in the mirror with pride and self-confidence.
  • Skipping your workouts to watch another episode of House of Cards might make you temporarily happier, but three months from now you’re going to wish you had started TODAY.
  • Spending your money on a bigger TV, better car, and more shoes might make you feel better temporarily, but you’ll always have that big trip on your list saying “some day.” Start saving now, and plan for that epic splurge on a big adventure.  I’ve done both – experiences trump possessions every damn time.

Now, I’m not saying you should be spending 20 hours a day working a job you hate to save money until you can retire and THEN be happy.  It’s important to enjoy the game you’re playing too.

What I’m saying is this: Stop spending all your tickets on junk, and start saving for things that will actually bring you success and happiness!



Although I was too young to play the original Gauntlet, I remember dumping hundreds and hundreds of tokens into its successor, Gauntlet Legends.

Gauntlet Legends Gameplay

As a fan of RPGs, I was immediately enamored with the concept of being able to pick a class and character (Wizard FTW!), crawl through dungeons, level up, and consistently face more challenging situations.

However, the game only allowed you to play for a limited amount of time, since your health bar was constantly depleting.  Sure, you could discover health potions in treasure chests, but that timer was always counting down.

Once your life got low enough, you’d hear the famous overlord voice yell “Player One, You are About to Die!”

You could put more quarters in to keep playing (and I usually did), but that voice and the constant countdown was a reminder that my time playing was limited, and I had to make the most of it.  It forced me to play with a sense of urgency instead of dillydallying around.

Life is a game and we’re all on a timer.

How often do we start a sentence with “someday”?  

How often do we spend days doing something unfulfilling…wishing things were different?

It’s time to add some urgency to our lives.  Your pocket isn’t full of quarters and you don’t get to add more time.

We get one playthrough, and we need to make the most of it:

  1. If there’s something on your bucket list you’ve always wanted to cross off, start planning for it. Not tomorrow. Not after breakfast. NOW.  Start with these step-by-step instructions.
  2. If there’s a skill you’ve always wanted to learn (a new language, parkour, swing dancing, a musical instrument), stop making excuses (you’re lying) and start making it a priority.
  3. If you’re in a bad situation, it doesn’t mean you need to STAY in that bad situation.  It means you need to put steps in place to make a change and level up.

These changes might be painful or cause discomfort. But better for it to csuck a bit and then improve than spend any extra time being unhappy.  Life is too damn short.

I discuss this in my TEDx talk: if you don’t like the game you are playing, pick a new game.

The late Steve Jobs felt the same way: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Game on


I’m going to leave you with one final lesson.  

Arcades have hundreds of games because everybody likes something different.  I love watching people set a high score in any game, regardless of whether or not it’s a game I actually want to play.  I watch them be good at the games they enjoy, and then move on to the game I enjoy, focusing on bettering my own high score.

Life is no different.

Appreciate the hard work of others at the game they chose to play, be it their chosen profession or athletic ability, but don’t think less of yourself when you don’t measure up on their playing field.

I’m not a fan of running, so if I based my self worth on how I stacked up against a marathon runner I’d have a very poor opinion of myself. Instead, I focus on the fact that I did 2770 pull-ups and have gotten damn good at handstands.  That’s the game I’m playing.

Remember, you don’t know how many quarters it cost somebody to get to that point in their life or level of success!  Let them play their game, and you play yours. Compare yourself to you from yesterday.

Okay, now it’s your turn.  

I’d love to hear what Arcade games occupied most of your time, and what lessons you learned from them.

Here are a few more of mine:

  • Donkey Kong taught me to study timing patterns and hone my skills.  And that hammers are awesome.
  • Rampage taught me that teamwork can be crucial for world domination. And to not punch electrical signs.
  • Mortal Kombat taught me how to finish what I started, and finish strong (FATALITY!).  And that Sub-Zero is the man.
  • Cruising USA taught me how to drive, and that double-tapping the gas is a great way to pop a wheelie. (kidding, San Fransisco Rush taught me to drive.)

How about you?

What was your favorite Arcade game to play, and what life lesson did it teach you?


PS: I’ve been on a lot of trips recently (with a few epic ones on the way) that I’ve been chronicling through my Instagram Account @SteveKamb.  Follow me there!

PPS: Thanks to all the folks that came out to the Chicago Meetup last week!  GOOD TIMES, and I’ll definitely be back.

Chicago Meetup

Photo Sources: Rob Boudon: Ms Pac Man and Donkey Kong, Joseph Yen: Mortal Kombat Truck, Waymond C: Pokemon!, Randy Heinitz: Tickets, Eric: leaning tower of quartersdieroadroash: skeeball

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28 thoughts on “The 5 Biggest Life Lessons I Learned in the Arcade

  1. Great article. The first part detailing the cheat codes are just the metaphor I need to explain to a low-cal dieter why Paleo will help.

    And nice Shawshank reference.

  2. I’m not much of an arcade game player, but I’ve always enjoyed Konami’s MoCap Boxing game. I believe it planted the seed that perhaps I could be a decent boxer in real life, too. In fact, I just joined a boxing gym (totally Rocky-style) last week, and it has been AWESOME so far!

  3. The video for the shooting trick was just a live-action stabbing of video game play. Doesn’t seem like a trick?

  4. Loved the article!
    Duck Hunt taught me to never give up when I fail….. prove that damn dog wrong!
    Come back to Chicago soon, Steve! It’s much better in the summer.

  5. I’m still jaw dropped “…RFA at the Cape Cod Mall…”, small world I’m a former Cape Coddah too!

  6. WOW, awesome article!

    River City Ransom for NES taught me that to reach the end you have to look back to where you started.

    Then The Legend Of Zelda has pretty much taught me everything else I need to know about life.

    Thanks for this great article, Steve!

  7. I guess I’m old enough (and played enough) of the original Gauntlet to still hear that nagging voice…

    “Elf needs food badly!”

    (Followed by the rapidly progressing *Duna…Duna…duna..duna.dunadunadunaduna..* until death or food)

    Sometimes when my kids get hungry I say it to them…but they just look at me funny.

    Great article 🙂

  8. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – one night at the local pizza shop my buddies and I cycled through playing different turtles. When someone “died” another guy took his place until we beet the Shredder at the end. Two lessons: (1) teamwork helps you overcome challenges, (2) in a team you might play different roles at different times; sometimes you lead, sometimes you cheer, and sometimes you follow.

  9. I’m only a teen, and arcades seem to be an endangered species now, but one time my dad and I found an old gauntlet legends game and sank 10 bucks and three hours on it. Archers are good if you’re playing with another player.

  10. I’m bummed that I missed all you guys at the meetup! I was too early and couldn’t stay long. Come back and visit in the summer!

  11. Pinball was my game. Lessons learned: Pinball is mechanical, so it is imperfect. Life is imperfect, and sometimes random bad things will happen, so just keep playing. MULTIBALL is a huge reward and it’s fun, but after a few minutes, it gets exhausting and I realize how difficult it is. I know that busy should not be my default. Trying to get the ball in the lock at the expense of the rest of the game never works. Watch the whole field, all the time, and shoot for the lock when a good shot is lined up. Focusing exclusively on one area of life means the others get neglected, and that leads to frustration. Think holistically.

  12. Spy Hunter was the bomb! I would spend hours at Alladin’s Castle in the Green Tree Mall in Clarksville, IN rotting my brain while my mom was shopping! Lessons learned: I am really bad at video games and wasted a lot of time and money 😉

  13. I tried to match it up with the time where Andy is holding the gun with one hand and using the index finger on the other hand to rapidly hammer away and shoot bullets super fast. I’ll check the video

  14. Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, the arcade game – 4 player at it’s best! Teaches you teamwork, timing and turtle awesomeness!

  15. To keep going with the combos lesson: In fighting games, being able to hit a combo is a result of doing other things right. You don’t just get to do the combo; you have to get other things right so you can do it. To extend on the example given, make sure to get things right before jumping into a combo like strength training + paleo diet. Going to a suitable gym, knowing proper lifting techniques, getting rid of non-paleo food at home, knowing where to get the paleo foods you want, etc.

  16. Wait, what?! Ryan’s Family Amusements at the Cape Cod Mall?! I grew up in Sandwich and was there all the time… There’s a very good chance we would have been there at the same time. CRAZY!

  17. Wow Steve, this was beautiful. My inner 8yr old is crying w/ joy 🙂 I learned from Street Fighter that you have to go outside your comfort zone to get the good stuff (you had to play on 4 stars or more to get the character endings, and level 8 to get the special credits roll) I also learned that if you put in enough time and work, you can overcome the odds and beat the baddies (It took me 1 1/2 hrs to beat M. Bison as Guile, but that was one of the greatest moments of my young life 🙂 Streets of Rage taught me that while you can go it alone, attacking the problem as a team, and helping each other out, works best.

  18. Great analogies with the codes/combos and tickets! The only arcade game I ever really enjoyed as a kid was the janky one where multiple alligators/groundhogs/generic critters popped out of the machine at random intervals, and you had to whack as many as possible. All I really learned was that hand-eye coordination is not my strong point, and that sometimes you had to endure a lot of pain (or at least bruised fists) in order to win…I guess that carries over to fitness in some ways.

    Speaking of “cheat codes,” have you ever thought of doing a post on resistant starch as a type of “combo” or fitness-hack? I’ve only started studying it recently, but the implications on gut health (and, subsequently, overall health and body composition) are fascinating. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

  19. So I was never much on playing games, but the few I remember playing was Battle Star Galaxy
    ( Galactic) ? anyway it taught me to never stop fighting the good fight:) And Mario Brother though never really got into it screwed with my head enough that my counselor said Rhonda (Mario) you are like a relay runner you start out running the hurtles then knock one over and you go back and pick up the hurtle and start over. I try to get it right and when it doesn’t work out that way, I start over again. I’m still at the beginning in so many ways! I need a new game.
    Thanks for the insight !!

  20. Street Fighter 2.
    I spent tons of cash (UK £) figuring out the best character (Ryu) and leaning how to complete the game or dominate the arcade for 20p (about 15 cents).
    Lesson = find something you like, you engage with, then master it.
    Weights work for me especially the slow lift Doug McGuff ‘Body by Science’ style, maximum bang per buck.

    Great article by the way. Cheat codes kick ass.

  21. Call of Duty taught me that camping is boring unless you want to wait for things to come at you, and that you have to go get your own kill 😀

  22. For a school assignment, I was supposed to read and comment on a blog related to fitness. I looked at many fitness related blogs, and yawned through most of them. Then I happened upon NerdFitness, and I’m glad I did. I’ve read about five blogs, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. I will definitely be keeping up with NerdFitness now!

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